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FINAL HARVEST: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Andrew H. Malcolm (Times Books: $17.95; 320 pp.)

May 11, 1986|Frank Levering | Levering, a screen writer, runs a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. and

Time was that the smug West or East coaster, secure in the knowledge that nothing of real significance occurs between the two coasts, could jet over the vast checkerboard of the Midwest and dismiss the region as a monotonous sea of waving grain, groomed by anonymous, plodding farmers.

No more. Amid a litany of well-publicized financial woes, the Midwest has emerged as our most dramatic domestic war zone, pitting farmers against elected officials, bankers and other creditors, and sometimes each other. At stake is a way of life, a fertile field of traditional American values stretching across countless agrarian communities.

On Sept. 29, 1983, on a vacant, bank-owned farm in southwestern Minnesota, someone shot dead Rudy Blythe, the 42-year-old owner of the bank, and his 37-year-old loan officer, Toby Thulin. A native Midwesterner and Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times, Andrew H. Malcolm covered the story for the Times and has written a formidable study--part narrative, part essay--that discerns a tragedy of national significance in 10 foggy acres of Minnesota prairie. For Malcolm, one fatal collision reveals the fundamental tensions, the inexorable, tragic forces now blighting the Heartland.

To make his case, Malcolm interweaves the stories of the tragic antagonists--their backgrounds, families, dreams and ill-fated actions--with a sweeping overview of the Midwestern ethos and of the economic forces that have chewed up old reliable maxims like so much wheat in a combine. It is one of Malcolm's triumphs that his bankers--cardboard villains in Hollywood renditions of the farm crisis--are as plausibly and poignantly jeopardized as his farmers. Confronted with exorbitant interest rates, plummeting crop prices and depreciating land values, bankers like Rudy Blythe who borrowed money to sustain their banks have faced a financial apocalypse equal to that of farmers. For Blythe no less than James Jenkins and son Steven--the farmers whose 10 acres Blythe's bank had repossessed--hard work, austerity and other mainstay virtues could no longer purchase the American Dream.

How that dream soared, only to die, is the narrative and thematic heart of this account. Malcolm draws from firsthand observation, extensive interviews and his own green imagination to relate how Rudy Blythe and James Jenkins, controlled by economic forces they had not foreseen, met on a murderous field in a struggle to preserve their fading dreams.

In purchasing the Buffalo Ridge State Bank in Ruthton, Minn., in 1977, Blythe had realized a longstanding ambition to own a small-town bank and exert community leadership. Working a piece of land, James Jenkins had yearned to reconstruct a life for himself after a devastating divorce--and to pass that farming life on to his son. Skillfully arranging complex story elements, Malcolm marches through the events leading up to the tragedy, the killings themselves, the mystery of who fired the shots, and the ultimate trial and murder conviction of 18-year-old Steven Jenkins after his father committed suicide. Mixing flights of poetic eloquence with the plain-spoken language of newspaper journalism, Malcolm convinces us of the richness of these dreams and the distinctly middle American tragedy of their demise.

It is a gripping story, all the more vivid in our imagination because these were real people, three men who came to a bloody end and one teen-ager convicted for murder in a sensational trial--the stuff of front page New York Times stories and Dan Rather's Evening News. And judging from his frequent, usually disparaging references to previous media coverage, one senses that Malcolm intends this book as a corrective, the kind of in-depth examination the story deserves. As perhaps one might anticipate from a veteran print journalist, Malcolm is particularly unkind to the rival medium of television, never missing an opportunity to remark on how obtrusive were TV cameras and reporters, how superficial was television coverage. Accurate as he may be in describing "well-coiffed TV types" descending on a small town, there is a touch of snobbery, a trace of privilege in such comments coming from a writer afforded the expansive format of a book or even a newspaper to expound on the implications of the story. "Transmitted through the air as tiny electronic dots," he writes of TV coverage of the trial, "the characters in the legal drama had been transformed into celebrities, polished into a distorted replica of themselves, seemingly always involved in dramatic confrontations, seemingly always speaking in 20-second snippets. . . ."

Fine and dandy. But Malcolm need not wage war against other media across the spacious plains of his book. Without self-serving comparisons, "Final Harvest" can stand on its own merits. Exhaustively piling up details of lives and psyches, asking searching questions, Malcolm has filed the most penetrating report we have yet from the farm front.

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