Glittenberg’s (Land, Love, Life, 2016, etc.) historical family saga follows the fortunes of homesteaders on the northeastern Colorado prairie and their descendants.
After a short flashback set in 1983, this novel begins in the spring of 1909 in Hopetown, Colorado. John William Schultz and his cousin Gus arrive there from Iowa ahead of their families to take up their new claims. They turn out to have different attitudes about them: Gus regards the land as infinitely exploitable, refusing to let any lie fallow, while John protects the land and his seed crop, preserving the best from one generation to the next in a sturdy box that he calls “The Promise Seed.” Prairie dangers such as drought, grasshoppers, fire, and rattlesnakes threaten the homesteaders and sometimes bring tragedy. After losing a child, Gus eventually sells out and returns east, but restoring the land that he ruined takes a decade. The cousins’ dichotomy lives on in John William’s sons: Will is a good farmer, but Hank is, like Gus, selfish and dishonest. Their fortunes diverge during the hard Depression years as Will and family work hard, even becoming migrant fruit pickers for a time, and Hank prospers, often through cheating. After World War II, though, prospects for Will and his family change. Glittenberg tells a moralistic story of white hats and black hats, and one can practically hear the mustache-twirling when Gus, for example, says his ambition is “to own more than anyone else.” Meanwhile, the heroic characters are faultlessly humble, honest, hardworking, and loving, and also welcoming of new ideas, such as organic farming. The cliché of Native Americans being especially spiritual is often emphasized; a half-Cheyenne man who wishes “to be more Indian than white” is not just “a special messenger” or maybe “an angel”—he can actually work miracles. The prose style, rife with dashes, is also irritating at times, as are moments of naïve exposition: “she had pneumonia (with drama in her voice).” However, the nitty-gritty details of the homesteaders’ hard lives add some interest to the tale, such as when Papa Paul, John’s father-in-law, inspects seeds to find the best ones: “Papa held fistfuls of seeds, examining each grain, looking for striations and markers. Then he bit into the seed, ‘Look this is a good example of a possible puny seed.’ He showed it around to all the farmers.”
An overly simplistic moralism weakens this multigenerational novel.