Wishing time stood still – On an apple farm in Wisconsin (1990s to 2001): The Wisconsin Apple Growers Association reports that of its 72 counties, 46 grow apples on 7,400 acres yielding 56 million pounds of apples yearly. Jane Hamilton lives on one of those apple farms, on some of those fertile acres. So does the fourth-generation of Lombards she beautifully fictionalizes in her elegant seventh novel – an old-fashioned love letter to bygone youth and farming before the full forces of change (technological, economic, environmental, social, cultural) swept in.
The brilliance of this novel is the narrator’s youthful voice. A point-of-view that’s a mix of adulation, innocence, intellect, and a melancholy searching-for-answers. Thus 12-to-16-year old Mary Frances Lombard brings poignancy and tenderness and nuance to serious issues that might otherwise come across as preachy or certain. Hers is an emotional struggle borne out of a fierce devotion to the “ancient gathering up of the field.” An inability to accept the changes descending on an historic family farm as agriculture and the world grow increasingly complex in the nineties, leading up to 9/11 when life changed for all of us.
You need not have grown up on an apple farm (or any farm, for this one also raises sheep) in the Midwest to relate to the nostalgia of lost childhoods, when children were content to spend idle time outdoors, which is why the novel is perfectly set pre-Internet explosion, cell phones, social media. Adding depth to the woebegone tone is Frankie’s “reverence for the family history,” for “unity of purpose,” which pulls us into the power of place, of home, as she contemplates “if a place might make you more than you were?” Even if ours was not an idyllic childhood, we wish we had one. So we empathize with Frankie’s joy, love, and emotions – her confusion, denial, resentment, disillusionment – as she discovers “children aren’t always triumphant or heroic like in the books.” (The importance of reading a lovely element; her mother an award-winning librarian.)
For a compact novel (273 pages) about old-fashioned ways, it’s impressive how much is packed into The Excellent Lombards that’s anything but simple. Each chapter an episode, a growing-up scene, a life lesson. With each, we sense unrest and the winds of change blowing.
Tension begins as soon as the novel opens. Mary Frances, or Frankie (she’s also goes by Francie, Imp, Marlene, and MF depending on who does the calling and what age she’s at) re-counts a long car ride to visit her grandmother in Minnesota with her brother William, whom she adores (“Why did he always have to be patient, so patient and kind?”), when they were about 7 and 8. Frankie overheard her parents, Jim and Nellie, arguing. Frankie idolizes her hard-working, dependable, old-fangled storytelling father but has a cooler alliance toward her mother, who doesn’t work on the farm. That’s key, I think, to their strained relationship (although she recognizes her mother “had something”), and differing parental attitudes about the future of the farm. This incident is the first time Frankie’s “frightened in real terms about the farm,” an overarching theme as her immediate Lombard family is not the sole “heirs to a noble business.”
Ownership is complex. Frankie’s Lombard foursome own only half the orchard property. The other half is owned by her father’s cousin, Sherwood, whose always lived and worked on the farm whereas Jim previously spent only summers there until he married. The animosity between these two opposites – one a “prophet of routine” and the other an impractical, wacky inventor – permeates throughout.
Three houses are spread out on the farm. One is an 11-bedroom “manor house” where Sherwood’s family resides: wife, Dolly, and their two children, Amanda and Adam, similar in age to Frankie and Will, so they’re playmates after-school. Even though Frankie’s family owns three-quarters of this house, they don’t live in it. Theirs is a “clapboard heap” circa 1860. The different characteristics of the two homes says a lot about the differences between these two families. Frankie’s is “not unseemly or puffed up,” whereas Dolly envisions something superior than farming for her children. (Actually, so does Frankie’s mother.) Think of these homes as “divided kingdoms,” like Frankie and Will do. They even made up fantasy names for them: Velta versus Volta.
The remaining one-fourth ownership of the manor belongs to reclusive, intimidating Aunt May Hill, in her sixties or seventies, no one seems to even know that, who lives generally left alone upstairs. She may be odd but she’s the “farm’s gold” because she can fix all the old machinery forever breaking down.
The third home on the farm is an ancient stone cottage, a nod to the history of apple farming in the State dating back to the 1800s. Gloria, the “hired woman,” resides in it. She’s far more than that. She’s “Wife Number Two” and a surrogate mother since Gloria, Jim, and Frankie spend so much time with this “welder woman to Nordic princess.” Frankie does not want to let go of her. Events transpire otherwise. Like children do, Frankie internalizes, wonders if she’s shown Gloria enough love.
Besides Frankie, the other central character anchoring the novel is the orchard itself. “All those beauties were a reminder of the grace and good breeding of the Lombard clan.” The property includes “three barns, four hundred acres of forest and arable fields and marsh, the sheep pastures, and the apple trees.” The apple barn is where cider is made (14-hour days), where customers come to buy apples and soak up nostalgia that takes in a yard of old-timey farm implements dating back to 1917. You can picture it. Wish you were picking delicious heirloom varieties right about now?
Frankie believes the orchard is the “most important feature of the world.” Certainly hers. It drives her stories about: hay baling; the arrival of Sherwood’s brother who speaks like a CIA spy with talk of far flung places, the World Trade bombings, jihad (“no one in our neighborhood in 1993 was using the word”); the National Geography Bee, the idea of her new “four-five split” elementary school teacher from Chicago, Mrs. Kraselnik, who is Jewish and therefore offers diversity to this homogenous community. Frankie adores her elegance and moral goodliness (“everything we know and are, boys and girls, begins with the land in your community”); Blossom Day (“blossom to blossom to blossom the orchard lit with a snowy brilliance”); another visiting cousin, this one a college-educated, “Slow Food, locavoring, hipper-than-Alice-Waters pioneer,” who poses another threat to the farm; the Farmland Preservation Committee pitting rural spirit against suburban sprawl; her desire to join the Future Farmers of America in contrast to Will’s college ambitions; and yes more.
Frankie is 16 when the novel ends. How will she turn out? Readers might well encourage Hamilton to write a sequel! Will Frankie grow up to “put good in the world” as Mrs. Kraselnik taught her? You too will be charmed by a teacher we wish challenged us when we were young: “Why, boys and girls, are we on this earth? What in the world are we doing here?”