BOTTOMLAND

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Inside Bottomland

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t once intimate and sweeping, Bottomland—the anticipated second novel from Michelle Hoover—follows the Hess family in the years after World War I as they attempt to rid themselves of the Anti-German sentiment that left a stain on their name. But when the youngest two daughters vanish in the middle of the night, the family must piece together what happened while struggling to maintain their life on the unforgiving Iowa plains.

In the weeks after Esther and Myrle’s disappearance, their siblings desperately search for the sisters, combing the stark farmlands, their neighbors’ houses, and the unfamiliar world of far-off Chicago. Have the girls run away to another farm? Have they gone to the city to seek a new life? Or were they abducted? Ostracized, misunderstood, and increasingly isolated in their tightly-knit small town in the wake of the war, the Hesses fear the worst. Told in the voices of the family patriarch and his children, this is a haunting literary mystery that spans decades before its resolution. Hoover deftly examines the intrepid ways a person can forge a life of their own despite the dangerous obstacles of prejudice and oppression.

With exquisite lyricism and a powerful sense of place and character, Bottomland is a story of pride, love, and betrayal, set amongst the rugged terrain of Iowa, the fields of war-torn Flanders, and the bustling Chicago streets.

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The Real Life Story

Bottomland Family

Shortly after the publication of The Quickening, I was visiting family in California when my father’s cousin took a single glance at me and said: “You look just like one of your great aunts.” The remark, for some reason, saddened her. Later, when I asked my Aunt Irene who she meant, my aunt pulled out a photo album and told me the story: two of my great aunts, my grandmother’s youngest sisters, were rumored to have disappeared. She showed me the family photograph. There they were, two girls in the front row, the first on the left looking every bit as mischievous as I would expect of a runaway. But the youngest girl, the one sitting on the far side of my great-grandfather, looked shy, subservient. But it was the youngest, my aunt explained, who did not come back.

I was immediately hooked: what could make such a young girl, such a timid and seemingly dependent girl, choose to leave her family forever? And what could make her sister, the one with the feisty glint in her eye, choose instead to return home?

There are of course problems with this story. Some family members claim that both girls returned, that there was never any uproar about it. Some claim that though only the older chose to return home, she was always in contact with her younger sister, and in fact the family as a whole was. My aunt showed me a copy of a letter she had written explaining how she had tried to contact this youngest sister herself. She seems to have tracked her down where my great aunt was living under another name, Gloria. At the top of the page, my aunt had made a note: “I believe Gloria may be Aunt Myrle.”

In the photograph, my grandmother, named Nan in the novel, stands at top right. Next to her is her brother Lee, then Ray (not his real name), and their sister Agnes. My great-grandfather, Jon Julius, or JJ, sits between the two girls, known in the family as “the little girls.” At the end is another sister, who I chose not to include in the novel for the novel’s sake. There were just too many sisters.

When I started the novel, I had only this letter, the photograph, and a vague idea of what might have happened. My mother reminded me that I needed to talk to one cousin or another to learn the story, and that I should do so quickly, as the cousins were elderly. But I already knew the story, or at least I knew the story that I wanted to tell. At the time, writer Simon Mawr, an English novelist who often borrows from real life, told me what I had already decided for myself: “Don’t do it. Don’t ask. It’s what’s on the page that matters. The story is yours.”

I had long known that we had the surname “Hess” in our family, and when I was younger I was embarrassed by this connection to what seemed a terrible lineage. I wanted to understand that embarrassment, that idea of self-hatred that many immigrants who come from supposed “enemy” countries, are taught. This historical connection to the girls’ disappearance seemed dramatically right. Otherwise, the personalities in the photograph “jumped off the page.” I knew these people, though I know that my understanding of them is likely very different from who they actually were. My “Lee” in the novel is warped by the fact that my own late father was also named Lee, and so the character became a lovable if broken man in the book. The character of Ray was sharpened by his dark, handsome looks—I am told he was nothing like the character in real life. The character of JJ was influenced by my ideas of early German immigrants—proud, hungry, gruff. He is large in the photograph, as he is in the book. My portrait of my grandmother is likely similar to who she actually was—intelligent, efficient, loving, but behind a bit of a wall. Each of the characters yearns for something they can’t quite have, and the yearning itself threatens to pull the family apart. Of course the girls are there, right in the picture—Esther with that wicked smile of hers and Myrle so meek, so pale. What happened to them? It took a few years to puzzle it out. And even if the story isn’t the same as real life, I believe I found something that is true in many ways to those who yearn for both family and self, those who are just like us.

Excerpt

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t was little more than a month before winter shut us in when I last saw the youngest of my sisters. Our little Myrle. I woke to find her shivering just inside the front door when she should have long gone to bed. It was dark as a cellar in that hall and outside it would be darker—miles of field and grassland lay be- yond the front porch. Our house sat alone on the prairie, far from its neighbors. The road to our place was a run of stubble and dirt. Myrle’s hair shone white on her shoulders and she wore nothing but a nightgown, her arms and feet bare in the cold—not enough sense to cover herself though she was almost grown.

I raised my lantern to her face. “Why Myrle,” I said, “you’ll catch your death.”

The look she gave, as if startled out of sleep. Her eyes teared and she ducked her head. The door was locked at her back. Af- ter the war, Father would have made sure of it. A draft rushed our ankles from the doorstep. The rest of the house was still, nothing but a wind outside knocking the stable gate. I touched Myrle’s forehead and felt it damp. She brushed away my hand. Her other hand she hid behind her hip, and when I asked her to show it, she glanced up the staircase and called our sister’s name, as if Esther might rush down to save her. I turned my head and Myrle was off—the white of her nightgown a whirl up the stair.

I

t was little more than a month before winter shut us in when I last saw the youngest of my sisters. Our little Myrle. I woke to find her shivering just inside the front door when she should have long gone to bed. It was dark as a cellar in that hall and outside it would be darker—miles of field and grassland lay be- yond the front porch. Our house sat alone on the prairie, far from its neighbors. The road to our place was a run of stubble and dirt. Myrle’s hair shone white on her shoulders and she wore nothing but a nightgown, her arms and feet bare in the cold—not enough sense to cover herself though she was almost grown.

I raised my lantern to her face. “Why Myrle,” I said, “you’ll catch your death.”

The look she gave, as if startled out of sleep. Her eyes teared and she ducked her head. The door was locked at her back. Af- ter the war, Father would have made sure of it. A draft rushed our ankles from the doorstep. The rest of the house was still, nothing but a wind outside knocking the stable gate. I touched Myrle’s forehead and felt it damp. She brushed away my hand. Her other hand she hid behind her hip, and when I asked her to show it, she glanced up the staircase and called our sister’s name, as if Esther might rush down to save her. I turned my head and Myrle was off—the white of her nightgown a whirl up the stair.