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Driftless

A rewarding portrait of rural life from an author silent for more than three decades.

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Meanwhile, Grahm’s sister plays bass in a local band and works at the local plastics factory. Retired farmer Rusty Smith is trying to get his house fixed up before his wife’s mother and sister come for a visit. Jacob Helm repairs machines and grieves for his dead wife.

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Recently arrived Pastor Winifred is touched by the divine spirit, and finds everyday life very hard to tolerate after her revelation. Invalid Olivia Brasso, seeking a similar sign from God, gambles away her own and her sister’s life savings.

Oh, and there’s a cougar lurking about.

Tying them all together is July Montgomery, a drifter (and the main character from one of Rhodes’s earlier novels) who fetched up in Words 20 years earlier.

There’s dog fighting and a blizzard, and slowly the characters discover the ways in which they are unexpectedly linked.

“Driftless” shares a rhythm with the farming community it documents, and its reflective pace is well-suited to characters who are far more comfortable with hard work than with words.

(It’s almost impossible to imagine any of them – with the possible exception of Gail – writing a blog. It’s probably no coincidence that she’s the least compelling character.)

The story lines all unfold gradually, requiring patience and a certain amount of concentration from a reader until they intersect.
Rhodes gives fairly equal time to each character’s story, whether they start out as sanctimonious prigs (Olivia) or crotchety,
borderline-racist types (Rusty) and makes a reader appreciate the humanity in each of them.

The evenhandedness illustrates impressive self-control, because it’s easy to imagine an “A Civil Action”-style courtroom drama centered around the upright, naive Shotwells who take on the nefarious Agro giant. (The biblical David had it easy – Goliath didn’t have his own team of lawyers.)

Folks in Words aren’t generally enamored of progress, and tend to doubt that technological advances really count as leaps forward for civilization.

But it’s not a weary feeling, at least, not as Winifred experiences it.

“I don’t think ‘progress’ or ‘history’ really exist,” Winifred muses. “They’re made up. People imagine them to flatter themselves. We live in an eternal present, as does every other living thing. It changes, yet doesn’t change. We can no more understand the past than we can fly. The idea of progress and history is a product of pure cultural arrogance.”

Or, as Olivia puts it more succinctly: “New is only old rearranged.”

Rhodes has a strong authorial voice and firmly but gently herds his many narratives forward. But one side effect is that at times his voice penetrates the characters’ dialogue – making them sound didactic.

But since few readers will want to argue with the novel’s humane message, it’s ultimately a small failing in a wry, generous book that believes that, “Things ought to be the way people think they are – when it’s possible.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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