"Memory of Trees: A Daughter's Story of a Family Farm" is the most comforting kind of farm memoir -- sad, yes, but written with an open heart to the rural trinity: farm, family and faith.
In it, author Gayla Marty delivers the story of her family's century-old dairy farm in the St. Croix Valley, near Rush City, Minn. It's a daughter's tale in loving detail -- from the weight of agates, to the taste of too-wet hay, to the dramatic re-seeing of the farm through a window at a drunken party. Imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder, but 80 years later, through television and the Beatles, mono-crop culture and automated milking, jobs at the plastics plant to make ends meet, exodus to urban life, and the painful, inevitable sale of the land.
We all know how it ends, but Marty expertly frames the loss, opening with 10 breathtaking paragraphs describing her uncle's farm accident. This opens the wound of the farm's sale for her -- she and "Uncle" had both opposed it. From here she sows the story of two Marty brothers (her father and uncle) who married two Anderson sisters (her mother and aunt), farmed together, raised children together, and then became distanced by religion and money, all while living in side-by-side farmhouses.
The perspective grows as she does. When Marty writes from childhood memory, you'll catch the bittersweet whiff of Willa Cather's "My Antonia," in the close-to-the-ground, close-to-the-bone sensory detail. She moves through her teen years questioning, and picks up the pace when attending the University of Minnesota (where she now works as communications director).
She gains intellectual counterpoint in travel, and grows into compassionate womanhood.
It is this compassion for which Marty deserves big praise. She shows us hard-working parents who loved and feared God, followed Jesus, and struggled to work with and for each other as farming became less financially viable. No one is perfect, but Marty pushes to understand. (Refreshing, considering the popularity of vitriol in memoir today.)
The only hard complaints she has about the loss of the farm are that farming becomes less humane as processes become more automated and crops more homogenized, and that as a daughter there is no clear place for her on "our farm that didn't know what to do with daughters except to teach them to work hard and recognize beauty."
This one is for the smart little girls who adored their hardworking, faith-driven, farming fathers. It is for women displaced from home, who eventually integrate into the rhythms of city life, and then watch as claims to home disappear with a few shaky signatures. That is not comforting -- that is bone-achingly sad, turning over some real cultural grief -- but Marty tells it with love. That is its comfort.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a writer with the "Electric Arc Radio Show," a writer and host of "PowderKeg Live!" and an instructor in the English department at St. Cloud State University.