John Connell's memoir "The Farmer's Son" opens with Connell in a barn on the family farm in Ireland, both arms shoulder-deep inside of a cow.
He's helped with births before, but this is the first time he's done it alone. "My father has been in charge of the calving for twenty-five years, and when he wasn't, my brother took over, but now that I'm home, it's me," he writes.
After nearly 10 years abroad — in Australia and in "the concrete embrace" of Toronto — Connell has returned to County Longford to heal and to write. His years away have given him a new appreciation for a life he thought he'd left behind forever. Farmers, he realizes now, are "poets of the field, bards of the land."
"The Farmer's Son" is part memoir, part classic father-son battle and part history (of Ireland and of cows), and all of those pieces work quite well together; it is a fascinating read.
Connell is a thoughtful, serious writer, deeply observant. The book moves slowly, covering just four months in 200 pages, but it never drags.
January through April is calving season, the busiest time of year. Instead of writing a novel, as he had planned, Connell is helping sheep and cows give birth, getting up three times a night to check on the babies and feed them, hauling hay and moving cows to pasture and back, all during a historically wet and cold winter when the fields are flooded and the air is icy cold.
His memoir is infused with his love of nature ("It is now that I think that life was meant to be shared with animals, not just other people," he writes), but it is devoid of sentimentality. There are wee lambs and calves, but there is also death, and most of these animals are meant for the slaughterhouse.
"There are times in farming when nothing can be done," he writes grimly, in late February, after a birth goes terribly wrong. "The beast is too old, the calf too sick, the man too worn out."
There is also a fear of tempting fate. When a beautiful calf is born, "We do not praise him too much, for fear that he might be taken from us by death, or that our luck might turn."
In Connell's eyes, the past and the future are fused with the present, and he writes about local gossip, ancient myths and legends, Ireland's years of rebellion, and neighbors both long gone and recently gone as easily as if all of it happened yesterday.
In 1798, British soldiers hanged Irish rebels from trees near his farm; when, 40 years ago, the farmer cut down those trees, "the shackles were still upon the branches; they had become part of nature itself."
As calving season progresses, Connell slowly unwinds his own story, hinting at darkness and deeper problems, and it is not a surprise when he reveals, toward the end of the book, the depression that had engulfed him and prompted his return.
Connell's writing style is formal — no contractions, sometimes arcane constructions. (A ewe that lost her lamb "has not the kindness in her and would not take with any foster lambs," he writes. And after a day of hard work, "I lie in bed and sleep takes me soon enough.") His voice isn't pretentious, though, but earnest.
The main tension in the book comes from Connell's fraught relationship with his father. The scenes with the two of them are charged, and the reader senses unfinished business. Their fight, when it finally erupts, is epic, like something out of Irish myth, as the two men stand at the edge of a field in the pouring rain, shouting words they can never take back.
A bestseller in Ireland, "The Farmer's Son" is a powerful, beautiful story about the tug of land, the meaning of home and one man's place in the world.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books and the president of the National Book Critics Circle. @StribBooks • facebook.com/startribunebooks • 612-673-7302
The Farmer's Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm
By: John Connell.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 241 pages, $25.