A lackluster debut details the hardships of frontier life.
Narrated by Sissy, now a grandmother in 1901, the story takes place in the Sacramento Valley just after the Civil War. After a ten-year absence, spent first in prison for the murder of his father and then fighting for the North, Nathan finally returns to the family farm. Hoping to find new start in life, he discovers something quite a bit different. Following the death of their father and Nathan’s jail stint, his sister, Sissy, and their mother struggled to make a go of the farm. One day, they found a wounded man in their barn and tended to his health; when he recovered he began working the land. But Swann is no Good Samaritan. Soon he begins raping 13-year-old Sissy and controlling not only the land but the girl and her Ma as well. He makes existence hell, but he also provides a comfortable living for the two women. By the time Nathan returns, Sissy is 18, has two young children, Annabel and James, and the farm has never looked better. She hopes her brother will oust Swann and release her from torment, but their mother refuses to let Nathan claim an inheritance won by murder. He finds a job at a neighboring ranch, and brother and sister begin meeting secretly at Tennant’s Rock, where Nathan teaches her to read and regales her with stories of the world. Swann finally leaves after beating Sissy so severely that she miscarries; then Nathan moves to Oregon with his new wife, leaving Sissy and her mother again stuck running the farm alone. McGiffen’s simple story provides the basis for an exploration of the isolation and hardships of rural life in frontier California, and he builds an engaging portrait of the difficulties experienced by western pioneers.
Still, this slow-moving, impressionistic tale lacks dramatic edge, despite the harrowing circumstances.