After the sudden loss of her husband, a woman struggles to keep her farm, and spirits, afloat in this debut novel.
Berta’s husband, Lonnie, a financially floundering farmer, reluctantly agrees to a contract with a massive poultry organization to secure his family’s future. Lonnie dies in a freak accident, and uses his last breath to extract a promise from his wife to keep the farm going. Berta has close to three years left on the original loan required to start the farm. And because Lonnie was in charge of the business, she lacks practical experience and knowledge. Meanwhile, Poultry Unlimited, the corporate outfit she works with as an independent contractor, greedily demands that she transform her farm into an enterprise that is more technologically efficient, but also potentially less humane and eco-friendly. To complicate matters further, Berta falls in love with Dylan Williams, her field representative at Poultry Unlimited, and a noticeably younger man. Despite the powerful connection between them, Berta’s growing disenchantment with Poultry Unlimited contaminates her feelings for Dylan. The story chronicles Berta’s intense attachment to the farm, which is less a function of her original promise to Lonnie than an expression of her guilt over pulling him into a business to which he was never all that attracted. Despite being encouraged by others to sue for damages related to Lonnie’s death, and sell the farm, she weathers extreme financial distress to hold onto it. While this engaging novel offers a poignant tale, it’s never clear why Lonnie was so attached to the farm that he would plead with his wife while dying to preserve it, a patently imprudent wish bound to saddle his wife and son, Al, with adversity. Lytle also indulges in more than a little melodrama and heavy-handed symbolism. For example, Lonnie actually manages to mention which fan blades in the chicken house are clean while drawing his last breath, and Al is born on Labor Day. These cloying missteps are the kinds of literary contrivances that distance a reader from the emotional substance of the narrative. But the book as a whole remains a searing testament to love and loss, as well as an intelligent indictment of big agro-business.
A compelling, sensitive contribution to the agriculture debate in the U.S.