Everyone calls her Toby. Her real name is Gwendolyn, but few know that. For sixty-nine years sheâ€™s been Toby, ever since her brother John called her Gwendolyn, and she spat peas from her seat in the high chair and said, â€œThat sumbitch called me Gwenlum. My name not Gwenlum. Myâ€™s Toby.â€ The dogâ€™s name. The name stuck, long after the dog died, and now only she and John remember how she got the name, and John, once a fallingdown drunk, either canâ€™t tell or no one would believe him.
So begins The Floor of the Sky By Pamela Carter Joern part of the Flyover Fiction Series from the University of Nebraska Press. From this intriguing beginning Joern weaves a poetic and loving portrait of the Western Plains that is at the same time a restrained and understated tale of love and loss; of tragedy and family secrets that reflects its harsh, remote, but beautiful setting.
Here is a brief description of the story:
Toby Jenkins, an aging widow, is on the verge of losing her family’s ranch when her granddaughter Lilaâ€”a city girl, sixteen and pregnantâ€”shows up for the summer. While facing painful decisions about her future, Lila uncovers festering secrets about her grandmother’s pastâ€”discoveries that spur Toby to reconsider the ambiguous ties she holds to her embittered sister Gertie, her loyal ranch hand George, her not-so-sympathetic daughter Nola Jean, and ultimately, herself.
What I really appreciated about the novel was its balance between character, plot, and language. There is enough plot and story line to keep the novel moving forward and to pique the reader’s interest. But the story is really about the characters – with the setting being a character as well. Joern does a masterful job of capturing both the internal and external, the emotional and physical, landscape of rural America through the eyes of her characters. At the same time, the language is understated yet powerful; its straightforward yet poetic prose reflecting the setting and people it is describing.
A number of potential culture war issues are touched upon: teenage pregnancy; the demise of the small town and the rise of the superstore; the role of agribusiness and the difficulty of family farming; even the role of faith and religion. But Joern doesn’t address these issues to make political points. Instead she simply allows us to see their impact through the eyes of her characters. She skillfully allows us to see the world through a variety of perspectives: young and old; married and single; rich and poor.
It is appropriate that the University of Nebraska Press is part of the partnership involved in the Willa Cather Archive, as Joern seems very much in the Cather tradition. Anyone with an interest in fiction centered in rural America, or who simply enjoy compelling stories with strong characters, should be sure to check out The Floor of the Sky. I highly recommend it.