Kali VanBaale, The Good Divide
Publisher: Midwestern Gothic
2016, 186 pages, paperback, $15
IT IS OFTEN said that all stories can be boiled down to two essential plots: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. I would argue that in the best stranger-comes-to-town-literature, the narrative is less about the actual stranger, and more about the impact of the newcomer’s presence. (If the story were the stranger’s, then it would make it a person-goes-on-a-journey one, right? I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.)
In Kali VanBaale’s slim and gripping new novel, The Good Divide, the newcomer is Liz Belardi, love interest of Tommy Krenshaw and all things exotic: feminist, Italian, college-educated. Yet, the novel has little to do with Liz, and all to do with our narrator, Jean Krenshaw, wife of Tommy’s brother, Jim, and mother to three young sons.
The Krenshaw brothers run a dairy farm that’s been in the family for generations. The time is 1963. The place is Chickering, Wisconsin, where the law is clear: first comes farm, then comes God, and lastly, if there’s anything leftover, family. Farm life is harsh: men rise early to milk the cows, women are up at 4:30 a.m. to scrub floors and prepare hot meals. Death by tractor is no rarity, and human bodies reach old age before fifty. As Jean says in the opening of the prologue, “a farm is like a mistress, a passively tolerated extramarital distraction that keeps husbands out well past dark and wives pacing kitchen floors with cranky babies on their hips and supper plates gone cold at the table.”
This swiftly-paced novel fits into the lurid genre that Electric Literature coins “Country Noir” and Fiddleback Journal terms “Antipastoralism.” Dipping back-and-forth from the present of the 1960’s into the 1950’s, the book centers on Jean, who has been dealt a particularly tragic hand at life, even for this rough country. Readers soon learn that her mother died when Jean was only thirteen, leaving her alone to care for her abusive, grief-stricken father. Struggling for money, Jean and her father moved around the mid-west, leasing pig farms until he couldn’t make rent and they had to pick up and try somewhere new. Along the way he sold family valuables, so all Jean has left to remember her mother by is words. In futile attempts to inject order into her desolate world, Jean often clings to her mother’s many aphorisms, such as “you reap what you sow,” “a tree falls the way it leans,” and “you lose the light when you chase the shadows.”
When Jean is a teenager, she and her father arrive in Chickering. Jean, usually leery of companionship—as a means of self-preservation—finds herself taken under the Krenshaw family’s wings. Tommy and Jim, also teenagers at the time, become her friends, along with another girl, Sandy Weaver. Tommy is particularly personable, while Jim is shy and reserved. Tommy’s warmth ignites a desire for connection that was long dead in Jean. Soon she finds herself falling for Tommy, but he does not reciprocate. Instead, she is destined to marry Jim. Jim wants it. The Krenshaw family wants it. And when she learns her father must move again, Jim is her only way out, so in a sense, she wants it, too. She takes the hand of marriage offered and from there tries to build a life. She gets pregnant quickly, while she and Sandy make plans to open up a sewing shop in town. As her mother used to say, “you cut your coat according to your cloth.”
Except, it isn’t as easy to escape her haunting past and secret longings as she thought. As Jim and Tommy’s perceptive great-aunt, Eunice, warns her: “it’s a difficult life to live so close to what you cannot have.” Yet somehow, Jean manages to get by, until Liz’s presence that is, which shatters Jean’s delicate semblance of order. Old wounds resurface, and she is forced to face all the jealousy, guilt, and grief that she’s repressed:
She sensed a subtle shift happening in the tenuous stability of her inner workings. It was as if the scale of her life she’d so painstakingly balanced since the Chicago trip—endlessly stacking weights and counterweights to each side—had suddenly become lopsided since Liz’s arrival and gone into free fall.
The novel begins with many mysteries. We know Jean feels guilty, but why? We know from the prologue she’s indebted to Liz, but we lack the reason. We learn early that a tragedy connects her to Tommy, and it has to do with the death of their mutual friend, Sandy Weaver, but readers know little more. Though this withholding creates immediate suspense, it doesn’t feel cheap. Instead, due to the skilled writing, readers accept that the text is presented in the order Jean is reliving her memories and reconstructing her personal narrative. We are following the pattern of her thoughts. Jean has stuffed down so many feelings, but now that Tommy loves Liz, a woman so different than herself, all is bubbling to the surface. She cannot contain. We see the bubbles and begin to piece together the depth of Jean’s pain and the complexity of her character.
For though Jean is a character that calls for sympathy, she is not without her dark side, which is what makes this novel so strong. Life has proved an awful rule: just as she gets close to someone, they die or disappear. By the time we see Jean in the present, she survives burrowed inside herself, with no one to confide in. This burning anguish leads her down a path of destruction.
The complicated and precise construction of Jean’s character, set in a time where the choices for women are stark and few, is what makes this book such a thrilling read. Though my heart broke often, I found myself deeply invested. I wanted so badly to reach into the story and hold Jean’s hand. The social worker in me wanted to provide pamphlets of resources (which of course weren’t available then, if they even would be now). I wanted to do something, for her to be less alone. To me, the mark of a good book is one that makes it impossible not to care.
Kali VanBaale earned an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an assistant professor and Visiting Writer at Drake University. Her debut novel, The Space Between, earned an American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s silver medal for general fiction, and the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award. She is also the recipient of a State of Iowa Arts Council major project artist grant. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, The Writer and several anthologies. She lives outside Des Moines with her husband and three children.