August, an Iowa farmer of the Forties, is a grand sufferer on a par with Job. Wife Maureen has banked down all of her natural warmth with stern, cold religion. Daughter Sheila is given to sloth, vindictive tantrums, and hearing voices. Brother-in-law E.J. kills his wife when she learns that E.J. has impregnated Betty, a local doxy. A quick fire, a local cover-up--and E.J. scoots away to California, leaving extra farm land for August. August is also left with Betty, who's not about to have another married man slip away from her; so she blackmails August by having their trysts photographed. Whoever said life on the soil was simple? ""When you make your living off life directly,"" August muses, ""you have a hard time seeing your own. You start to wonder what your limits might be, and when you'll be forced to know them."" Harnack's unsentimental approach is impressive; the contrast between the open land and the caged-in-ness of the tiller is direct and affecting. In driving August through ever-consolidating misfortune, however, the book seems prodded past the dignity of its premise; it begins to be grotesque. Still, for its clear-eyed observation of the complications of life contrary to our pat image of it, Limits of the Land leaves a strong mark.