Elise Gregory, writer from western Wisconsin The Clayfields: A Story Novel is a hymn to Midwestern farming communities, whose members spend their time growing corn, raising and milking goats and cows, riding horses, fishing and hunting, and attending summer festivals .
The book focuses on the experiences of a range of female characters who seek to fulfill their notions of the good life: idealistic Terra, married to an older farmer, struggles to earn a living by producing and selling milk cheese from goat ; Emile is a tougher bartender trying to forge a permanent relationship with a taciturn young man who desires to own land; Helen rejects Chicago’s “square foot life”. Although she bears the child of a man whose romantic farm stories promise a better existence, “she didn’t love her father, just the possibility of him.” Lupine is an intuitive girl at the dawn of femininity, caught up in a budding sexuality but also focused on her relationship with her sick grandfather.
Although the novel focuses on these female characters, it includes the stories of several other characters, from an elderly WWII ex-POW who has carved out a life in America to high school girls to a variety others. The Ellsworth-based author’s deft intertwining of various narrative threads is reminiscent of Louise Erdrich, who also writes about small rural communities close to the natural world while exploring the psychological motivations of her characters.
Readers in Wisconsin will notice different geographic landmarks identifying their state, while readers in other rural areas will recognize these characters and situations that seem universal: love and respect for animals and nature, nurturing and mind-numbing bonds with family, conflict between an older generation and a younger one, the different ways men and women relate to the world.
Qualified as a “storytelling novel”, the book is organized by seasons, more precisely by different “lunar” chapters (milk moon, hay moon, harvest moon, etc.) covering two to three years of the life of the characters. Each chapter is divided into smaller sub-chapters. The narrative culminates in stories of birth and death, a cyclical connection so fitting for a story structured by the seasons and expressed in prose that celebrates the characters’ affection for the natural world. For example, Terra’s quasi-motherly bond with her goats: she “smoothed their fur and breathed in their smells of grass and dampness like a mother sipping the breath of milk-fed babies. Eating their vitality, their determination to live.
There are no villains in the book. The characters closest to earning this title are outsiders who simply don’t understand what seems to come naturally to the rest of the community. Gregory’s characters, young and old, are fully realized and developed, and their love for nature is inseparable from the bonds they share with each other. These connections are eloquently expressed by the young pastor at a young man’s funeral: “If we can believe (he) is in heaven and we can speak with his soul…it makes the loss of the mortal body a little easier. because he is here with us and in us. Not in a box but in our memory of him. It lives with us when we catch muskellunge.
The clay fields was published by Cornerstone Press on October 15. It will be enjoyed by both male and female readers and leave them feeling better about the world.