by Michelle Hoover
Michelle Hoover’s Bottomland explores the life of a German farm family in Iowa after World War I, struggling to fit in with a society recently taught to despise Germans. The Hess family—four girls, two boys, a recently deceased mother, and a depressed father—try to get by on the land with few friends and many enemies. It becomes hard for the family members even to trust each other, as the Hess children grow up surrounded by deception, love, shame, and jealousy, while they are constantly reminded of their heritage. Most of the children don’t speak any German, yet they feel like foreigners in the fields of the Midwest.
The story begins with Nan as the narrator, the eldest sister who takes on the role of mother after their own, Margrit, dies of influenza. It’s a role that is at once natural and disappointing for Nan, as she is recently engaged and has to break it off to stay home. Though her siblings are grateful, the two youngest sisters, Esther and Myrle, seem anything but as they go wherever they please and say whatever they feel. When the two go missing, it’s perhaps hardest on the artistic middle sister, Agnes, and the youngest brother, Lee, who had returned from the war disoriented and missing his mother. He didn’t get to see her before her sudden death. The father is as unpredictable as the two younger girls, though in his mood more so than his actions—after the girls disappear he stays in his bedroom or in his dugout, ostensibly brooding or dwelling in self-pity.
The story unfolds as the narration shifts from the different characters’ points of view—a device Hoover uses well—and keeps the reader engaged and eagerly turning each page. The writing is clear, and Hoover does an excellent job portraying the dialect of the early twentieth century.
Part mystery, part tragedy, part coming-of-age narrative, Bottomland is a heartbreaking story, and it only lets up when individual characters are alone in thought, which is when some of Hoover’s best writing comes through. Though it can be difficult to distinguish between the different narrators’ voices at times, each character reveals his or her secret revelations that aren’t immediately apparent in the eyes of their family members. These subtleties bring the greatest depth to the characters and leave the reader thinking about them long after the story is over.
As Bottomland demonstrates, story itself is something that never really ends, but is continuous; the past can alter depending on perspective and circumstance. Each character battles denial, accepting only the things they want to accept and burying all else, just as they’ve buried their mother in the soil of the farm. From barren Iowa to industrial Chicago, vivid descriptions to plot twists, the depth of Bottomland makes for a beautiful second novel by Hoover.
March 2016, Grove/Atlantic
$16, paperback, 336 pages
—Reviewed by Meredith Boe