When I was in junior high school my family traveled from our home in Farmington, New Mexico to visit my mother’s sister, Marilyn Israelsen. Marilyn and her husband Earl Israelsen lived just north of Logan, Utah. Marilyn was a painter of some note and Earl was a professor at Utah State University. Earl had grown up working with his numerous siblings on the family dairy farm, the Buttercup Dairy. When we visited he drove us over to the farm to introduce us to life on a dairy. I was fascinated by everything I saw and smelled and tasted. Even now, whenever I think about milk and dairies, the images I experienced that day come flooding back.
Today, however, after reading Braden Hepner’s novel Pale Harvest (Torrey House Press, 2014), I have a new and contrary set of images in mind.
In the novel, 21-year-old Jack Selvedge has returned to the dairy farm his father left. His work is crucial for the success of the dairy and he hopes to inherit the farm from his grandparents. It is incessant, backbreaking labor, fraught with danger, financially risky as milk prices rise and fall and nature favors or disdains them. Jack savors it all. He thinks about the land like he thinks about the body and soul of a troubled young woman who has returned to the little town after having lived in Salt Lake City.
The entire landscape testified of a simple existence. Here it seemed a man could live a good life in simplicity and purity, where his considerations held meaning and substance each and were therefore fewer and less wearisome, and a man sought to stay rather than to leave. . . .
He believed in the living God and in good and evil but he believed also in her, in her warm and ample body, in her mind—her body because of its power and beauty, and her mind because only it could be kept until she wished to give it. She could give him of her spirit, her body, her life. She could give him of her substance. . . .
He was on the ground tangled up in the disc plow, replacing bent discs and thinking about the long acres of soil he would work with them. Discing and plowing were the best tractor work of all, to feel the earth pull back as he took the heavy implement over it and laid its soil open.
This novel is as brilliant an evocation of the textures and details of complex labor as any I have ever read. In different hands, this could be a romantic back-to-the land story with a happy ending for cows and people alike.
In Braden Hepner’s exploration of human existence in the contexts of a small town and the workings of a dairy, however, Jack’s hopes and desires and plans and struggles to be a good and whole person are countered by familial perfidy, exploitative greed, sexual violence, and troubling aspects of his own character. The evil is no more absolute than is the good, but the interplay between good and evil would make a mockery of any possible happy end or of any harvest other than a pale one.
It is a profound novel, I think.
When I look at Hepner’s website for the book, I find that he grew up in Cache Valley, Utah and that his grandfather had a small dairy farm where he worked as a child and young man. His grandfather would have known my uncle Earl’s father (hell, his grandfather may have been Earl’s father!).
There is a wonderful set of photos at the website as well, fields and cows and landscapes as gritty and beautiful and real as the novel itself.