Mildred Walker (1905-1998) wrote a series of books considered Western regional, and was compared to Willa Cather. Walker, however, has a sensibility all her own, and Winter Wheat (1944) was a book that impressed me from the first page. In it, people are tied to the land and the wheat it produces.
It begins in an office by the storage silo in Gotham, a village of 75 that hardly lives up to its pretentious name. Everyone is waiting for the wheat prices to come out so they will know how much money they’ll get for their crops. It’s September, still hot, and everyone is breathless until the farm report comes out. Ellen, the heroine and first-person narrator, has good fortune coming in her life. After helping bring in the crop (Ellen gets my admiration because, although intellectual and hoping for sophistication, she also cuts wheat, drives the truck and tractor, negotiates rough country roads full of soupy mud called gumbo, and helps with the turkey farm her mother Anna operates as a sideline), Ellen is going to college in Minnesota. It’s a big and desired step in her life.
As it turns out, Ellen’s parents have their own complications. Ben, her father, is a Vermonter who set out to become a teacher but spurned his family’s genteel life and came out west to farm. Anna, Ellen’s mother, is Russian, a heavy-set woman who calls Ellen by the tender endearment Yolochka. She also cooks a mean borscht.
Ben and Anna met during the First World War, when he was stationed in Siberia as part of America’s dubious and fractured crusade to contain the Bolsheviks. Her father recalls its uselessness as he was crippled by shrapnel there and was then nursed by Anna, and he took her with him back to America. It was a complicated courtship and marriage, and Ellen’s parents exhibit a smoldering discontent that is never far from the surface, like the grains of shrapnel that are still painfully working their way up through Ben’s leg . . . as does the wheat, always beneath the earth, needing devotion and labor to bring it to harvest.
There is pain in the wheat, but life as well, a theme that persists throughout this book. The various sections are headed by quotations from Antoine De Saint-Exupery, the interwar French aviator who pondered the Earth, and said that “[t]here is but one victory that I know is sure, and that is the victory that is lodged in the energy of the seed.”
Ellen’s life is a kind of seeding as she immerses herself into college life, which means love for Gil, a linguist, erudite, and well-mannered student meant for great things but who for now is getting as much schooling as he can before he goes to aviation school — because it is the autumn of 1940, and America is slowly but steadily preparing for war.
Ellen is eagerly absorbing knowledge at the university, and there are the expected conflicts between her introspective life on the farm and her thirst for the outside world. As Ellen observes, it was funny in spring going to classes and not running the family tractor.
Ellen wants to involve Gil in her life and takes him back to her family. It’s a mixed vacation. Where she sees purpose and a rhythm to seeding and coaxing the winter wheat, Gil sees desolation. He insists on driving the truck but hits a patch of gumbo, and Ellen has to take over the wheel and push the vehicle to get them out. So much for her new dress and flowers.
The differences between Ellen and Gil deepen. She takes him to the coulee near her farm, where she likes to be alone and think. He isn’t impressed, and wonders about her parent’s marriage as well as his own marriage to Ellen. He is planning to go to Chicago and get work as an artist . . . if there is no war.
For her part, Ellen wants him to see her as she really is and to ignore the idiosyncrasies of her parents: Ben’s mix of scholarly learning and being tied to the soil, as well as Anna’s coldness toward outsiders. Gil wonders how Ben ever married her, sensing a quiet discontent between these odd fishes of a couple.
When Gil returns to graduate, he still wants to marry Ellen, but he writes her a Dear John (or in this case a Dear Jane) letter, confessing they are too different.
Ellen, back home after her first year of college, is disturbed by what she and Gil could become and what they could lose, and wonders if she is trying to be something she’s not. As Ellen returns to her coulee to think things out, she contemplates “how it’s hard to lie to yourself when you’re alone at night, under the sky.”
Ellen becomes aware that Gil’s disdain for her parents wasn’t entirely snobbery. As an outsider, he notices things — especially the rupture in Ben and Anna’s life. Ellen discovers that Anna lied to Ben. When he was wounded and she nursed him, she wanted to escape Russia and told him she was pregnant. He took her with him before learning the truth, although she did have Ellen later. Ben and Anna don’t talk about this lie. They endure, live for the wheat and the land, and subordinate their disappointments into the continuity of life and land.
The land, the desolate Montana Gil disparages, offers these two devotion to its crop, and Ellen spends a hard summer coming to terms with maturing. A bad crop means less money at harvest time and Ellen foregoes going back to college to work with her parents, witnessing Anna’s refusal to be beaten down by life’s disappointments and Ben striving to overcome the pain of his wound. The shrapnel, he relates, was the result of a shell fired after the war was over in a police action less suggestive of Tin Pan Alley’s “Over There” than a bad day in Afghanistan.
Ellen decides to teach school. In a nearby town (meaning 60 miles away), a teacher’s position is vacant, as the former instructor had left for the city and the steadily growing war-related work. The school, with only a dozen pupils, begins a second phase of Ellen’s maturation. She teaches eight pupils, one of them a feeble-minded boy, and Ellen lives in the teacherage, her private quarters attached to the school. Ellen experiences a solitude most people would find agonizing, and she realizes that her parents always helped the time to go by with their farm work and, no doubt, the tensions in their relationship. She recalls Gil thinking how far away and lonely the ranch house was, but to her “it was full of Mom and Dad’s living.”
One of her students, Leslie Harper, is a strange boy who loves art and is obsessed with religion, the latter a product of his fanatical mother. Warren, his father, is looked down upon by the boy because he drinks, and Warren develops a growing friendship with Ellen. Like Gil, he is going into the Army, and offers an open-minded view Gil lacked. But as she grows closer to Warren, Ellen still loves Gil — but it is more dutiful, understanding “what Gil’s perspective has done for me.”
Warren is less philosophical: a man coming to terms with his wrecked marriage and a son who dislikes him and who prays that God will make him stop drinking. He and Ellen connect, like fellow soldiers in the foxhole dealing with the world of winter wheat around them.
A terrible blizzard forces Ellen and her pupils to remain in the school, but the feeble-minded boy goes out into the blizzard. Ellen almost dies trying to find him. She is rescued; the boy isn’t. No one really blames Ellen. After all, this is a place where a normal, “warm” winter evening is ten below zero, and blizzards always take a few lives. It’s as if the land demands occasional blood from those who use it. Ellen contemplates Gil and how he saw her parents quietly hating each other. Yet, as Ben and Anna tell Ellen, they went on with their marriage, continued to live for the wheat, and endured anyway. Ellen reflects on this and matures as she becomes a go-between for Leslie and Warren, the boy making ridiculous prayers for his father to die if it means he won’t drink anymore. Being semi-agnostic, Ellen sees the damage Leslie’s mother has visited on her son.
Warren does go drinking with a friend a few days before they ago into the Army. He shows up at the teacherage at four in the morning to talk to Ellen, explaining his problems and complications with his wife and son. Warren lacks Gil’s intellectual assurance, and respects Ellen’s character.
A member of the school board sees Warren with Ellen in the isolated teacherage, however, and assume she and Warren are sleeping together. Ellen is dismissed, partly for her presumed immorality, but also because her mother is a foreigner . . . that is, to say, Russian. Shades of our current “Hate Russia” campaign.
Ellen goes back home, not so much to sulk but to help her parents sow the wheat crop. She is uncertain about returning to her parent’s hatred for one another: “But I knew I couldn’t. If I went away and got a job somewhere, in the city, I would feel I had run away.”
Ellen’s directness and honesty is a joy in this novel. As mentioned earlier, she stares at the night sky and bonds with it, as well as the isolation of her world. It’s home.
Ellen thinks about how the bare late-winter look of her world saddens, but in a strong mood piece, recalls the greening strips of wheat and a prairie that will explode in blue and yellow and pink, with shooting stars and crocuses and lupin; where new sage will grow along still-muddy roads.
But Ellen still feels leaving as she did left something unfinished, like a broken tree branch or row of wheat. She invites Leslie to join her, and the boy, while still almost a puritan in his disdain for his father, adjusts to farm life and is happily broken in by Ben and Anna. Indeed, there is a seasonal calm where winter turns to spring, restoring life and soul.
I was impressed that the people in this novel are one with their soul and its crop. It’s an isolated world, but not necessarily a dreary one — Gil’s influence on Ellen notwithstanding. The war, when it comes, is scarcely the earthshaking event it was on the coasts and in the cities. For a book published in 1944, it is decidedly pacific. Naturally, there is talk of beating the Japs, and Gil and Warren end up going to arms, but they do this as much to resolve their own personality issues as to save America. I would think the middle part of the continent would have been ground zero for the isolationists, and Winter Wheat proves that.
As Anna tells her beloved Yolochka, outdoor work will make everyone better: “We plow under our bad feelings. Same with you, maybe, you put your feeling bad down in the ground.”
Ellen, now hard at work with the springtime wheat, enjoys a view of the crop shining after a rainfall and manages to communicate to Leslie that Warren, despite drinking and leaving his mother, still loves him. Leslie thinks his father is lost. Ellen responds by asking, how can someone be lost if they love someone?
She expands her reasoning:
Look at that wheat, Leslie. It’s been there all winter and it’s had cold and snow on it and it hasn’t been hurt any. See how green it is? How it’s coming to
In spite of everything? That’s the way love is . . . wheat grown on irrigated land lacks the strength of dry-land wheat. I guess it takes cold and snow and dryness and heat to make the best wheat.
Leslie laughed and gave a little bounce on the seat. “You’re funny, Ellen. First you talk about love and then you talk about wheat.”
“I get them mixed up, don’t I?” I said.
But it’s not confusion, it is symbiosis. Winter Wheat is a true novel of blood and soil — Blut und Boden — and I found Walker’s story of Ellen and her quest for education, romance, and her fidelity to her land very engrossing.
I hope that in Ukraine and all its sadness that the wheat there will be harvested and bountiful. That unhappy and troubled land, like all mankind, needs the restoration of home and soil.
* * *
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