Michelle Hoover’s second novel, Bottomland, takes place in cold, post-Great War Iowa, a land that is considerably less welcoming than its present day self would have you think. This is an Iowa of scarcity, low technology, and suspicion. Hoover’s book centers on the Hess family, first- and second-generation Germans working a sizable plot of land under the stern eye of their distant and begrudging neighbors. The war made probable enemies of all Germans — in an all-too-timely bout of blind prejudice — and the Hess family suffers a loss under this bigotry: the youngest Hess sisters, Esther and Myrle, have vanished in the night. In a home kept under lock and key, and with strange evidence left in the girls’ room, this is a suspicious disappearance. The Hess family, at least members able, begins the search for the sisters through inquiries into the past and explorations of their more literal surroundings, however distant. This search takes our characters from turn-of-the-century New York to mid-war Europe, and into postwar Chicago, a lean, dirty, yet hopeful city.
Told through several first-person perspectives, Bottomland begins with a considerable cool and subtle suspense. Young as the sisters are, the rest of the family suspects everything from kidnapping and murder to a simple flight from the daily drudgery of the Hess life. Nan, the eldest child, and stalwart matriarch in the absence of the recently departed mother, begins the book, giving the first angle on the mystery. One of its strongest sections, and likely its most well-rounded, Nan provides what the reader can imagine is an accurate glimpse at everyone and everything taking place in Bottomland: the world is a shade away from bleak, all of its denizens bent under their individual — though similar — crosses. Nan’s is particularly heavy, but escape is unthinkable, stalwart as she is.
From her viewpoint, we move across other family members, the father Hess, one of the brothers, and so on. While each section does well in telling a complete story (or portion of the whole), together they create a problematic total, and though each section does work to round out the family, the fleshing leaves a little to be desired, and the focus of the novel becomes murky. The mystery, so powerful in the opening, becomes almost a fake-out, especially toward the end, when all cards are laid on the table, and the reader finds out the truth — or, at least, some portion of it. The text gets a little flexible with what is true and false, what are important facts and what is simply let go. No account seems definitive, though we’re taught by the forthright and honest character of our protagonists to trust them.
While the multiple perspectives take a little wind out of Bottomland’s sails, its prose rarely falters. Hoover is adept at spare, hard descriptions of a meager life:
It snowed. At first only a fine powder, but by the beginning of December, we had two feet or more. The animals stayed in their stalls. At the troughs, the cows kept their heads to their chests. We should have known from the coats on our horses that winter would be a trial, how the ears hung from the corn even before harvest […] Soon the snow grew high as the windowsills. Farther off in the fields, the fence posts jutted from the drifts, the only sign of our summer work.
Occasional tics develop — Hoover has a tendency for leaping metaphors:
A whistle, loud as knives[,]
but by and large, you can rely on hardier stuff:
The fields weren’t any different, a rough tide after planting, and the yard yellow with spits of grass. Those fields were low and hollow after Chicago. In the pasture, the cows dug their noses in puddles of rain. The house seemed squat, the sills wanting a coat of paint […].
Bottomland isn’t quite the book you expect. In many ways, that’s reflective of the characters inside it — and one in particular. As it is with real life, some facts remain hidden from us; the true motives and desires of people we know and love are kept away. While Hoover doesn’t provide the reader with a neatly tied narrative, she does give us one that reflects, with some clarity, a reality we all know.