Anyone looking for fictional illumination of what’s gone wrong in the Midwest over the last decades could do a lot worse than to use Will Weaver’s story collection “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” as a reference.
“Dispersal,” for example, takes on the grim subject of a bankruptcy auction, a common sight this decade in this part of the country. “Too much machinery, not enough wheat,” says the narrator. “Too many bankers, not enough rain. Tough luck all around.” Exactly.
“Blood Pressure” illustrates the effect that losing its doctor has on a small town. “You lose your doctor, you lose your clinic . . . you lose your clinic, you lose your families. You lose your families, you lose your school. You lose the school, you lose Main Street.” Inexorable causes producing sorry effects riddle Weaver’s dozen stories.
The country, the land itself, may well be the book’s most persistent character, its pull on some inhabitants magnetic. Wayne Moen, for example, gives up his factory job in a city to return to the home place when his father dies. Moen becomes “The Cowman.”
The work is impossible, his marriage decomposing. But gradually and unmistakably, he begins to renew himself, to work his way back into the fabric of Midwestern country life so deeply that Weaver’s last sentence--"He was finally home and he would never have to go anywhere again"--seems merely obvious.
Weaver writes in a style as plain and sturdy as Middle Border farm architecture, his attention to the messages inhering in his stories is too steady to court ambiguity. In this case, the solidity and sobriety of style and subject are logical complements.
The best story in “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” is the title story. (That it begins the book and is so exceptional induces anticlimax!) It begins with the 20th Century intruding upon the life of Olaf Torvik, an immigrant farmer in northern Minnesota, who is about to bury his wife on their farm. The sheriff tells him: “You can’t bury your wife here on the farm. . . . That’s the law.”
But laws such as these are not for Torvik. As he sits by his wife, Inge, he remembers their marriage, an arranged marriage that bloomed, turning sweetly into love and lust and companionship. It began badly, though. The local authorities made them wait for more than a year. Inge had just come from Germany, and while World War I had just been fought and won and though she was a simple farm girl, anti-German sentiment still ran high. They never forgot.
“A Gravestone Made of Wheat” takes Torvik back through his life and up to his decision to bury Inge on the farm, a scene flushed with the same powerful emotions as that scene in Larry Woiwode’s “Beyond the Bedroom Wall” where the son builds his father’s casket. It’s a work of love.
A “caravan of tractors” sweeps into the wheat fields at dawn. Into the immense grave, on top of Inge, Torvik pours fresh manure and bags of nitrogen fertilizer. “He knew . . . nearly forever after, there would be one spot in the middle of the field where the wheat grew greener, taller, and more golden than all the rest. It would be a gravestone made of wheat.”
What will stay with you, the few lives like Olaf Torvik’s and Wayne Moen’s, lives that Weaver employs to flesh out in the most literal way the problems that have plagued the country’s heartland. These figures, as chronicled in “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” are symbolic and real, and if they are perhaps more mythic than they might be, well, it enables us to see a bit beyond ideology and into some representative Midwestern lives.