New Novel Explores Roles of Women in Farming Community

‘The Clayfields: a Novel in Stories’ is a paean to Midwest farming communities

Steve Luebke |

Western Wisconsin writer Elise Gregory’s The Clayfields: a Novel in Stories is a paean to Midwest farming communities, whose members spend their time growing corn, raising and milking goats and cows, riding horses, fishing and hunting, and participating in summer festivals. 

The book focuses on the experiences of a range of female characters who seek to fulfill their notions of the good life: idealistic Terra, married to an older farmer, struggles to earn a living producing and selling goat’s milk cheese; Emile is a harder-edged bartender trying to forge a permanent relationship with a taciturn young man who desires to own land; Helen rejects “the square foot life” of Chicago. Although she carries the child of a man whose romantic farm stories promise a better existence, “She didn’t love its father, just the possibility of him.” Lupine is an intuitive girl on the cusp of womanhood, caught up in burgeoning sexuality but also focused on her relationship with her ailing grandfather. 

Although the novel focuses on these female characters, it includes the stories of several other characters, from an elderly World War II ex-prisoner of war who carved out a life in America to high school girls to a variety of others. The Ellsworth-based author’s skillful interweaving of various narrative threads is reminiscent of Louise Erdrich, who also writes of small rural communities in close proximity to the natural world while delving into her characters’ psychological motivations.  

Wisconsin readers will note various geographical markers identifying their state, although readers from other rural areas will recognize these characters and situations, which seem universal: love of and respect for animals and the natural world, the nurturing and stultifying links to family, the conflict between an older generation and a younger one, the differing ways men and women relate to the world. 

Described as “a novel in stories,” the book is organized by the seasons, more specifically, by various “moon” chapters (milk moon, hay moon, harvest moon, etc.) covering two to three years in the characters’ lives.  Each chapter is divided into smaller sub-chapters. The narrative culminates in stories of birth and death, a cyclical connection so appropriate for a story structured by the seasons and expressed in prose that celebrates characters’ affection for the natural world. For example, Terra’s near-maternal connection with her goats: she “smoothed their coats and breathed in their grassy, humid smells like a mother sips in the breath of milk-fed infants. Eating their aliveness, their resolve to live.” 

There are no villains in the book. The characters who come closest to deserving that title are outsiders who simply don’t understand what seems to come naturally to the rest of the community. Gregory’s characters, young and old, are fully realized and developed, and their love for nature is inseparable from the bonds they share with each other. Those connections are eloquently expressed by the young pastor at a young man’s funeral: “If we can believe (he) is in heaven and we can speak with his soul … it makes losing the mortal body a little easier because he is here with us and inside us. Not in a box but within our memory of him. He lives with us when we catch the muskie.”  

The Clayfields was published by Cornerstone Press on Oct. 15.  It will be enjoyed by both male and female readers and will leave them feeling better about the world.