With rich characters at its heart, Elise Gregory’s debut novel The Clayfields entwines readers into its community and sings an ode to contemporary rural life. In this lush novel, Gregory paints unforgettable portraits: of Terra, transported by love to a second life on a modern farm, and of Lupine, an unusual teenager utterly at home, if alone. There’s also Etzel, a one-time German POW who dreams of the past, and Jason, who works, dangerously, toward a new farming future.
This novel-in-stories is told from multiple characters’ points of view, a form that—as fans of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest will recognize—is an ideal choice to give voice to a community and tell the story of its interconnections.
Gregory skillfully divides character arcs across short, layered vignettes for a propulsive read. The narrative revolves around the community’s support for a newcomer after the sudden death of her husband. As the stories unfold, readers can see how various characters’ lives are affected by one another’s choices—and by their commitments to and care for one another.
The book is further ordered like an almanac, with sections labeled for seasonal moons. Gregory’s characters’ lives within, and knowledge of, their natural world make for another delight of the book. Meet characters who hunt morels and craft artisanal cheeses and who know how a bit of wax applied to a teat will keep milk from dripping onto a 4H judge’s shoes.
Yet the world Gregroy creates is not limited to a romantic version of a past pastoral life. In The Clayfields, many churches have been converted to antique stores, the water is not always potable, grandmothers are not who we wish they would be, and we see that some labor without the safety of green cards.
At the same time, Gregory’s novel offers hope for rural life: It’s a place where a young couple can still buy land and make a future, on horseback if they wish; where a girl in a cornfield can be fully in charge of her own sexuality; and where two young women can reinvent the bake-off competition and maybe broaden some of their neighbors’ understanding of love.
Gregory is a Wisconsin writer and published poet from Pierce County, writing about contemporary Wisconsin people, in a novel published by a Wisconsin press. If the question is What does a sustainable literature look like?, then this book offers one satisfying answer.
Still, readers from anywhere will appreciate Gregory’s subtly powerful portrait of this community of humans, very much alive within a contemporary natural world, reckoning with the stunning thing that it is to care and to belong.