For farmers’ wives, a bitter harvest
A finely-crafted debut novel by Michelle Hoover, “The Quickening’’ follows two women who live on neighboring Midwestern farms in the first half of the 20th century. Hoover skillfully shifts her narrative point-of-view between Mary Morrow and Enidina Current, who tell their stories in alternating voices. Part of the reason this novel succeeds so well is the strength and depth of these two, and how differently they view the world.
Hoover, who teaches writing at Boston University, builds the novel gradually, showing us the harsh realities of farm life in the years between the two world wars. In these pages, there are rainstorms and droughts, fires and the constant exhaustion of physical labor. Enidina is big and strong, seemingly well-suited to farm life, but she’s devastated by her inability to give birth. After a miscarriage, Enidina’s feelings of emptiness are palpable: “This life I loved, it’d given me nothing to keep. I was sick of myself, sick of my good husband who I knew should expect more of me.’’
Neighbor Mary has her own problems. Hoover deserves credit for crafting a relationship between these two women that continually defies expectations, rewarding us with deep insights about the complexities of their lives. Not just the dangers of giving birth, or the horrible realities of domestic violence, or the sheer barrenness of choices for women, but the sense of shared frustration that is so bone-deep that neither can discuss it openly. Mary loathes the demands of rural living: “I feared everything in me that had been bright and young could die in this place before I ever turned thirty.’’
Hoover offers us vivid, fascinating glimpses of each character’s life as they alternately relate their shared experiences and personal history. The novel grows richer with each page as Hoover’s quiet lyricism gradually asserts itself. Mary’s first impression of Enidina is far from promising: “She was large and sturdy . . . a stone of a woman, her hands sun-spotted and rough, her fingers short, nothing delicate, much like the house.’’ For her part, Enidina sees Mary as judgmental and perennially dissatisfied.
We come to know these two intimately, to understand their hopes and the dark specters that keep them up at night. We come to know their husbands and families. Hoover’s prose throughout is spare and free of ornamentation, much like her characters. There are always important things happening beneath the surface, and Hoover has a gift for foreshadowing events and building dramatic tension.
After Enidina finally gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl, they become friends with Mary’s children. Hoover moves us brilliantly toward the novel’s central tragedy, an accident involving both women’s children. Mary’s son Kyle may or may not have been at fault, but the two women confront each other afterward: “It was an accident Eddie. That’s all. Kyle had nothing to do with it,’’ Mary tells her neighbor. Enidina is almost paralyzed with grief. Hoover describes her traveling to her childhood home to seek consolation from her aging mother: “I sat on my mother’s floor again and leaned against her legs. She went back to her stitching, though her hands shook with grief.’’
The “accident’’ will have repercussions that Hoover follows until the novel’s gripping final pages. There is no Oprah-style redemption here and no easy reconciliation. Hoover shows us her two characters coping with the pain of loss but finding no simple answers. The novel’s ending is powerfully fueled by a sense of resignation. “I know I’m done. I’ve worked these fields until I rubbed myself raw,’’ Mary thinks, “Nothing more to hold onto.’’ And an unflinching Hoover makes us feel that heartbreak, too.
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at email@example.com.