Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Book Report/Two Books by Martha Bergland

So often when I finish a novel, I wonder what happens to the characters afterwards. Does the couple stay together? Does the other couple get together? How does a job work out? It isn't that the book necessarily leaves the reader up in the air, but still I wonder.

A Farm Under A Lake was published in 1989, and Idle Curiosity in 1997. Do you suppose a writer, in this case Martha Bergland, also wonders about her characters and their lives? It might seem so since the second book begins literally where the first one leaves off. I read A Farm Under A Lake in 1999, and when I picked up Idle Curiosity to read this summer, I realized that I wanted to go back and read the first one over again. I didn't remember a lot of details, but I sure did recall the feeling of the book. My memory was of the importance of place and how doing simple "homely" tasks can heal the soul. My book journal entry from all those years ago says:

Wonderful, excellent book. Strong sense of place, which I love. I found this a very appealing book which left me with a good feeling.

Sadly, sometimes when we re-read a favorite book, we are disappointed and even wonder why we liked it so much in the first place. Definitely not so with this book. I loved it as I did eight years ago. It felt like visiting a beloved friend I hadn't seen in a while.

Not only is A Farm Under A Lake interesting, warm-hearted, lyrical, but it is also a portrait of the area in the mid-eighties. This is the land in John Mellencamp's 1985 release, Scarecrow.

Rain on the scarecrow
Blood on the plow
This land fed a nation
This land made me proud
And Son I'm just sorry
There's no legacy for you now

This was happening all over the US farmland. Farms were being sold off and consolidated. People whose whole lives had been spent on the land had to leave it. But the book is not a polemic. This is just the background. The book is the people and their relationships.

I think a lot of us can understand what this grandfather says to his young grandchildren:

What people make the future up out of is what they play in when they are children. And what they play in when they are children is the past piled up in the lots. Under the saved fence posts leaned up around apple trees, in empty chicken houses, in hedgerows, in willows clogging the ditches, in hog houses. Let it lay. If you tear all that out, what you tear out are places to see from and ways to be.

This book takes place in rural Illinois and it is a story of this particular place and the people who live there. The book begins in the present, moves back twenty years, and then returns. The first words are:

Jack is the church I have joined, but he is a church without ceremony. I miss my old church; I miss the gathering together and the celebration and the incense, the songs and the clearing of air.

I love that. In those few words, the reader sees what the narrator's life was and has become. Janet is a nurse who takes care of the elderly so they may stay in their homes as long as possible, while her husband remains unemployed. He is displaced from the land he grew up thinking he would farm his whole life.

In this passage, Janet gives voice to an image we only fleetingly allow into our consciousness.

I could never picture myself both old and still taking care of Jack. I would rely when I was old, like Blanche DuBois, on the kindness of strangers. I am forty years old; I am taking care of an eighty-year old woman. I find myself thinking now and then of the newborn girl who will someday take care of me. I tell this girl things in my head and maybe I tell her out loud. I tell her to remember to speak gently to me and remember to say my name.

When the book takes us back, we see the farm sale as the young woman does, and I could feel the horror of the experience.

In the front yard, household goods were piled up on long folding tables that must have been borrowed from the Methodist church. Though it was still early, people were browsing over boxes of magazines, piles of clothes, stacks of dishes and pots and pans. There was the old clothespin bag that Grandma had used and the clothespins. There were the laundry baskets, the old electric mixer, and the slightly melted, red plastic radio we listened to in the kitchen when I was a girl. ... This was awful.

The detail is so strong - not just tables but tables "borrowed from the Methodist church," and we feel the memories they bring back in this young woman just out of college. Her age is significant, because I think we all know her; we all remember how we were at that age. It was all about us. We were pretty self-absorbed, and we had spent the past years escaping our childhoods and trying to become different people. But then a realization hits us - how much we love our past, our childhood home, the artifacts of that childhood. I remember my mother wanting to move into a smaller place after my father died, and I was filled with sorrow. I couldn't give up my childhood home. Happily, she decided against it. And I have found as my children have gotten older, they feel that same allegiance, that same protective love for this place, their childhood home. Martha Bergland describes this perfectly:

I felt light and clean. Ready for anything. The breeze on my face reminded me ... that I was alive? That I had escaped this brush with ... what? I had not been giving a thought to the things that meant the most to me, my father, the farm, and Jack who I began to think I'd always loved. I had not thought about them and I had almost lost them. Now I had another chance.

It turns out the farm was bought by a childhood friend, and she is allowed to live there, with hardly any furniture, in isolated joy. Again, the author gives us the most wonderful descriptions. They have stayed in my mind for eight years.

I didn't know what I would do about a job, but I was beginning to see why I had come home to the farm. I vaguely wanted to make some connection here, though I didn't know with what. I just knew, even then, that everything I truly knew, I had learned there on the farm. Since I had left for school, I had stopped learning with my body; I had stopped hearing stories. I wasn't finished with this house and these fields, with these farmers. I had spent most of my life among them waiting for my life to begin, and I wanted it to begin here; I wanted to set out from here.

Janet has a romantic period with a man, and when that ends (as we know it will), she cleans that old house for days and days, and then she begins to can.

I thought even then that canning is a fairly obvious purification ritual, but I was pretty sure it would make me feel better, help me deserve something, and I was right. ... The cheerful, neighborly bump of the crab apples on the sides of the sink scared off the ghosts of the past and the future, and settled me in to the here and now.

The book goes on, telling us her life then, and continues with how it turned out and what she might want from it now. We care so much about Janet, and all these people.

Idle Curiosity is told to us through the eyes of Ed, Janet's dad. We see some of the characters from the first book, and get to know some who were only names mentioned there. Again, Martha Bergland's descriptions set the stage and steal the show. Descriptions, not only of nature, but of human nature. And they are of a piece; the nature around these people helps them to be better human beings, helps them to figure things out. A man takes a walk around town:

At the bottom of the street he turned the corner onto Edge Street whose houses faced the corn and bean fields.

He goes to sleep in a bean field after testing the beans to see if they are "about ready." And "Ed woke up knowing what to do."

For this woman who has grown up and lived in the mountains my whole life, the Illinois landscape is just so different. The idea of a town melding right into a field of beans is beyond my comprehension.

The beautiful land went past my eyes like a cool hand on a brow. Close wet trees flickered across blue far-away groves and those groves shifted to hide red farms. ... I was feeding on all the colors in a grey landscape, on all the detail to be seen on flat land, wondering how anyone could call this boring.

This is just unimaginable to me. I am surrounded by mountains, hills, curves, and trees, which have formed me, just as that place with its expanse of earth and sky has fashioned these characters.

The two books are examples of perfect writing to me. If I had loads of money, I would make sure they were reprinted in paperback and made available in a special display on bookstore tables. She is an excellent writer with such a gift for detail, such a way of bringing the reader right into this landscape, and she tells a story of people I became interested in and truly cared about.


  1. These sound like books I would just love. I am going to look for them. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. And thank you for your comment, Aisling. I'm quite sure you will love them both. The descriptions of nature are just splendid. Did you see I put the Gene Stratton Porter place blog on my sidebar under gardening blogs? I'll always be grateful to you for introducing me to her work.

  3. Nan, I just finished re-reading your review for a third time. I copied your text to a Word document so I could read it slowly and carefully! After reading Bergland's words and how you felt about the book, I went to Amazon and purchased a used paperback copy of A Farm Under A Lake. I'm looking forward to reading the entire novel. Thanks for this review.

  4. Nan, I am assuming my friend Martha has not seen your comments about her books, so I have sent her the link.

  5. Catherine Mary, I'm thrilled you bought it. I'm quite sure you will love it.

    Tom, I'm so pleased. I found your blog by doing a search for Martha Bergland and your entry with her letter came up. I've been spending a fair bit of time reading over there.

  6. Well, I've started reading Farm Under a Lake and you are right--the writing is wonderful. I was reading on the train to work the chapter where Janet tells us about her grandpa and how he died. I had tears and my heart ached. When I remember some of the book I've read, it's almost as if I lived it. Janet is so real for me. I'm not reading this fast (I have some other books that I'm reading at the same time) but savoring it like a good piece of chocolate cake.

  7. I’m a little behind, I must admit, as my book was purchased at a library book sale. I finished A Farm Under A Lake today. There were so many passages I felt as though I should memorize- like Shakespeare’s sonnets. It was a book that made me ache for the things in life that are gone. My grandparents had a big farm on the outskirts of a small town. Bergland’s imagery and inner voice puts me in Janet’s Head so much that I’m not sure who I am for a few seconds after I put the book down. I had to skip the parts about the little deer. Anything with animals dying I can’t handle. The picture gets stuck in my head- but I meant no disrespect for the words I did not read, words finely crafted. Thank you Ms. Bergland for my kitchen table vacation.


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