Sunday, February 3, 2013
Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker
Golden Afternoon by Thomas George Sotter, 1935
Recently a friend asked me which country I would most like to visit and I answered Montana. Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker gave me a chance to go. Written in 1944, the book tells the story of a young woman and her experiences in love and work. She is the daughter of a rancher transplanted from Vermont after marrying a Russian peasant girl he had met when wounded in Archangel, Russia, at the end of World War I. His New England family did not take kindly to Anna and to escape the wounds of disapproval and unkindness, the two took up an offer of free land and moved to Montana to try a living as dry land wheat farmers.
Written in the first person by the couple's young daughter and only child, Ellen, Winter Wheat is a medley of love stories: the young love between Ellen and her fiance Gil, whom she meets in her first year at college; the subterranean love of her parents for each other; her parents' love for Ellen; and the love of a young widower for his young son, a family that Ellen comes to know when she spends a half year teaching in a one-room schoolhouse far out in the prairie.
The other love that fills the book is Ellen's love of the sky and land of Montana. Walker's descriptions of the terrain are the constant frame of the story and give an Easterner like me a sense of what it must be like to see such a big sky and open land. Walker herself was, like me, raised in Philadelphia. She moved out West with her husband, a medical doctor. Perhaps it takes an Easterner to appreciate the gigantic vistas of the West, since for the most part we are hemmed in by hills and trees.
Mrs. Walker also makes us acutely aware of the way in which the extreme hard work and isolation--the lack of leisure or luxury--for those who eeked out a living on the prairie could lead to a kind of de-culturation, in comparison to life in the East--a fact of life that many Western wives, mothers, and teachers such as Ellen fought to overcome.
This is the first book I have ever read of Mildred Walker's, and I intend to read more. I found that she examined real life, described the real work of ranching and school-teaching. Nothing was tied up in a neat and facile bow; the story bears a greater resemblance to the uncertainties, confusions, and discoveries of real life, and with the miracle of the land and its fruit.