Saturday, December 1, 2001

Hidden Places: A Farm Family During the Great Depression

Hidden Places, a historical fiction novel by Lynn Austin, vividly relates the struggles and hidden secrets of a farm family in the early 1930s. Eliza Wyatt, recently widowed with three young children, finds herself in charge of the Wyatt family orchard. Though embittered against God, she has followed the advice of her late husband's Aunt "Batty" to pray for an angel-and it seems God has brought such a messenger, someone to help with the difficult work. Yet the stranger, Gabriel Harper, seems to be less than forthright about himself and his past.

Everyone in the Deer Springs community is struggling, with land and farming equipment selling for pennies. Hobos ride the railroads and trespass on people's land, often begging for a meal in exchange for work. The local bank is closing, requiring all mortgages to be paid in full, including a loan on the Wyatt Orchard. To make matters worse, Eliza soon learns that she and her children do not even have legal ownership of the farm. Her husband Sam died before his father, and Frank Wyatt's will has left everything to his oldest son, Matthew. However, no one has seen Matthew in over ten years, since the Great War.

Eliza takes in the stranger, Gabe, who shows up at her doorstep, then nurses him through a bad "lockjaw" infection. Meanwhile, neighboring Aunt Batty (Betty, who sometimes seems crazy, or "batty") must move into the farmhouse when her roof collapses under the weight of snow, and she brings her half-blind ugly dog and fat cats with her, to add to the hectic madhouse. Aunt Batty's high-spirited joy uplifts the others, for added comic relief, though Eliza amusingly wonders if her children will become as crazy as Aunt Batty.

Eliza is determined to hold onto the orchard, for her children's sake. But that means keeping the farm going, while coming up with $500 and solving the mystery of Matthew Wyatt's whereabouts. Eliza soon discovers the family's dark secrets, while struggling inside with her own secret past, her own lies.

Through first person narratives, alternating between Eliza and Aunt Batty, comes an enriching story with strong characters and plot twists. Though many of the events takes place in the characters' past, in the 1890s and early 1900s, the issues are controversial, serious ones even by today's standards: children conceived out of wedlock; child abuse; attempted murder/suicide; even apparent identity theft. A family situation pulled straight from the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers yields a similarly tragic result. Several characters deal with anger towards their fathers, yet can now hope for reconciliation.

Yet Hidden Places is not merely an emotional "soap opera" devoid of day-to-day troubles. The story also provides rich detail of the everyday working life of farmers, by an author clearly familiar with work. In the late winter, Eliza learns how to properly prune the fruit trees: to cut the newer branches "that take energy away from the fruit-bearing limbs," to open up the tree's center and allow light through to help ripen the fruit. Gabe sharpens the saw blades, operates a grindstone, and arranges for nearby hobos to carry off the larger pieces of brush for their bonfires. Later, when the radio announces a freeze warning, the whole family--even the youngest child, four year-old Becky--pitches in to make "smudge pots" with oil and corn cobs to keep the trees warm, staying up all night to replenish the oil as needed. A full year's work includes taking produce to market to get the best price, as well as various stages of harvest (first the cherries, later the peaches, pears and apples) for which temporary workers are hired; followed by canning the many fruits and vegetables for the winter ahead. Many conversations take place in the midst of work, as the characters get to know each other better, each becoming part of a smooth-running team operating in perfect symmetry.

Through the unfolding story, the Wyatt characters come alive to the reader, taking on their own identity as we relate to their problems, their hopes and dreams. Eliza and her family and friends remind us again of the importance of family and a place to call home.

For further information. see Lynn Austin's website

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