Culture & Conversation

A Sweeping Family Saga, Deeply Connected

Years ago, Eli Paint banished his daughter Velma from his 8T8 Ranch with her infant, child of one of his hired hands.  He is confronted with his granddaughter Emeline, now a young woman, at her mother’s funeral.  Afterward, Eli drives Emeline to the house she and her kid brother Bobby share with another waitress from the diner where she works.  Eli still lives on the 8T8, a long hazardous drive from the funeral.  On the way home, blinded by his mood and a blizzard, Eli flips his Cadillac somewhere on his own desolate property. Freezing, terribly injured and alone, he is rescued from the edge of death by a Choctaw cowhand and gradually returned to health through the ministrations of his Mexican maid.

It is early in the Great Depression.  With little paying work available to anyone, Jake McCloskey is at least blessed with athletic grace, a solid punch, good luck, good looks and a good promoter.  As an itinerant boxer he is able to make a seedily glitzy living and, for a time, make payments on the affection of a glamour-hungry and thrill-seeking wife.  But Thelma Pearl soon tires of Jake, empties their bank account and disappears. While travelling between bouts, the boxer meets a pretty young waitress, and after Jake’s swift divorce and a dizzying courtship Jake and Emeline Paint are married.

The story of Emeline and Jake McCloskey — the granddaughter of a prosperous cattle baron who has spent her life relying on her own resources, and a minor celebrity gadabout who must learn to be a farmer in the worst possible time and place to be an American farmer — is the central story in this sweeping family saga, the second book in what is to become a trilogy.

Jack Todd presents these lives with unmistakable engagement, based firmly as they are upon the diaries, letters and anecdotes of his own family and in his personal experience of the rural American midwest.

This book is the middle section of a larger work and that is how it reads:  here, Eli Paint is a one-dimensional character, having been given detailed development in the previous volume.  Emeline’s character is vivid, but her story incomplete, resolution awaiting the next installment.  In an interview, Todd has remarked that it is the peripheral characters with which he is most intrigued. Indeed, the stories of Eli’s maid Juanita and Two Spuds the ranch-hand are colorful and absorbing, as are the portrayals of Jake’s trainer and the promoter Moe Spitzer.

Though his dialogue is at times contrived and descriptions can lean toward cliché, Todd has a clear workmanlike style and the polish of an experienced journalist. These skills, combined with a deep connection to his subject, make this book appealing enough to draw the reader not only through to its conclusion, but backward – to the preceding novel, Sun Going Down, and perhaps to anticipation of Paradise Rodeo, to follow.

Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes. He has made his home in Hinchinbrooke, Québec.

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