From the first sentence, this novel hooked me. Chapter One:
There was no way Daniel Shires could have known that the river which cut so conveniently through the eight acres of Nebraska farmland that he chose to homestead back in 1859 was only running so high and wide that spring because it was flooded.
Every well-crafted sentence after that kept me to the bitter end.
… He had fled famine, death, and disease, along with many thousands of other emigrants, to settle in the vast and reportedly prosperous American wilderness.
No exploding helicopters, no “thriller” plot devices were needed to pull me into this rural world and keep me fascinated, horrified, or nodding and saying “Yes! She gets it!” — Susan Taylor Chehak “gets” small towns, the Midwest, rural communities, and people in ways that far too many best-selling authors of plot-driven, genre fiction never do.
Willa Cather had the best line ever with “the only thing that happened in Nebraska was the weather,” but she’s met her match when Chehak’s Annie D. says “… it was just like somebody from Nebraska to blame the whole thing on the weather.”
You might not believe that the weather and someone’s family tree is a great place to start a novel, but Chehak proves those Fiction Writing Rules are meant for amateurs, not masters like her. Everyone skips the long Bible passage on the ancestry of no less a personage than Jesus, after all. But where Jesus grew up, the weather didn’t seem to challenge people on a daily basis, year-round. For a man in 19th C Nebraska, and his 21st C descendants as well,
Winters are bitter and unremitting; sometimes the mercury will not creep up above ten below for weeks on end. Snow falls down and then piles up or blows off to form mammoth drifts. Whopping chunks of hail can knock a man unconscious, kill a prize hog, destroy a bumper crop. With spring comes melted snow, and the rains that fall and flood the plains. Quiet little creeks become rampant rivers…
…the people of Nebraska are still at the mercy of their climate. We talk about the weather as if she were a crazy queen–unpredictable and difficult to please.
“Prairie Fire” by Robert Farrington Elwell
Forgive my failure to hurry past page one and tell you why the entire novel is worthy of your time and attention. The characters are so authentic, so real, I want to talk about them as if they were my next-door neighbors. That said, I’m glad some of them are NOT my neighbors. One woman batters her husband, the violence escalating over the years, the offspring helpless to intervene and stop it. Another woman slaps her son for the most trivial of reasons (not that there’s ever a good reason to smack a child across the face, in let alone in public, let alone routinely). A girl with a disfiguring birthmark on her face is regarded as a monstrosity, but she rises to the occasion, becoming a fighter, a strong-willed individual who can dish it back. Trouble is, she crosses the line with how much damage she’s capable of inflicting on others. Then there’s the hypochondriac neighbor–such a drama queen–who “needs” to be consoled by the very person she should be consoling.
I want to say more, but every detail is a revelation, every scene builds inexorably to the shocking conclusion. Even if you saw it coming, you can’t see how it wil hit (and how hard it’ll hit: like one of those Volkswagon-sized hailstones mentioned in Chapter One, and then some). Everything is foreshadowed with great subtlety and craft. No detail (and there are lots of details) is superfluous. The way one girl’s dog died is no digression from the story. It matters. Rarely do I see characters so well drawn and a storyline so taut, so dense, so inevitable. There’s a long and marvelous sentence near the end that reminds me of the “if this, then that” aspect of Romeo and Juliet. Again, I wish I could say more, but the sheer beauty of this spell-binding novel is in how gradually and richly so much is revealed.
The narrator, Annie, has a detached tone, stripped of sentimentality, yet prone to judgment: I had to laugh at how often she refers to that Casey Boots, with all the unspoken condemnation carried in the little word “that.” Likewise, Casey’s mother is always “Mrs. Boots,” as if she never earned the intimacy and honor of being thought of by her first name.
Don’t let Annie’s calm, cool, stoic tone fool you. She’s not unfeeling, and not as detached as she sounds. The fact that she tells her story at all is proof of how powerfully affected she is and how much she broods and reconsiders all the “what if” things, the small matters that might have made the big difference. Three local women are raped and strangled (this, we know from the back cover of the book), and in a small Nebraska town, it raises more questions than Law Enforcement can answer. Like the undertow lurking below the gently flowing river, this question drives the narrative with flood-water force. The daily conversations and details may mislead readers to think “Not much is happening in this story” but this is why I prefer literature to pulp fiction – the incomparable richness and depth is second only to the master storyteller’s carefully paced doling out of details that matter.
As author Christa Wojciechowski blogs:
I think every writer develops the capacity to objectify people, events, and emotions. We have to distance ourselves from them so that we can examine them – whether they are tragic, vulgar, absurd, joyful, wrathful – and render them in their truest light according to our perspective (or that of our characters).
This is what Annie D. does so well.
So many lines are memorable and quotable, I’ll post some here, though they’re also on my Kindle Highlights page, which for some reason I can never access without hunting a Tweet or FB or Pinterest link to get to it:
— Of all those six strapping sons, he couldn’t manage to keep even one of them at home to work the land that he and Daniel Shires had homesteaded together back in 1859. The age of industry had come clanking in, and one by one each boy grew up and took off out of Nebraska.
The young man who volunteers to fight in Vietnam:
— He was only doing what he thought to be the right thing. He wanted to be a soldier, the kind of man who would be there to fight for his country and everything that was beautiful and free in it. It wasn’t that he cared about killing anybody. It was that he…
The cause of the fight: “‘Stop looking at me; don’t touch me.’ That was all.”
— she hadn’t been at all prepared for the consequences of her love. The demands that maternity made on her and the endless sacrifice and responsibility of motherhood were nearly unbearable
— her rosy round face paled and fell, sagged right down with the forces of gravity and time and tugged the corners of her mouth along with it so that between those arched eyebrows and her continual frown, she looked always startled and annoyed, both at the same time, like someone whose child had crept up and touched the back of her neck, just there in the fold below where the wisps of new hair come in, with a wet, cold, and sticky kiss.
— no matter how pleasant and polite and downright handsome he might seem to be, Casey Boots had in him a badness that would sure enough show itself one day and bring down some kind of big trouble onto anybody standing close enough to be caught by it, too.
— wide in the waist and hips. She had a body that was meant for hauling hay and bearing children. And yet she was pretty, too. There was an intelligence in her face, a sharpness in her bones that sometimes looked like it might be a challenge or a dare that asked to be crossed and promised no mercy for anyone foolish enough to actually come in and take it up.
— I had become a sort of a joke in Wizen River, partly because those boys were afraid of me–what one of them could ever hope to find anything at all to say to a girl who knew how to sew doilies and translate Virgil?–and partly because the girls thought that I was odd and strange and different from any of them, and mostly because they all together believed that I held myself up as just too good for any of them, which wasn’t true at all.
— a simple, gentle farmer, another fool like her father, who took pleasure in battling the elements just to bring forth some sustenance from the soil.
The final page is so brilliant, I wish I could hold it up and show it off like a jewel in hand. I want to talk about it in a book club. This is the kind of author who inspires readers to form such clubs. I am in awe.
I’m happy to report that I was *not* given a copy of this in exchange for an honest review. I bought it, unsolicited. In March I had happened across Susan Taylor Chehak’s “Lost Girls” website, then her “What Happened to Paula” book (a 1970 Cold Case about a girl murdered in Iowa, with no one ever brought to trial). The author bio (University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop) tipped me off that I’d better see if her fiction is as compelling and well-thought out and thorough as her nonfiction. It is. Compelling, and even better than I’d dared hope — but dark, yes, so fans of the romance genre and fairy-tale endings, you might not want to “go there” to the deep, sordid, horrifying inner recesses of the human soul. As an English major I braved my share of this sort of novel, and so I still surrender to the impulse to escape into fantasy, romance and happy endings. The Story of Annie D is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard to stop thinking about it, but it’s a story that we would all do well to ponder.
A clear, dry voice, stripped of sentiment or passion, narrates an absorbing saga of love, madness and murder set in the small town of Wizen River, Neb. The voice belongs to long-widowed Annie Diettermann, who has also endured the death of two young sons. Interspersed with her bleak family history is Annie’s continuing chronicle about her wealthy friend Phoebe, whose disgraced daughter Lacey is sent to California to bear an illegitimate son fathered by disreputable Casey Boots, a youngster from the unsavory section of town. Lacey, still embittered by her exile, returns nine years later for her mother’s funeral and is reunited with Casey. They attempt to start a new life, and it is at this juncture that a series of crimes begins. Three young women are raped and murdered, and each victim has a lock of hair shorn. Annie D. accidentally discovers the murderer, and her solution–tragic, inevitable, wise–resoundingly
closes the books on the slayings. (Back Cover)
Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include a collection of short stories, It’s not About the Dog; a new novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci; and a work of nonfiction, What Happened to Paula: The Anatomy of a True Crime.
Susan’s other ongoing projects include All The Lost Girls, a website devoted to exploring the lost girl archetype and the grip her story continues to have on our cultural imagination, and The Foreverland Chronicles, where she is creating detailed narrative record of Foreverland and its denizens.
Susan is also the driving force behind Foreverland Press, an e-book publisher devoted to bringing back the backlists of fine writers who might have otherwise been overlooked. Other of her online projects include, What Happened To Paula, a collaborative web-based investigation into the as yet unsolved murder of a former schoolmate, and The Truth About Paula O., a blogged memoir of Susan’s ongoing 15-year investigation into the Paula Oberbroeckling murder case.
Susan has taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. She grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls Colorado home.