Haskell is a professor of biology at the University of the South. He undertook the project of quietly visiting one square meter of ground in an old growth forest in Tennessee almost daily for a year. He spent hours at a time letting all his senses experience what was there in what he called the “mandala”, a Sanskrit word for “community”. What’s so marvelous about his book is that he took particularities of time and place and made them universal. When a deer came within inches of him from behind, he wrote a chapter about the importance of large herbivores doing what we currently call “overbrowsing” the forest.
I first learned about this book from John Price who undertook a literary residency for the Scott County Reads Together program several years ago. He and Elmar Lueth both attended graduate writing programs at the University of Iowa and became very good friends. On Price’s recommendation alone, I purchased the book for the Library’s collection and then promoted it to the German American Heritage Center Book Group. Lueth grew up in Germany, but spent many years in the United States, most of it in Iowa where he met his future wife.
Mary Sutter is a skilled midwife, but dreams of being a surgeon. There is a prejudice against women in medicine, but when the Civil War starts being waged, Mary finds her desire and ability to help in great demand, regardless of her gender. The author is a trained nurse, and her descriptions of complicated labors and births, the amputations of legs, and the consequences of battle injuries and diseases are detailed and realistic. Her language borders at times on quaint in that readers feel like they’re in that time and place. And for those with a romantic bent, there’s that too.
This book is considered a classic spy thriller of the Cold War. Having lived in West Berlin from 1978-1982, I was very familiar with the Berlin Wall (which came down in 1989). The Wall plays a significant role in this story. I found myself incredibly suspicious of everyone and of everything that happened. Was it an accident or was it planned? Is this person a spy? If so, for which side? Or is this person a double agent, working for both sides? It was indeed a grim situation. Several people in the Mystery Book Discussion group commented that their spouses were in the military at that time and probably did some spying, but never talked about it, of course. My spouse worked for a German bi-cultural bilingual school, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t doing any spying.
Having been a member of the River Action Environmental Book Club for several years now, I’ve read some of this before: that the root cause of famine is overcultivation of marginal land, that “agricultural methods that deplete soil faster than it’s replaced destroy societies”. I always feel kind of helpless, but at least some in this book club had the gumption and wherewithal to attend the recent Environmental Protection Commission’s public hearing regarding Iowa’s 4″ topsoil rule–whether to keep it or not.
Durrow said in an interview that she was inspired by a real event to write this rather disturbing novel. This was a rough enough story without contemplating its relationship to reality. It dealt with a situation I will never know personally, but that more and more people in this country do. Reading books like this gives me a certain understanding, a little bit of empathy. I value them for that reason and for the literary skill of the author–the sheer beauty and power of the phrasing and dialogue.