Anne Tyler’s new novel solidifies her status as the bard of Baltimore. (Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis)
Time’s Shadow: Remembering a Family Farm in Kansas
Arnold J. Bauer
Bauer’s account of life on a farm in northeastern Kansas begins with the arrival of the German immigrants who homesteaded the land (the author’s great-grandparents), but the main focus is the years of his childhood, from the pre-electrified 1930s through the early 1950s, when it became clear that he, the last of his parents’ three children, was, like his two sisters before him, not going to be a farmer. In chapters with titles such as “Houses,” “The Seasons,” “Food and Drink,” “Diversions,” “Attitudes,” “Misbehavior,” “Church,” “School,” “Depression and Drought,” and “Having Company,” Bauer thoughtfully and gracefully examines a way of life that has disappeared. As he says, those first settlers must have believed they were building a community that would last as long as the peasant villages they’d left behind, but thanks to a concatenation of world events, scientific and technological advances, and social changes that came to a head in the 1960s, it turned out to span only a century. On a small farm—say, 160 acres—the family was an economic unit; and the mutual goal of keeping the operation running and profitable superseded affection in binding husband, wife, and children together. The idea that previous generations of children were expected to work as soon as they were old enough to be useful is hardly new to anyone with grandparents, but along with the details of the labor (fascinatingly foreign to most readers), Bauer shows without complaint or bravado the naturalness of this expectation. Although the community was well-peopled with other families, many of whom were cousins, a keen and somewhat melancholy sense of isolation pervades this memoir. It arises in part from the endless open landscape itself, and in part from the knowledge that the world the book describes is long lost, but also, more prosaically, from the extreme self-sufficiency of the farmers, who needed regularly from town only “coffee, sugar, shoes and overalls.” This independence encouraged a sense of localness so intense that farmers “had only a vague idea of how city people made their living or how they must have prepared themselves for jobs other than farming.” At a family picnic, Bauer, a renowned professor of Latin American history at the University of California at Davis (his best friend from his college days in Mexico married one of Fidel Castro’s sisters), overhears his uncle guessing that he works as “some sort of a school dad” (the male version of a schoolmarm). Such limitations, however, offer compensations. Although Bauer’s father might have been a brilliant engineer were he not born to be a farmer, what other way of life would have allowed a self-schooled man to design, build, and use countless machines and tools, as well as wire a good deal of the county, mostly for the pure pleasure of the work?
The Beginner’s Goodbye
Skillfully balancing melancholy and delight, Tyler revisits familiar territory in this novel about a well-defended life disrupted by catastrophe. Mildly disabled by a childhood fever, “gimpy, geeky” Aaron has a horror of being coddled, which causes him to keep even those he loves at arm’s length. When his no-nonsense wife is killed by a tree that falls on their house, however, he’s forced to rethink his marriage and his attitude. Among the best aspects here are Aaron’s decidedly unracy but still sexy thoughts about his wife—who returns intermittently as a ghost—with her “rough, pudgy fingers” and her body “the shape of a little clay urn,” and about his secretary, whom he imagines in “a bra trimmed with eyelet lace like the cookie tin’s paper doily, stretched flat where it bridged the soft dip between her breasts.” As is often her habit, Tyler gives her Baltimorean character a quirky profession that metaphorically bolsters her theme; in this case, Aaron is an editor at a vanity press, kept afloat by a series of superficial instruction manuals that purport to guide the reader through every situation life can offer. Although negotiating grief is not so easily managed as, say, organizing a spice cabinet, the theory behind the Beginner’s books—that “anything is manageable if it’s divided into small enough increments”—seems to apply. Tyler’s careful evocation of small increments, as Aaron works his way from composing thank-you notes for uneaten casseroles to choosing Butterscotch as a stain for his new hall flooring to consuming a tin of cookies and imagining an unrestrained crab-house dinner, demonstrates that, as always, she’s mistress of her craft. Her tone is gently wry, inviting intimacy while shunning goo; her structure is at once neat and natural; and her prose is seamless but never flat. This is a feel-good book for the intelligent reader.