Six Degrees of Separation: From Ethan Frome to That Old Ace in the Hole

December is here and, as ever, I’m taking part in the Six Degrees of Separation meme, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Suitably for the month of December in the Northern hemisphere, if not her southern one, Kate has chosen Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome as our starting book. It’s a book I’ve read twice, once more than 25 years ago, when I first discovered Wharton as a writer, and then again around the time that the film adaptation starring Patricia Arquette and Liam Neeson was released. It’s a book that I love, my favourite of the works of Wharton that I’ve read.

The novella tells the tragic tale of the titular farmer and his hard life in New England. Ethan is responsible for maintaining the family farm on behalf of his ailing parents. Then he marries the hypochondriac Zeena. It’s only when the evocatively named Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin, comes to stay that Ethan discovers what life really is. The landscape in this slim book is as large a character as any of the people who live in it, spinning me off to my next book.

Far From the Madding Crowd is my favourite Thomas Hardy novel. As with Ethan Frome, it details the hardships of a farming life, and depicts a different set of relationships to the tangled misery of Ethan’s existence. Bathsheba Everdene is the core of the novel for me, an independent spirit who succumbs to the charms of a rakish soldier, instead of accepting either the love of the shepherd Gabriel Oak or the status of fellow landowner William Boldwood. Hardy captures the hardness of farming life, particularly the difficulties of sheep farming, which leads me to book two in my chain.

I loved Towards Mellbreak when I read it. Marie-Elsa Bragg’s account of Lake District hill farmers in the late 20th century is a story about family and overcoming hardships, from farm life itself to the personal choices people have to make.

A book that I read recently that is also about the choices people have to make, as well as the precarious nature of farming, is Precious Bane. The time period is closer to Hardy’s novel than to Bragg’s, but there are similar choices to be made by the farming women in relation to whether to remain at the family home, supporting an ailing parent and struggling brother, or seek personal happiness elsewhere.

My next book is another recent read. Lorna Doone is the fictional memoir of an Exmoor farmer in the 17th century, and the young woman he loves, despite her apparent family heritage. There’s weather related jeopardy in the farming aspect of the novel, alongside the loss of stock during raids by Lorna’s family. In this novel, though, love wins the day and it’s a whole lot cheerier than my other choices so far.

I almost chose a different book for my next link, but realised that I had already included it in June’s chain this year. I’m going with the same author, but a book that I haven’t yet read. Willa Cather’s O! Pioneers is set in early 20th century Nebraska and concerns a family of Swedish-American farmers. Main character Alexandra Bergson inherits the family farm from her father and, while other families are giving up on the farming life in the face of repeated crop failures, Alexandra carries on, eventually making a success of the farm. Her ownership of the farm makes her brothers overly interested in her personal life, coming between her and a prospective husband for fear that the farm will pass to Alexandra’s children and not theirs.

My last book choice is E Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, set in the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle in the late 20th century. It’s a novel that explores the commercialisation of farming, particularly hog farming on an industrial scale by large corporations, and the loss of a traditional farming way of life. The main character Bob Dollar has a job with one of the corporations, scouting out farmers at the end of their tether who will sell up and thus provide land for a mega hog farm. Bob’s heart isn’t in it, though, and he becomes more interested in the history of one particular town he visits, where not everybody wants to sell.

My chain this month is all about farming, its difficulties, and the connection to the land that farmers have. The books I’ve chosen look at the choices farmers have to make, and the communities they are part of.

Where would your chain take you? Head over to Kate’s blog to find out what other readers have chosen.

8 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From Ethan Frome to That Old Ace in the Hole

  1. There’s lots here that I rather feel I ought to have read. But it’s the Bragg I’m going for first, and there’s a copy in our library. I wonder if she’s any relation to Melvyn? Same part of the world.

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    1. I nearly chose Jude for my first link, but it felt a bit much, with its unrelenting misery. Far From the Madding Crowd has a tiny bit more hope to it. Glad you enjoyed the chain, Cathy.

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  2. Oh, I love farming novels so I must put some of these on my list. I already have the Hardy in my TBR and was actually thinking of reading it over Christmas/New Year. I saw the film adaptation a couple of years ago and loved it.

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