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Book Review : Trying Again to Establish a Connection to the Land

June 30, 1989|ELAINE KENDALL

A Farm Under a Lake by Martha Bergland (Graywolf: $16; 208 pages)

This is a book for a Midwestern summer afternoon; just long enough to be read on the porch glider during the hours between lunch and the flickering of the first fireflies. Ideally, there would be green fields stretching into the distance and thunderheads gathering on the horizon. Though "A Farm Under a Lake" is a thoroughly contemporary novel focusing upon the 40-year-old narrator's search for her lost self, the book is also a celebration of an all but vanished America; a part of the country often bypassed in current literature.

Janet Hawn is a trained nurse, married to a businessman who always intended to be a farmer. When she leaves her husband at the breakfast table, morosely studying the want ads in the Green Bay, Wis., paper, she's about to set upon a dual errand. The visible part is to drive her current patient, an elderly stroke victim named May, to her daughter's house in Illinois. The covert reason for the trip is a personal search along the road not taken. Janet's marriage is disintegrating, and her vigorous young husband has turned into an embittered stranger who "only reminded me of the man I had married." Her hand hesitating on the car door, she remembers her mother saying, "All you have to do is put your foot in the road," the plain phrase reminding her not only how easy change is, but how final.

Once May Nickelson is dressed, packed, and settled into the car, Janet is relatively free to let her mind take her back to the years before she married Jack Hawn. She's driving south, in the direction of her own history, and May has not spoken since her illness. With no distractions beyond the simple physical necessities, Janet is able to relive her life virtually from girlhood. Mile by mile, she comes closer to the secure years on her own homestead, then confronts the unsettled period after her mother's death when the farm was sold and her father moved into a hotel in town.

As the geographical and emotional distances between "then" and "now" shrink, Janet is finally forced to see herself as the rebel she was the summer she fell in love with Jack Hawn's brother, Carl. Although she was virtually engaged to Jack, he was away finishing his own studies while Janet was in her family farmhouse, now owned by the Hawns. Carl is a few hundred yards away; married and a father, but proximity and loneliness are a highly volatile mixture.

The strange summer draws to a close; Carl's absent wife returns, and Janet marries Jack, exactly as she always intended to do. The brothers had planned to share the newly expanded family farm, but a short-lived experiment proves conclusively that the idea is unrealistic. Better educated and more sophisticated, Jack leaves the land to become a salesman, starting each new job with enthusiasm that inevitably turns to indifference. Though there are dozens of jobs in many cities, each time the disillusion comes faster, the spaces between opportunities grow longer.

Drifting Away From Dreams

Once Janet completes her nurses' training, weathering these dry spells becomes financially easier but psychologically more trying. This, after all, is the heartland in the mid-'70s, not yet a world in which dual-career couples routinely meet after work at this week's new cafe. With each passing year, Janet and Jack Hawn drift further away from their hopes and dreams. Now, childless and living in a cramped condo in Green Bay, their roles reversed and their connection with the land broken, they're no longer necessary to each other.

The story of Janet's mute patient, May Nickelson, surfaces only after the women arrive at their destination and are welcomed by May's middle-aged daughter, a woman whose conventional facade conceals a surprisingly uninhibited spirit. Though at first the sub-plot seems tangential, May's life subtly illuminates Janet's private quest. Told in direct and graceful prose, "A Farm Under a Lake" is a quiet, unpretentious success.

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