Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on an Irish dairy farm. He shares his list of the best farm novels.
Farm novels are getting hard to find, and a good one is even rarer. To write about something well one usually has to come from that experience, and few people both farm and write. Most narratives that involve agriculture are written as a pastoral, which paints the rural existence as one of serenity, charm and simplicity. Ultimately, they are created by urban audiences, for urban audiences. Those who farm know that an accurate portrayal of agriculture is more complex than that.
Presented below (in no particular order) are ten farm novels that deal with various types of agriculture. They are from different countries, cover different time periods, and are on the list for different reasons. Because of their diversity, one person is unlikely to enjoy them all. Nonetheless, hopefully you can find the right book to sit by the woodstove with as winter settles in.
A Map of the World (1994) by Jane Hamilton
An Oprah Book Club selection, A Map of the World switches between the perspectives of Alice Goodwin, a nurse accused of abusing a child, and her husband Howard, who tries to maintain a dairy farm while his wife awaits trial in jail. Although sometimes the storytelling feels a bit bloated at times, it is one of the few modern novels that deals with dairy farming. And hey, it was good enough for Oprah.
Although it is mostly about a farmer’s son entering academia, its masterful prose and accurate social realism will give it a deserved mention on any book list. The novel follow’s William Stoner’s quiet resistance against the departmental politics of his university and the loveless marriage to his wife. If you want excitement, skip this book. If you want to feel human, read it immediately.
On the Black Hill (1982, UK) by Bruce Chatwin
Set on the border between England and Wales, On the Black Hill follows the lives of twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin on the farm. It portrays both the difficulty and joys of farming in the last century, as the brothers must face the war, an overzealous father, and the social mores of the time. One of the earlier farm novels on this list, it was also made into a movie five years after its publication.
A Thousand Acres (1991) by Jane Smiley
Arguably one of the most famous farm novels of recent times (winning the Pulitzer Prize), Smiley’s book provides a loose retelling of King Lear in the form of an Iowa farm family. While Ginny Cook appears to be a typical and happy farmwife, she is eventually forced to face a dark family secret. The novel deals with the consolidation of agriculture, environmental themes, and the effects of patriarchal dominance.
Darling (1991) by William Tester
This novel is listed with a warning: it is not for those who can be offended, and do not let your children read it. It is included, howevever, out of a belief that art and literature should never be censored. In Darling, two brothers compete for and act out their affection for a Holstein in a grotesque manner, and carry that rivalry into adulthood. It is written with elegant prose and a sensitivity that brings humanity into the most degenerate circumstances.
That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002, Ireland) by John McGahern
Ireland’s chief chronicler of rural life, McGahern writes about farming with an accuracy and delicacy that earned him acclaim. Nothing much happens in the novel—and that’s partly the point—but it stands as a graceful eulogy to an old Ireland that was disappearing at the time of its writing. If you’ve ever wondered what the Irish countryside was like in the 80s and 90s, this is your book.
The Twin (2008, Netherlands) by Gerbrand Bakker
Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, The Twin follows Helmer, a dairy farmer in the Netherlands. Helmer was tied down to the farm when his twin brother, whom his father had always preferred, died in an accident. Now in his middle age, Helmer continues to farm with his dying father in bed upstairs. In addition to being a well-told story, the novel gives a fitting sense of the compact nature of central European agriculture and the confined space in which it occurs.
Red Earth, White Earth (1986) by Will Weaver
Guy Pehrsson returns to his father’s dairy farm in Minnesota after becoming a successful entrepreneur in California. He finds himself taking care of the farm while his father descends into alcoholism, while at the same time in the midst of a land claim battle between area farmers and the Ojibwes Native Americans. Although seemingly a young adult novel, it does tackle complex and sometimes explicit material, as well as give voice to an often untold narrative in the agricultural world.
Reply to a Letter from Helga (2013, Iceland) by Bergsveinn Birgisson
Bergsveinn Birgisson’s novel is as much a love letter to farming as it is to his former neighbor Helga, with whom he had an illicit affair. She asked him to move to Reykjavik with her so they could be together, but he couldn’t give up being a farmer. This quick, thin, novel provides both a celebration of the agricultural life, as well as a glimpse into the Icelandic countryside.
My Ántonia (1918) by Willa Cather
The list wouldn’t be complete without at least one classic. Because the original wording of the Pulitzer Prize made it more favorable towards farm novels in its early years, agricultural life enjoyed a privileged presence in literature before World War II. Although Willa Cather would eventually win the award six years later with One of Ours, some consider My Ántonia one of her best works. Part of her “prairie trilogy,” it tells of the immigrants who came to the west to break the sod and stand against the harsh realities of pioneer life.
This article appeared in a similar form in Progressive Dairyman.
Ryan Dennis is the author of the novel The Beasts They Turned Away, available internationally.