BARREN BRANCHES by Laurie Richards


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A tragic dust blizzard begets life-altering changes for a Kansas schoolteacher and her family in Richards’ Depression-era debut.

1934 marks the third year of drought and failed crops on the Mason farm. Water is so scarce that each family member—gruff patriarch Cal; encouraging matriarch Rachel; wild-child Lily; and elder daughter Sarah, the book’s narrator—can only wash the dust from their hair once a month. (The rest of the time, Sarah reports, they have to “scratch it out and shake it out and comb it out.”) Nonetheless, the tight-knit family perseveres until a harsh dust blizzard sweeps through town. When the storm settles, Lily is nowhere to be found; Rachel, meanwhile, is discovered dead in the family barn, crushed by a fallen beam. Afterward, at the behest of her mother’s close friend Evelyn Loman, Sarah takes a teaching job in the nearby town of Cardinal, while her withdrawn father, unnerved by Lily’s disappearance, tends to the farm. In Cardinal, Sarah contends with townspeople whose “good intentions flew at me like crows pecking out my eyes.” Besides Evelyn, Cardinal’s mayor, there’s her husband, Al, Cardinal’s inept sheriff; the Rev. Palmer, a pious Bible thumper determined to sterilize women and children whose genes he deems unfit to pass on; and Emmett Diehl, the odious bank head who controls the Masons’ mortgage. When she isn’t facing off with Cardinal’s gossipy upper crust, Sarah bonds with Maxene, a kindly local looked down upon by the others for her perceived promiscuity. Gradually, Sarah’s time in Cardinal reveals not only the town’s sinister treatment of women like Maxene, but also several stunning truths about Sarah’s own family. Though the plot occasionally feels forced, there’s undeniable joy and pathos in watching Sarah navigate every twist. Richards consistently stays true to the character, whose battle with the expectations of womanhood yields some of the book’s most telling moments: “I didn’t want to wish [Al] good bye,” she thinks at one point. “Mom’s training got the better of me, though, and I waved and smiled until he was out of sight.”

A stirring historical novel anchored by Richards’ acutely drawn female protagonist.

Publisher: Manuscript
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2015


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