University of Massachusetts Press. 2012. 141 pp.

University of Massachusetts Press. 2012. 141 pp.

Virtually every story in Andrew Malan Milward’s Juniper Prize-winning collection, The Agriculture Hall of Fame, involves a disappearance. In “Skywriting,” “John,” and “Silver Creek, 1969,” that disappearance is of people. In “The Antichrist Chronicles,” an entire lake vanishes into a sinkhole. In the title story, a man’s mind disappears in reverse-chronological order. The metaphor of disappearance serves a larger purpose here, since all the stories take place in Kansas—not the fabled Kansas of waving wheat fields and open pastures, but rather of methamphetamine addiction and bankrupt family farms, a Kansas in which the grandeur of pioneering life is relegated to museum displays and historical reenactments, and where what’s left in the wake of corporate agribusiness and government neglect is burned over, troubled, and often tragic. The Agriculture Hall of Fame is thus a book about a way of life, a culture bound as tightly to its geography as a farmer to his land, and one that is quickly going extinct.

One of the collection’s most haunting stories, “Two Back, 1973,” follows Robert Cannery’s love for the barn he builds with a group of friends. Milward’s depiction of Cannery’s life and the barn, which houses in turn a local church and later a movie theater, is so vivid that by the story’s end, we’ve almost forgotten that the story’s first line, “Before he let it kill him, the barn saved his life,” has given its ending away. Part of this magic derives from the story’s success at the sentence level, in which case each line often tells the reader two things at once. During the harvest of 1958, for instance, we read that a drier-than-normal summer has reduced “corn harvests from 150 bushels an acre to a paltry 25 or 30 . . . If that weren’t bad enough, the warming weather sped up the pests’ breeding cycles and expanded their range.” We learn about the state of Cannery’s farm, of course, but we do so with the benefit of his familiarity with the land and its natural cycles. As such, the story pulls us so deeply into its character’s heart that when it ends, we too feel his loss.

This extraordinary depth of perspective, whether in first or third person, demonstrates Milward’s care for his characters in other stories as well. In “The Antichrist Chronicles,” Tom, the narrator, notes the extent of his rural town’s methamphetamine problems when “iodine, camphor oil, and cold medicines were flying off the shelves, stuffed in the bottoms of lint-filled pockets and the crotches of unchanged underwear” and when “those with more gumption stole the anhydrous ammonia tanks from farms.” Tom’s awareness of this drug-fueled cultural collapse serves to bring us especially close to his relationship with his alcoholic father, a former literature professor who now spends all his time drinking, watching Star Trek, and working as a historical reenactor at a local agricultural museum. The vestiges of his father’s literary past appear when, drunk, he calls himself a “poet” and “the bard of agriculture” as a means of avoiding Tom’s questions about the whereabouts of his mother who left them both years before, and the broken family’s pain is palpable.

The collection is bookended by a pair of very short pieces that resonate with the loss explored throughout the book. “Quail Haven, 1989” uses a first person plural voice to describe a family patriarch from the perspective of his children. Their father remembers his adolescence fondly, even as he laments the demise of the way of life that surrounded it, since, as their mother complains, “Who the hell lives in the country anymore?” She wants to move to Kansas City, but in the end, even if her wish is granted, she won’t be able to take him with her.

By the time we reach the final story, “Silver Creek, 1969,” the narrator speaks to us directly and asks us flat out if we remember the adventures we once shared in Kansas as we were trying to escape the Middle West for California. As with so many stories in this collection, however, escape isn’t easy, and the epigraph from Anne Carson’s The Anthropology of Water serves as a reminder of that fact even after the book is finished: “I navigate us across Kansas and into a large ruined area where crumpled fenders and auto parts are lying about. It is hard to find an exit.”

 

Will Donnelly