Bottomland by Michelle Hoover

Following World War I, a German American family in the Iowa plains faces the usual deprivations of farm life compounded by wartime prejudice and the mysterious disappearance of two children.


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.

This review originally ran in the February 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 accidents.

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