Near the end of this novel, which takes place in an Iowa farm town called Dutch Center, Mr. Vic, a student teacher from the nearby Redemption College, is said to have his high school students "read stories by an older guy who grew up around Dutch Center and wrote stories about farm boys. Little tiny stories that were about as long as a sneeze and that some people thought were funny. Mr. Vic said he was the 'Hemingway of farm life.'"
That, of course, is Jim Heynen, who earned the sobriquet (from the trade publication Kirkus Review) for his ... tiny stories about farm boys. This is, it seems, Heynen's first novel and, although it takes us into familiar Dutch Calvinist farm territory, it focuses on a girl -- and there is nothing tiny about it.
In the months leading up to the new millennium, 17-year-old Alice Krayenbraak finds herself in a world in transition. The world might not be about to end, as her deeply strange and troubled mother predicts, but in important ways the world Alice knows is ending: She is entering her decisive, senior year in high school, the family farm is failing, and the entrenched community is being transformed by immigration, corporate farming and the creep of mass culture.
Among the immigrants are a Hmong family, whose teenage son, Nickson (named for the hero of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon), captures Alice's attention and awakens her passion. Alice's navigation of the rough seas of first love, oncoming adulthood and a family crisis might be an effective metaphor for what the larger community is facing at the turn of the millennium -- but it doesn't read like a metaphor. It is, in keeping with Heynen's considerable gifts, painstakingly particular, immediate and moving.
Every instant of Alice's intimate life and longing takes place within the sometimes stultifying, sometimes liberating framework of farm life, church and school. And every instant counts. As real and poignant as Alice's romance is, the plight of the family farm is intrinsic to her story, each caress and twist of fate measured against the care and feeding of cows and pigs whose welfare orders her days.
Early in the novel, the Rev. Prunesma delivers a sermon drawing distinctions between "dwellers" and "seekers."
"Seekers are lost in lives of bootless desperation." They are "never satisfied ... always wanting more." Dwellers, of course, are the opposite of seekers. Although the reverend is clearly commending the dwellers, Alice begins by recognizing herself as a seeker. What she comes to understand through the book is that, "when Seekers stop seeking and try to become Dwellers they plunge into another desperation and another struggle." Hers is a finely focused, perfectly calibrated story of finding a balance between the forces that govern society, settling and striving, putting down roots and reaching for the light.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.