Bottomlandby Michelle Hoover
A haunting tale surrounding the disappearance of two German American sisters from a small Iowan farm at the end of WWI and the family left behind, plagued by suspicion and violence.
A March Indie Next Pick
An Amazon Best Book of the Month
At once intimate and sweeping, Bottomland follows the Hess family in the years after World War I, as they attempt to rid themselves of the Anti-German sentiment that left a stain on their name. But when the youngest two daughters vanish in the middle of the night, the family must piece together what happened while struggling to maintain their life on the unforgiving Iowa plains. In the weeks after Esther and Myrle’s disappearance, their siblings desperately search for them, through the stark farmlands to unfamiliar world of far-off Chicago. Have the girls run away to another farm? Have they gone to the city to seek a new life? Or were they abducted? Ostracized and misunderstood in their small town in the wake of the war, the Hesses fear the worst.
Bottomland is a haunting story of pride, love, and betrayal, set among the rugged terrain of Iowa, the fields of war-torn Flanders, and the bustling Chicago streets. With exquisite lyricism, Michelle Hoover deftly examines the intrepid ways a person can forge a life of one’s own despite the dangerous obstacles of prejudice and oppression.
“An unforgettable tale of a farm family struggling to survive, and of the fears that threaten them from both within and without. With unmistakable echoes of Cather and Dreiser, the voices of the Hess family, stark and graceful as the unforgiving Iowa prairie itself, are shot through with longing—for the past, for love, for acceptance, and, most dangerous and exhilarating of all, for change. This is a beautiful book about resilience, survival, and the tenacity of family bonds.” —Holly LeCraw, author of The Swimming Pool and The Half Brother
“There are many compelling things about Michelle Hoover’s potent new novel, Bottomland, not least of all her austere style and its visceral punch. . . . Hoover’s story, set largely in the immediate wake of World War I, has so much contemporary resonance. Bottomland is transporting, for sure, as it travels back to a world where home-heating pipes were a novelty, where poor farm families had little to eat, less to say, and even less to celebrate. But the hatred and xenophobia that mark Hoover’s plot aren’t distant at all . . .As much as Bottomland evokes a grim American past with enough mastery to justify comparisons to Willa Cather, it also speaks of our present tense. . . . You’re in the hands of a writer who won’t disappoint.” —Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe
“Part mystery, part tragedy, part coming-of-age narrative . . . the depth of Bottomland makes for a beautiful second novel by Hoover.” —Chicago Book Review
“Hoover vividly describes the harsh realities of life on a farm, on the battlefield, and in a Chicago sweatshop through the eyes of masterfully drawn characters. A novel as poignant as it is clear-eyed.” —Booklist
“A lyrical, at times mysterious, and dreamy tale of family ties . . . Deftly imagined and written, Hoover’s second novel offers an intriguing, modern take on a classic American landscape.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Hoover skillfully interweaves many of the Hess family members’ narratives. Her descriptions of the bleak rural landscape is chilling. Fans of Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall will enjoy the plot; Willa Cather enthusiasts will relish the setting; and Theodore Dreiser readers will savor the gritty characterizations.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Threading a tantalizing amount of unease and suspicion throughout the novel, Hoover tells the story through five characters . . . [An] atmospheric and engaging tale, which turns out to be as much about sibling rivalry as about mistrust and oppression.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Bottomland is more than a literary mystery. It’s a trance, a poem, a lamentation, a benediction. And it’s breathtaking. As in: remind yourself to breathe.” —Rebecca Makkai, author of Music for Wartime and The Hundred-Year House
“Hoover writes with a grace both fierce and tender about place, loss, and hope, about the words that go unsaid and the parts of a heart that remain unknown. A mystery, a family story, and a stark portrait of a time in American history, Bottomland moved me. It haunts me still.” —Kate Racculia, author of Bellweather Rhapsody
“Immensely readable. From small town to the grit of the city, family farm to union factories, the Midwest of Hoover’s Bottomland is alive with secrets, hard choices, and the acute costs of independence.” —Daphne Kalotay, author of Russian Winter and Sight Reading
“Bottomland is a magnificent, sweeping book, filled with the hardship of immigrant life and the poignancy of family ties. This book will break your heart and raise your spirit.” —Allison Amend, author of Enchanted Islands
“A work of unusual intelligence—enthralling and precise. Hoover has woven an incandescent story of a family torn apart by war and loss, and she has done so with such breathtaking insight, you can almost feel these lives rise off the page.” —Dawn Tripp, author of Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keefe
A March Indie Next Pick
An Amazon Best Book of the Month
It was little more than a month before winter shut us in when I last saw the youngest of my sisters. Our little Myrle. I woke to find her shivering just inside the front door when she should have long gone to bed. It was dark as a cellar in that hall and outside it would be darker—miles of field and grassland lay beyond the front porch. Our house sat alone on the prairie, far from its neighbors. The road to our place was a run of stubble and dirt. Myrle’s hair shone white on her shoulders and she wore nothing but a nightgown, her arms and feet bare in the cold—not enough sense to cover herself though she was almost grown.
I raised my lantern to her face. “Why Myrle,” I said, “you’ll catch your death.”
The look she gave, as if startled out of sleep. Her eyes teared and she ducked her head. The door was locked at her back. After the war, Father would have made sure of it. A draft rushed our ankles from the doorstep.
The rest of the house was still, nothing but a wind outside knocking the stable gate. I touched Myrle’s forehead and felt it damp. She brushed away my hand. Her other hand she hid behind her hip, and when I asked her to show it, she glanced up the staircase and called our sister’s name, as if Esther might rush down to save her. I turned my head and Myrle was off—the white of her nightgown a whirl up the stair.
1. Bottomland takes place during and in the aftermath of World War I. What are the similarities between the political and cultural climate described in the novel and in America today?
2. We’re introduced to the Hess family through the older sister Nan. What kind of character does she initially reveal herself to be? What crucial information do we learn about the Hess family through her narration?
3. Nan says that her father told her, “Never make too much of something. Lest that something make a fool of you instead” (p. 7). “Never make too much” is also the title for Part 1. What other meanings does this phrase have? How does it resound in the opening scenes?
4. When Nan discovers that both of her youngest sisters aren’t in their locked bedroom, what clues does she offer as to what she thinks caused their disappearance?
5. During Nan’s initial search for the girls, we learn that the Hess’s neighbors are aware that the family is German. We also see, on the Elliott’s property, an American flag “hung curled around the porch post, stripped and bleeding its colors” (p. 11). Later, we learn the elder Elliott hung a sign in the town market that read, “Shouldn’t we be concerned about the enemy living among us?” (p. 12). How does xenophobia impact Nan’s first attempts to find her sisters? What deeper resonance does “the enemy living among us” have within a family like the Elliots? Or within the Hess’s own family?
6. When a police deputy is called to investigate Esther and Myrle’s disappearance, he concludes the two missing sisters are runaways. “They’re nearly grown, those girls. Remember that” (p. 31). Discuss the ways that each member of the Hess family considers this particular observation throughout the novel.
7. Nan feels that it’s “a strange thing to be a family of the missing” (p. 39). What “strange” events do the Hesses have to reconcile both at home and with their neighbors in the weeks following the sisters’ disappearance?
8. Jon Julius, the family’s patriarch, begins his story by disclosing that he stole an old German woman’s ticket who died waiting to board a boat to America. “God forgive the young their desperateness. Now nearly as old, I would pay for such unhappy luck” (p. 77). Talk about what he means by this statement.
9. Many of Jon Julius’s early conversations with his wife Margrit occured in German. Later, Margrit speaks English but Jon Julius still uses German at specific points in the narrative. Why does he use German instead of English?
10. When Lee tells his father about his decision to enlist, Jon Julius says, “All this time we had made what we considered right. We had worked the land. We kept our troubles to ourselves” (p. 116). How does Jon Julius associate what’s “right” with his livelihood as a farmer?
11. Numerous descriptions of the landscape appear throughout the book. Discuss how these descriptions lead to better understanding of the Hess family and their lifestyle.
12. Why is Lee’s section entitled “motherland”? What are the multiple meanings of this word in Lee’s experiences during this part of the book?
13. Lee’s story is told out of sequence, starting after he’s been injured and ending with a scene of the injury itself. Did you find this technique effective in helping us understand how his brain damage has impacted his identity?
14. Lee’s trip to Chicago has an almost surreal quality, as if he’s not only drifting between memories and the present moment but also between dreaming and being awake. How reliable is Lee’s narration?
15. When Lee’s company finds a German father and his young daughter cooking rabbits, Stan says he “hasn’t seen a girl in months” and offers her some mints (p. 171). Lee jerks Stan away. Why is Lee protective of this girl while the rest of his company remains silent?
16. Esther opens her chapter by declaring, “We had to get away” (p. 187). Does Esther ever provide a definitive answer as to why she and Myrle left home? Discuss why you think the sisters had to “get away.”
17. Esther takes a job at a grueling garment factory to support herself and Myrle. How does this life compare with the life she would have had living at the Hess farm? Does Esther enjoy her newfound freedom? Or has she merely assumed Nan’s role as Myrle’s caretaker?
18. Why does Esther return to the farm? Do you think Myrle’s life will be better living in a small room in a Chicago boarding house than in a small room on the Hess farm?
19. Esther dutifully takes Myrle’s letters and then throws them away instead of sending them home. Later, when Esther returns to the farm, she saves Myrle’s letters. Why? Debate whether or not Esther was a “good” sister to Myrle.
20. While Myrle tells us that it was her, not Esther, who insisted on escaping the farm, once they arrive in Chicago Myrle seems content not to venture beyond the boarding house and the surrounding neighborhood. Was this the life of freedom and adventure she envisioned when she left the Hess farm? Talk about why you think she behaved this way.
21. Jon Julius has a pivotal encounter with a washer woman in a boarding house, and he eventually proposes marriage to her. Years later, Myrle meets her life partner in a boarding house. Discuss the importance of the boarding house for these characters. What other opportunities does it present?
22. The second half of the novel takes place in Chicago. How does the dynamic between rural living and urban living impact Esther, Myrle, and Lee?
23. How significant is the role of a small town community in determining the fate of each Hess family member?
24. The novel is narrated by five different members of the Hess family. Consider the reasons why Nan is the first to tell her story. Why is Myrle the last? 25.) The word “bottomland” is defined as “a flat low land along a river or stream.” What other definitions does this word have for the Hess family?
Suggested Further Reading:
The Quickening by Michelle Hoover; One of Ours by Willa Cather; Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser; Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; Postcards by Annie Proulx; My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout