Bottomland  /  The Quickening


“There are many compelling things about Michelle Hoover’s potent new novel, “Bottomland,” not least of all her austere style and its visceral punch. Seriously, you might feel a few chills run up your spine while reading, as Hoover delivers stark passages about the frigid desolation on an Iowa farm in winter….

But what struck me repeatedly is the way Hoover’s story, set largely in the immediate wake of World War I, has so much contemporary resonance….

Part of the great pleasure of “Bottomland” is discovering where the story goes, always knowing that you’re in the hands of a writer who won’t disappoint.” — Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe

Full Review

Bottomland is more than a literary mystery. It’s a trance, a poem, a lamentation, a benediction. And it’s breathtaking. As in: remind yourself to breathe.” — Rebecca Makkai, author of Music for Wartime and The Hundred-Year House

“Through the faceted first-person accounts of four siblings and their father, Hoover (The Quickening, 2010, etc.) delivers a lyrical, at times mysterious, and dreamy tale of family ties. Its focus is several generations of the Hess clan, headed by Jon Julius, who emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1892, staking 150 acres of Midwestern bottomland as a homestead for his wife and the six children they would have. Some 20 years later, the Hess family may seem rooted, but the demands of survival on the land are relentless, and their isolation is intensified by a dispute with neighbors, a crippling accident, and the anti-German sentiment arising from World War I. Yet Hoover’s tale is about more than the Hess’ hardscrabble rural existence, moving as it does from wide open fields to the grime and toil of urban factories and overseas to the blasted wastes of Europe, all the while exploring the psychologies and complicated, sometimes unreliable, and unexpected bonds among the siblings. When two of the sisters, Esther and Myrle, disappear from the farmhouse one night, the notion of home is cracked wide open, never to be restored. Lee, the son who went to war and returned traumatized, sets off for Chicago to search for the girls but eventually returns without them. Esther’s and then Myrle’s accounts follow, overlapping yet divergent, while Hoover plays a sly hand of revelation, leaving the truth about how and why the girls escaped to emerge late and plangently.

Deftly imagined and written, Hoover’s second novel offers an intriguing, modern take on a classic American landscape.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Hess is a German name – and on the bleak Iowa plains in the wake of World War I, that means confronting your neighbors’ anti-German sentiment, being ostracized, banished from their society.   It is difficult enough to be an immigrant, struggling to farm and raise your family in this harsh and unforgiving environment – but when you also are not welcome in your own community, the resulting grief and shame are unremitting and the isolation often intolerable.

Esther and Myrle, the two youngest Hess daughters, find a way to leave this bleak existence one night. It isn’t immediately clear why they leave or whether they are, in fact, still alive, but they find a way out of their strangling lives, seeking something better.  The family’s efforts to find them are futile; finally the younger son, Lee, who has come home from the war after being wounded, goes to Chicago to find his missing sisters. He returns without them after scouring the boarding houses and waiting at the garment mills at the end of each day – a life almost as bleak and difficult as that they left in Iowa – hoping to spy the young girls and bring them home. But that is not the end of the story, and perhaps it is really just the beginning.

Hoover tells the story of the Hess family in shifting voices from children to father to children. The stark pioneer life vividly portrayed by Hoover is reminiscent of Cather, and her Chicago of Dreiser. Although deeply disturbing and often difficult to read because of the depth of despair experienced by each member of this family, Hoover is an eminently talented writer who captures a reader, moving us forward to a resolution that speaks of hope, reconciliation and acceptance. Highly recommended.” — Historical Novel Society

“Comparisons to Dreiser and Cather are inevitable when you read Michelle Hoover’s classic heartland novels because Hoover knows rural life, its unforgiving reality and its people so well.”— Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers

“Michelle Hoover’s Bottomland explores the life of a German farm family in Iowa after World War I, struggling to fit in with a society recently taught to despise Germans. The Hess family—four girls, two boys, a recently deceased mother, and a depressed father—try to get by on the land with few friends and many enemies. It becomes hard for the family members even to trust each other, as the Hess children grow up surrounded by deception, love, shame, and jealousy, while they are constantly reminded of their heritage. Most of the children don’t speak any German, yet they feel like foreigners in the fields of the Midwest.Bottomland

The story begins with Nan as the narrator, the eldest sister who takes on the role of mother after their own, Margrit, dies of influenza. It’s a role that is at once natural and disappointing for Nan, as she is recently engaged and has to break it off to stay home. Though her siblings are grateful, the two youngest sisters, Esther and Myrle, seem anything but as they go wherever they please and say whatever they feel. When the two go missing, it’s perhaps hardest on the artistic middle sister, Agnes, and the youngest brother, Lee, who had returned from the war disoriented and missing his mother. He didn’t get to see her before her sudden death. The father is as unpredictable as the two younger girls, though in his mood more so than his actions—after the girls disappear he stays in his bedroom or in his dugout, ostensibly brooding or dwelling in self-pity.

The story unfolds as the narration shifts from the different characters’ points of view—a device Hoover uses well—and keeps the reader engaged and eagerly turning each page. The writing is clear, and Hoover does an excellent job portraying the dialect of the early twentieth century.

Part mystery, part tragedy, part coming-of-age narrative, Bottomland is a heartbreaking story, and it only lets up when individual characters are alone in thought, which is when some of Hoover’s best writing comes through. Though it can be difficult to distinguish between the different narrators’ voices at times, each character reveals his or her secret revelations that aren’t immediately apparent in the eyes of their family members. These subtleties bring the greatest depth to the characters and leave the reader thinking about them long after the story is over.

As Bottomland demonstrates, story itself is something that never really ends, but is continuous; the past can alter depending on perspective and circumstance. Each character battles denial, accepting only the things they want to accept and burying all else, just as they’ve buried their mother in the soil of the farm. From barren Iowa to industrial Chicago, vivid descriptions to plot twists, the depth ofBottomland makes for a beautiful second novel by Hoover.” — Chicago Review of Books

“An unforgettable tale of a farm family struggling to survive, and of the fears that threaten them from both within and without. With unmistakable echoes of Cather and Dreiser, the voices of the Hess family, stark and graceful as the unforgiving Iowa prairie itself, are shot through with longing—for the past, for love, for acceptance, and, most dangerous and exhilarating of all, for change. This is a beautiful book about resilience, survival, and the tenacity of family bonds.” — Holly LeCraw, author of The Swimming Pool and The Half Brother

Bottomland is a magnificent, sweeping book, filled with the hardship of immigrant life and the poignancy of family ties. This book will break your heart and raise your spirit.” — Allison Amend, author of A Nearly Perfect Copy and Stations West

“Hoover skillfully interweaves many of the Hess family members’ narratives. Her descriptions of the bleak rural landscape is chilling. Fans of Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall will enjoy the plot; Willa Cather enthusiasts will relish the setting; and Theodore Dreiser readers will savor the gritty characterizations.” — Library Journal (starred review)

“In a novel that spans decades, Hoover focuses on the life of a farm family of German heritage shortly after WWI. Even though Julius Hess acquired his Iowa acreage years earlier, and the younger of his two sons, Lee, enlisted (after his brother was badly injured) and fought in France, there are murmurs of “Kraut” in their community. When the two youngest of the four Hess daughters—Esther, 16, and Myrle, 14—disappear, they are presumed to be runaways, even when Myrle’s favorite dress is found bloodied and torn, and the possibility of foul play arises. Five narrators add depth and texture to the story: Nan, the oldest of the six Hess children, who’s functioning as mother; widower Julius, recalling his marriage and emigration from Germany; Lee, in war-torn France; and Esther and Myrle, whose stories are revealed only in the later pages. Hoover (The Quickening, 2010) vividly describes the harsh realities of life on a farm, on the battlefield, and in a Chicago sweatshop through the eyes of masterfully drawn characters. A novel as poignant as it is clear-eyed..”— Booklist

“In Bottomland, Michelle Hoover (The Quickening) tells the story of an immigrant family’s experience in the Midwestern plains with empathy, understanding and an eye for detail.

Julius and Margrit Hess arrived in Iowa in the 1890s, determined to make their bottomland there support a family. Four daughters, two sons and years later, the story opens with Nan, the eldest child, straining to hold her household together following Margrit’s death. The two youngest girls, Esther and Myrle, have disappeared in the night, from behind locked doors, leaving no note or sign of struggle. In the anti-German frenzy of World War I, the neighbors and townspeople began to harass the Hesses, and good relations have never been established since. Nan and her siblings fear that this local animosity has finally culminated in the fate of the two girls. How does a family negotiate such a loss? “Deaths are commonplace. But a disappearance–it has the scent of murder in it.” The Hesses are now only Nan; her bitter and gnarled brother Ray and his wife, Patricia; brother Lee, well-meaning but easily confused; quietly supportive sister Agnes; and near-silent Father, who ceased his full participation in life when Mother died. They search for Esther and Myrle across the countryside and even as far as Chicago, the city that “sounded like spitting.”

Bottomland is told in alternating first-person perspectives. Nan has sacrificed to keep the Hess family fed and in one piece. Julius brought his wife to a dusty claim, with a dugout to sleep in, to start a family. Lee, the younger and larger of the two boys, was always a little slow, but his injury in the war did him further harm. And finally there are the perspectives of Esther, the unruly child, and then the baby, Myrle. These are the personalities most revealed in the novel, and each of the Hesses is developed expertly, each dealing differently with the rock-hard and dirt-poor life they lead, with the prejudices of their neighbors, and of course with the missing girls, empty seats at the table and the question of food for the winter: “Hope, it was a terrible expense. We couldn’t let anything go to waste. And we couldn’t risk the extra we might set side only to spoil” if the girls did not return.

Hoover offers a lovely feat of exposition, bringing to life the immigrant experience, the hard work of homesteading, the deprivations and bigotries of the war years, and the workings of family, how its members cope and hold onto one another. Bottomland covers a large terrain, with characters who feel warm and close. Readers will be drawn in, and moved. — Julia Jenkins at Shelf Awareness , librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

“Hoover writes with a grace both fierce and tender about place, loss, and hope, about the words that go unsaid and the parts of a heart that remain unknown. A mystery, a family story, and a stark portrait of a time in American history, Bottomland moved me. It haunts me still.”— Kate Racculia, author of Bellweather Rhapsody

“As America entered World War I, xenophobia gripped the country. European immigrants to the United States became suspect. In Illinois, a mob of coal miners hanged German-born Robert Prager for alleged socialist beliefs. In Iowa, Gov. William Harding made it illegal to speak a language other than English, and by way of his Defense Counsels forced German-Americans to make patriotic oaths or suffer vigilante justice. In this atmosphere, Michelle Hoover sets her ethnically tense second novel.

Inspired by a family photo and the legend of two aunts (young girls at the time) who disappeared from their bedroom late one night, Hoover spins the saga of Jon Julius and Margrit Hess, German immigrants who settle in Iowa, farm the land, raise a family and lose their two youngest daughters. Who took them? Did they willingly flee? Did hateful neighbors contribute to their demise?

“I had long known that we had the surname ‘Hess’ in our family,” Hoover writes about the genesis of the novel, “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.” Threading a tantalizing amount of unease and suspicion throughout the novel, Hoover tells the story through five characters.

She starts with Nan, the oldest daughter, who forgoes marriage in order to care for her siblings after their mother dies.

Next is Jon Julius, the patriarch, who elicits his neighbor’s ire by straightening a stream that divides their properties. He is a proud but broken man who recalls his voyage to America, the forced denial of his heritage, and the death of his wife to the flu epidemic. “With the Harding proclamation,” he laments, “we never could bury her in the churchyard with a German prayer. Never so much as inscribe HIER RUHT IN GOTT on a stone.”

Lee, the middle brother, a man damaged by the war, and “gone slow in his thinking,” is the most welcomed perspective in the story as he is the most dogged in the pursuit of his sisters. While back home the others chop wood and tend livestock, Lee walks the streets of Chicago, knocking on boardinghouses and sleeping in alleys.

Esther, the penultimate child, the persecuted sister and supposed instigator of the girls’ disappearance, relates her side with an annoying peevishness. “Father was always quick with his slaps with me,” she writes. “No one else, especially Myrle, who he treated like a queen.” But though she aggravates, she does reveal important information about why and where she and Myrle disappeared.

The final point of view is Myrle’s, a waif “so pale her veins seemed to ravage her skin.” Her perspective lends scope to this atmospheric and engaging tale, which turns out to be as much about sibling rivalry as about mistrust and oppression.”— The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Immensely readable. From small town to the grit of the city, family farm to union factories, the Midwest of Hoover’s Bottomland is alive with secrets, hard choices, and the acute costs of independence.”— Daphne Kalotay, author of Russian Winter and Sight Reading

The Quickening

“A finely-crafted debut novel….Hoover offers us vivid, fascinating glimpses of each character’s life as they alternately relate their shared experiences and personal history. The novel grows richer with each page as Hoover’s quiet lyricism gradually asserts itself. We come to know [the main characters] intimately, to understand their hopes and the dark specters that keep them up at night. We come to know their husbands and families. Hoover’s prose throughout is spare and free of ornamentation, much like her characters. There are always important things happening beneath the surface, and Hoover has a gift for foreshadowing events and building dramatic tension. There is no Oprah-style redemption here and no easy reconciliation. Hoover shows us her two characters coping with the pain of loss but finding no simple answers. The novel’s ending is powerfully fueled by a sense of resignation.” — Chuck Leddy, The Boston Globe

“I grew up among Iowa farm women, and Michelle Hoover has perfectly captured their voices and stories with great wisdom, tenderness, and beauty.” — Ted Kooser, U. S. Poet Laureate 2004-2006

“Just as the women and men in this strikingly assured debut novel wrest life out of the land they work, Michelle Hoover wrests from her characters’ hearts, and from this heart-touching story, understandings rich in complexity and compassion. She paints the intricacies of their interiors as skillfully as she does the details of the world that surrounds them. What a gift she has given us in this wise book that lets us so vividly experience both.” — Josh Weil, author of The New Valley

“Michelle Hoover’s fine debut novel recreates for us a way of life and a set of personalities that have vanished from our current scene, and she does so with a solidity of detail that will impress these people and these places forever on your memory.” — Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love

“From the opening pages of this beautiful novel, I found myself immersed in the lives of these two farm women between the wars and their struggles with their families, themselves, the land and each other.The Quickening is such a fully realized, sensually vivid, psychologically intelligent novel that it’s hard to believe it is a debut, but it is and a sparkling one.” — Margot Livesey

“Michelle Hoover’s writing is brilliant and gutsy. She sees deeply, with great wisdom and compassion, and she creates characters who are complex and authentic.” — Ursula Hegi

“Borrowing from her own family history, Hoover burns away the glamour of the pioneer life, blending history and brilliant storytelling. This standout novel is highly recommended.” — Donna Bettencourt, Mesa City Public Library, Grand Junction, CO for Library Journal (Starred Review)

“Hoover’s powerful debut tells the story of the intertwined fortunes of two early 20th-century Midwestern farm women. From the time Enidina Current and her husband, Frank, move into the hardscrabble farmhouse a day’s wagon ride away from Enidina’s family, their closest neighbors, Jack and Mary Morrow, perplex them, though their proximity and shared farm work often bring the two couples together. Sharing the narrative, stoic Enidina struggles through several miscarriages before finally bearing twins, while the more delicate Mary reels from disappointment, most of all in her volatile husband. Moving through the Depression, the families are driven farther apart from each other, even while Mary’s youngest spends most of his time in the Current household, until an accident and a betrayal drive the final wedge into their lives. In this finely wrought and starkly atmospheric narrative, Hoover’s characters carry deep secrets, and their emotions are as intense as the acts of nature that shape their world.” — Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“From the very first sentence of Michelle Hoover’s debut novel, I was captured. More than once, I paused while reading to savor her elegant prose and the hauntingly beautiful story she tells of two farmwives bound by loneliness and their cruel circumstances. The Quickening is a stunning debut by an astonishingly gifted writer with a long career ahead of her.” — Amy Greene, author of Bloodroot

“Though The Quickening is her first novel, Michelle Hoover does what all the best writers steeped in a particular place do— use that place as a conduit to the universal and timeless mysteries of the heart. What an exceptional debut this book is.” — Ron Rash, author of Serena

The Quickening is a rare jewel of a novel: an elegantly structured page-turner driven as much by its exquisite lyricism as it is by the gripping story at its core. It wondrously weaves a riveting half-century of American Midwestern history through the sensual, intimate, often strange details that make up a life. Michelle Hoover is a stunning writer and this is a fierce and beautiful book.” — Maud Casey, author of Genealogy

The Quickening, through its carefully wrought, precise prose, builds with a heartrending power that lingers long after the final page. Michelle Hoover is a writer to watch.” — Don Lee