Monday, July 14, 2014

Hunter's Horn, by Harriette Simpson Arnow

Michigan State University Press, ISBN 9780870134371, December 1997 (original publication 1949)

I got yer Great American Novel right here.

In the years just prior to American entry into World War II, Nunn Ballew is raising his family, trying to restore the family land that he bought back with money earned in the mines, and hunting an especially pernicious red fox, known as King Devil, who has been plaguing the district and killing far too much livestock since Ballew's return five years earlier. Nunn is obsessed with King Devil, and during fox season, it's a major distraction from needed farm work, which he knows is vital to his long-term plans.

But this isn't just Nunn's story. It is every bit as much the story of his wife Milly, his daughter Suse, the local midwife Sue Annie, and an interconnected web of extended family and neighbors in the area of Little Smoky Creek, Kentucky.

The lives of the Kentucky hill people are hard, and they're just coming out of the Great Depression and into the beginnings of the Second World War. Some of the men are working for the WPA; others, like Nunn, are cautiously exploring the benefits of working with the AAA and county agricultural agents. And they're running their foxhounds most nights during fox season, trying to get King Devil.

Meanwhile, for all that the men are juggling, the women's lives are harder. Food grown needs to be canned, smoked, ground, baked, processed somehow to last from harvest to the next growing season. Nunn's decision to buy two purebred foxhounds means selling what would have been their winter meat that year. Improvements to the farm mean no money for Sunday shoes or the bus to high school in town for Suse. Milly and Suse and the oldest boy, Lee Roy, work hard to make ends meet and fill in the gaps Nunn leaves when he's running his hounds, but often see themselves going without things that make them feel exposed before other wives and older children among the neighbors.

And it's Sue Annie and Milly who labor long, hard, and heartbreakingly  to save a neighbor's youngest child, while haunted by memories of their own lost children.

This is an intimate and moving look at life among the hill people. It's an older time and a different place than most of us know. The lower status and hard conditions for women are accepted by all as the natural order, and Arnow doesn't regard it as alien, but she also show the ways in which the women are the strength and necessary binding of the families and the whole community. Nunn seems to have a suspicion, a hope, that his daughter can do something more, if he can find the means to let her. He seems to be catching wind of how the changes disrupting their community can bring good as well as ill--but it's a hard, challenging time, and nothing comes easily.

There's some emotionally rough stuff here, and it's not a cheerful, chirpy, happily-eve-after ending. Neither is it grim and hopeless and negative for everyone.

This is a rich, strong, narrative about a piece of American life and culture that rarely gets respect or understanding.

Recommended for everyone with pulse.

I bought this book.