Drue Heinz winner Croft (Necessary Fictions, 1998) offers a haunting first novel about a dreamer who wanders off the farm at the end of the 19th century to find himself thrown into the maelstrom of American history.
Born in Iowa in 1846, Jim Moon died in New York in 1914 when he jumped off an East River ferryboat. He left behind a pile of sketches, a common-law wife young enough to be his daughter, and a tombstone cut to his own design. As a policeman questions Moon’s young wife Mary, Jim’s story is unfolded in alternate chapters. A teenaged volunteer in the Civil War, Jim came back to Iowa and stuck around long enough to fall in love with a girl named Mae, whom he married and settled down with for a few years. While truly devoted to Mae, and genuinely delighted with the birth of his son, Jim just couldn’t manage the monotony of farm life. A self-taught artist, he made do for a while by escaping into a private world in the evenings, sketching and drinking in the woodshed, but eventually he had to get away. In 1892 he left for a two-week vacation to Chicago and never returned. In the city, he wandered the midway and pavilions of the World’s Fair, fell in love with a young suffragette named Claire, and took up with a shady labor agitator named Nick, who got Jim involved in the great Pullman strike of 1894. He also learned a thing or two about the underworld of con games, white slavery, and graft. By the time he ended up in New York, on the brink of WWI, Jim had long lost the innocence that once led him to risk his life as a Union recruit. So, it seemed, had the Union itself.
Richly textured, with a deft, light touch: a beautiful and intricate account of a world in transition.