A troubled midwestern family tries to overcome the ravages of a violently abusive father and husband.
In spite of its Swedish name, Olina, Wisconsin is one of the least exotic places in the Upper Midwest—a flat, windswept, almost barren landscape of subsistence farms carved out of stubborn, rocky soil. John and Claire Lucas left Milwaukee to live on a farm in Olina, lured by cheap prices and the prospect of independence. John was a WWII vet with a taste for booze and a nasty temper; Claire was a young schoolteacher who gave up her career for marriage. But John was a poor farmer who gave himself more and more deeply over to drink, whereas Claire found the solitude of Olina (and life with John) oppressive. Claire took solace in her two sons, James and Bill, who protected her (physically as well as emotionally) from her husband’s violent rages, but the boys themselves had to look beyond home for their own peace. James, tragically, enlisted in the Marines in 1967, partly to escape from his troubled family and partly to show up his father (who had lied about his WWII combat record), while Bill spent more and more with Ernie and Rosemary Morriseau, a childless couple who lived on a neighboring farm. After James is killed in Vietnam, Bill tries to protect Claire from John—and suffers terrible abuse at his hands. In spite of this, Bill manages to grow up relatively happy and well-adjusted, and eventually marries his college sweetheart and finds work as a biologist, but he is unable to have children because of the injuries his father inflicted on him. His wife wants to adopt, but Bill fears the consequences of family life. Can Bill understand he is not his father? Can he forgive the man who nearly ruined his life?
Elegantly written and sharply observed, but sensitive to a fault: a well-crafted debut that suffers from a bit too much feeling.