I finished Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker last week for my book club. The story takes place over a year and a half during the early forties when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Ellen is a young woman with an American father and a Russian mother who met when her mother nursed her father through an injury in the first world war. They live on a dry land wheat ranch in Montana, which means they use no irrigation, relying instead on the weather for a successful crop.
The story opens in the summer after the wheat has been harvested and stored, and Ellen’s father is listening to the various market prices on the radio to determine when he should sell. A good price for his wheat will mean Ellen can go to college in the fall, and he is determined to make this happen. Ellen is full of optimism and excited anticipation. And then word comes that she will, indeed, attend college in the fall.
I haven’t written any reviews for fiction books before, so I’m not sure how much of the story to tell here, and I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers. I suppose I could give my opinion: I liked the book. It is a slow moving story, which one gal in our book club pointed out was probably intentional as a reflection of the slow moving simplicity of ranch life in the forties. She felt it was a more suitable read for the winter, while cozied up next to a fire.
There was much description of life on the ranch – the plowing, the sowing, the waiting, the sweating, and the toil. Ellen used the hard labor to work out her anger, and grief, and confusion over things that pressed her. I appreciated this aspect of her story – the sweating out of frustration, the release of tension after a hard day’s work. I envied the simplicity of ranch life – the work she persevered through was difficult, but when it was done, she rested.
We talked about this in our book group – the nature of our lives today as being so busy and filled with noise. I feel as if the work I do will never be done, that there will always something undone. But on a wheat ranch you harvest, you plant, and then your work is done and you wait for the wheat to grow. When you are out in the field, you are working hard. Then you eat dinner, get a good night’s sleep, and do it all again the next day.
As I read, the simplicity of this way of life appealed to me.
Another focus of the book is Ellen’s observation of her parents’ relationship. Their marriage is complicated already because of her mother being a foreigner, but it is made even more complicated in Ellen’s eyes as she learns more information about how they came to be together. It is particularly interesting to see how she vacillates back and forth between the two, at times identifying with her father’s frustrations, and at times her mother’s. It opened my eyes to the pitfalls of children attempting to make sense of complicated and much more mature relationships, and gave me compassion toward Ruthie for all the times she looked worried as Bryan and I exchanged sharp words.
It is also an interesting commentary on the culture of love and marriage in the forties. I kept getting frustrated with Ellen as she clung to the idea of a relationship that seemed shallow, wondering why she didn’t just let go and move on to someone else. But in the context of the early forties, it was not customary to give your love away so easily. Today, we women shave off pieces of our heart to many different men over the course of our lives. We love, we lose, and we move on to new loves. But during the forties, this kind of behavior was reserves for ‘loose’ women – respectable women were courted and married, and the process was all very practical. This, too, has it’s downfalls, but the point I’m making is that Ellen represents the quintessential forties woman who panics a little at the thought of having no man in her future.
If you’re in the mood for a story that takes it’s time, I recommend Winter Wheat. It may be slower than the average Steven King thriller, but it is sweet and simple and something to be savored.