Read from my local library
Ruth lives in rural Wisconsin with her parents and older brother. They are part of a very isolated and deeply religious community of which Ruth’s Uncle is the preacher. She and her cousin Naomi are the same age and Naomi’s older brother is the same age as Ruth’s brother. Ruth and Naomi are extremely close, sharing everything.
Their lives are ruled by the seasons – the shooting season, the harvesting season. They do not have much and they are ostracised from the greater community by their unfashionable clothes and strict adherence to their religion. Ruth and Naomi only have each other and as two girls on the cusp of their teens, they are much more sheltered than other girls their age.
But this community has its secrets and they can be just like any other. When Ruth discovers Naomi’s secret they stick together, just like always. But this secret is too big to be kept forever and a chance find will see the greater family finally know. And the repercussions will be chilling.
I first heard about this book last year at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I attended one of the Morning Reads sessions and Amy Espeseth read the first scene from this book. She has a fantastic voice and her accent (she is from Wisconsin also) was mesmerising. It was a great scene, although quite brutal and I immediately filed this book away for the future. When it was longlisted for the inaugural Stella Prize, a new Australian prize for women’s fiction, I decided that it would be one of the first books I read. I was going to attempt to read the longlist but really I know that isn’t going to happen. But I do intend to read a couple.
This book is a bit difficult for me to review because on one hand, I think that the writing is almost perfection. It is beautifully written – vivid and sharp, beautiful and poetic. When I was reading this book, the opening scene of Ruth recounting herself, her father and her brother going deer shooting in the snow, it felt like I was there. I could see the white surrounds, the trees, the deer. I felt like I was Ruth, watching. And that feeling remains for most of the book, if not all of the book as Ruth recounts their isolated life. Her reluctance to be alone on the bus was another scene that I felt really worked, as she feared the teasing of the town kids who mocked them. And when Ruth and Naomi deal with Naomi’s secret, that too was a beautifully rendered scene that I felt apart of. You wonder how on earth those two young girls could do such a thing all by themselves and manage to hide it. Despite it being heartbreaking, it was almost admirable the way they, Ruth in particular, were so matter-of-fact. There were no hysterics, no drama. It was equal parts chilling and amazing.
Despite my admiration for Espeseth’s writing and her ability to include a reader so fully within her story, I cannot say that I enjoyed this book – and perhaps I am not supposed to. It’s bleak and it’s very much steeped in religion, something I don’t particularly enjoy reading. I did like the way in which the family dynamics were rendered and the implication that even the most strictly God-fearing families have rotten apples in their barrel and that bad things happen. But this is not a book that I could put up on my favourites shelf and read again and again. There are some people that won’t get past the graphic descriptions of shooting deer and there are some that might get past that but won’t get past what is happening to Ruth and Naomi. Ruth and Naomi are exquisitely drawn, the protective Ruth in particular, especially with her despair at realising that her sacrifice has failed to protect Naomi like she thought it would. The family seems simple at first glance but the further you read the more complicated they prove to be.
Some people love to read books listed for prizes and attempt to guess whether or not they will win. I have often said I’m going to attempt this longlist or that shortlist and never succeeded (closest I got last year was reading most of the shortlist for the Miles Franklin). I’m terrible at guessing winners though, so I’m not going to try with this one! I’m just going to try and read the books that interest me and use it as a way to discover more books and authors that I might not normally be exposed to.
Book #64 of 2013