Joern’s second work of fiction (The Floor of the Sky, 2006) spans 50 years in the life of a large family on the Nebraska prairie.
Seventeen linked stories comprise a stripped-down family saga, but the stories are not compact and well-shaped, with the exception of the excellent “Ghost Town,” a grim tussle over the custody of a child. The period covered is 1930 to 1979. Gramp Preston is the patriarch, a stubborn old farmer who works land he has leased. His refusal to buy land will doom the family and cause great grief for his son Jake, another farmer, but his folly is partially obscured by other developments. It’s a very crowded field, and you need a scorecard to keep track. Jake will marry Alice, who’s many years his junior and the step-daughter of his sister Mary. Alice’s two sisters will get their turn in the spotlight before fading away. Eventually Joern narrows the field to Jake and Alice and their three kids. Once Jake is forced to abandon the land and farming, “he’s lost his best self.” He might have been a tragic figure but he’s too dull and passive; a rough patch with Alice (abuse, jealousy) is suggested but not pursued. Much later he will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s and a quiet life will sputter out. It’s Alice who holds the family together, but here again Joern’s characterization is not sharp enough to throw her into relief against the constant challenges of daily life. Somehow their kids will do OK for themselves, marry and have kids of their own (one paragraph alone announces seven new additions to the family tree), but by 1979 the family is so scattered that the final insight that “they are bound…by blood and history” seems like a pious afterthought.
We are left with a sense of wasted material: so many lives, seen only in passing.