LEAVING THE LAND by Douglas Unger


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This attentive first novel is set in the Dakotas, from the 1950s onward--when farming and ranching changed irreversibly, also changing (mostly for the worse) the lives of people in the region. Unger's heroine is farmgirl Marge Hogan, who languishes in boredom until she decides to marry older lawyer Jim Vogel. But, ironically, Vogel is the agent for a social change that threatens the existence of all farmgirls like Marge: he works for Nowell-Safebuy, an agribusiness (seemingly modeled on the Swift meat company) that encourages turkey-farming by the locals, then takes over all their land--rearranging the economy (vertically) until the town, its marrow sucked out, eventually dies. Thus, the unusual strength of this debut fiction is that, while lyrical in tone, it puts specific emphasis on social change and economics. On the other hand, however, the emotional lives at the center here are somewhat short-changed--even if Unger carefully sketches out the relationships, often in genuinely fine prose. ('Jim sitting next to her picking delicately with his utensils as if they were a scalpel and forceps. He leaned back from time to time as though hunger was something foreign to him, as if eating was a form of contract to be drawn out and reconsidered."") Vogel himself sometimes comes across less as a character than as an instrument of the changing economy. There's more human texture in the treatment of Marge and her son Kurt: after Vogel leaves her, Marge has a succession of tawdry jobs and lovers, a decline that parallels the town's demise. But all of these central characters seem to take turns, politely and over-formally, affecting one another. And the result is an admirably sustained, elegiac novel--rich in precise social history, yet held back from real effectiveness by the stiffness in its structure.

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1983
ISBN: 080329560X
Publisher: Harper & Row