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MOTHER WALTER AND THE PIG TRAGEDY
By Mark Kramer
Review by: Richard Todd
PSYCHIC FARMING: COUNTRY BOOKS
(Part of a multi-book review)
Atlantic Monthly, 4/1973
. . . Not far from Total Loss Farm, over the line in Massachusetts,lies "Clabberville," fictive name for a town described by Mark Kramer in MOTHER WALTER AND THE PIG TRAGEDY (Knopf, $5.95). Given the title,and the knowledge that Kramer comes from much the same dropout-radical past as the Total Loss People, you might expect a book similar to theirs, but you wouldn't be entirely right.
Kramer lives on a farm, though not a commune. He may live with someone else, or occasionally with a few others: it isn't clear. The ambiguity is to Kramer's credit. Whatever society he may be creating interests him less, as a subject, than the society into which he has moved--the surrounding rural life, whose fragility he anxiously examines.
Kramer has gotten admirably involved with Clabberville; that is,deeply involved, but with a sense of limits. The salient effect of his move was a muting of his world view ("I have learned more about classes, working and ruling, than ever I knew in my bad old lefty days"), but he has also learned how to milk, can take over from a neighboring dairy farmer, Hank, and knows the name of the hormone that lets the milk down is oxytocin. He has achieved considerable knowledge about haymaking and silage. He has read his predecessors,not just Scott Nearing but Solon Robinson, chronicler of nineteenth-century Massachusetts agriculture.
Kramer has a good way of rendering the emotions that young emigrants from the city are likely to experience, such as a heightened sense of mortality, or perhaps it is a newfound way of looking mortality in the eye. An essay called "Summer Solstice" works to this end: Kramer attends a party at someone's country play home and some of the guests,weekend visitors, besport in the nude. The next morning Kramer wakes up early with a vague malaise and takes a walk through the woods,where he finds the skull of a winter-killed deer (he apologizes for the symbolic heaviness of this discovery) and stops to talk with a neighbor, an old and ailing man chopping wood. They talk about the severity of the past winter. The old man tells a lame joke about it,and "we both laughed loud and deep and his face turned red, and then he took his ax and went back to work, and I took my deer skull and padded back up the hill to see who might be awake."
I know; "padded" is the wrong word, but Kramer is the sort of young writer whose slips bring out an avuncular corrective impulse in you,and when he lapses, as he occasionally does, into the cookbook chattiness that is endemic to these books ("the cows will say yeccch")you take this as blemish, not as his essential style. He can turnaround and deliver precision, as in his description of the pleasure of farm mechanics, "excluding, at least for brief periods, the dangerous multiplicity that usually keeps us in dread and blandness." Orwell-specified outrage, as in his worry for the fate of the town: "I dread things to come soon, when the area I live in goes the way of southern Vermont, the relics of its 'atmosphere' peddled for export to the city, its honest citizens either moved out or converted into dishonest servants of city folk at play."
Two themes run through this book. One has to do with the morality of living in the country. "Well, that's over," Kramer says of his former apprehensions about the self-indulgence of country life, about being complicitous in oppression by failing to pursue radical politics,about retreating from reality. Kramer feels that radical politics aren't working, and that the city has no monopoly on problems or on life, and that he is a great deal less certain than he used to be about his ability to prescribe change, more confident in his privately moral skills. You suspect these alterations in character will stick. A related question of morality persists--how to use one's gifts. Genius can flourish in the country, but talent has a hard time. The smart money for writers as well as others is still in town or on the campus, and if a writer is to make his subject the country, he must face the possibility of turning into a sort of calendar artist. I'd guess that the drawer into which Kramer has put this issue won't stay shut.
The second theme in the book grows out of Kramer's melancholy apprehension about the future of rural life. Like most people who move to the country, he feels that he has arrived just in time to watch its disappearance. This is the time that things are changing for the worse. "The old order is dying, the rural social order with roots that stretch back clear to medieval England. Farmers whose great-grandfathers were farmers now must become handymen on city people's summer estates." The best sustained piece of writing in the book dwells on this. Called "Leaving the Farm," it's a lament for the plight of a neighbor who has very reluctantly decided to get out of dairy-farming, urged, in part, by the carrot and stick of rising land prices. To stay and make money he figures he'd have to double the size of his herd. To double the size of the herd would mean spending$35,000, which would keep him in debt until he was past sixty. The new equipment would save labor, but the new cows would create it;he'd still be putting in days that lasted at least fourteen hours,longer in the summertime. If he could stay small, he'd stay. Kramer roundly rejects the other, hip solution: "If Jo-Anne were only into weaving homespun and sewing far-out rags for little Benjie, everything would be fine. The sometimes absurd fashion of my own life here becomes all the clearer in the light of Hank's staunchness."Staunchness subsumes a multitude of virtues. What makes the farmer such a compelling figure, I suspect, is that he offers a resolution between old and new, he is an enactment of the notion that traditional life is possible without the pretense of the arriviste farmers from the city. And when the farm sells, he'll be evidence on the other side.
Does it matter? Kramer tries to say that it does: "I admire the diversity and specificity of his knowledge, and the virtuosity he applies to the daily problems of running a farm. That is a city boy's admiration, I know, because men around here are supposed to know these things. Yet no factory job and no contract to mow another man's field can give constant play to Hank's knowledge. He has been forced by hard times in the nation's economy, and perhaps by the nature of that economy, to trade in independence for security, resourcefulness for efficiency. Hank's youngest son won't know his dad's craft, and he will be prey to the same modern work city boys are prey to, and to the same malevolent spirit." That passage isn't wholly under control,torn by its effort to avoid romance. And yet I find it rather affecting--in part, I think, because of the situation itself, but also because of Kramer's visible struggle to speak in a full but unsentimental voice.
So: a flawed but engaging book. Its failures, moreover, aren't entirely a matter of individual talent and energy. To write about the country is to take on a peculiarly risky chore.