I love reviewing books for Christian Century magazine. If editor Richard Kauffman had not asked me to review this book, I may never have found it, and that would have been a great loss. You can find the review below in the August 24, 2010 issue. When it is posted online, I will link to it.
Marty, Gayla. Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010.
Along America’s highways, wooden barns used to reign, their blue or white silos standing like sentries. Today those wooden barns with their high hay mows and accompanying silos are slowly being replaced by low steel buildings or allowed to decay, their wooden ribcages emerging like skeletons after years of neglect. Under this seemingly innocuous change in architecture lies a great American drama. You will want to read this book if you are interested in the story of transformation of the family farm in America. Gayla Marty has told this larger story inside the particular story of her own family.
In this memoir of a Minnesota girlhood, Gayla Marty turns the Marty and Anderson farms into characters in their own right. To give these characters weight, she surrounds them with four generations’ histories and introduces chapters about them with passages from the King James Bible like those she memorized as a child. To give them breadth, she relates them to the little-told agrarian tale of how the Roman republic fell as the empire grew, history she learned first-hand as an international student in Tunisia. To give them life, she intersperses chapters on the various kinds of trees she first came to love on the farm, in the Bible, and in her travels: nine trees paired with nine chapters.
Marty’s gifts as a writer include: a fabulous memory for detail, sensitivity to the lyric sound of language, excellent documentation and historical research skills, and honest descriptions of her own spirit, creating a very credible, authentic voice. The structure and pacing of the book may discourage some readers, but those who persist will be rewarded.
Two churches—East Rock Creek and Rush City Baptist–play an important role both as an anchor for family and community life and as a place where Marty’s inner life was formed, as in this passage:
On the last Sunday of the year, we walk into our old church, the furnace burning for the last time. Facing the painting of Jesus the shepherd in the field with his sheep, we sing.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play. Mama and Daddy’s voices harmonize, different notes but close together. And wild and sweet the words repeat, of peace on earth, good will to men.
Inside my head, I hold the words: wild and sweet the words repeat (58).
With this book Marty joins the ranks of many wonderful storytellers and memoirists of rural America. Readers may be reminded of Wendell Berry’s poetry, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, Kathleen Norris’ Dakota, and Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Marty has Norris and Berry’s spiritual attunement along with some of the zestful documentary voice of Kalish.
But Marty also speaks with the voice of a prophet, wailing a lamentation even as she finds solace in trees and the abiding divine spirit they represent. When she leaves the farm for college and then again for an international education experience in Tunisia, she learns the history of the Roman republic, rooted in agrarian yeoman farming, which gave way to forced large-scale agriculture that fed the Roman Empire. She skillfully connects memory, culture, and characters in a Muslim land: “At every call to prayer, I thought I heard Uncle’s and Daddy’s clear voices” (164). When she hears a street vendor cry out in Arabic, she thinks it sounds like “C’m baaaaaaaaas!”—the calling of the cows in Minnesota.
The connections to home continue, in a sharper vein, as she describes how the inexorable movements toward growth haunt both places: “I felt the movement of ghosts, wandering peoples and languages scavenging for places to plant, graze animals, satisfy hunger, build a shelter and hearth—sending legions ahead in clanking metal, enslaving each other to dig and build, . . .” (176).
The antagonist of Marty’s father is her Uncle Gaylon, her father’s business partner whose family lives in an adjacent house. Uncle makes Gayla feel special when she is a small girl through his attention and storytelling about the history of the Marty farm. Later, he becomes angry and unpredictable, like his father before him. Moving full circle, he becomes an ally in a failing cause. Marty and her Uncle want to keep the farm as a spiritual inheritance. The rest of the family wants to sell it and view it as an investment like any other.
So years of labor, love, harmony and community end up on the auction block. The needs of one generation do not align smoothly align with the next. And a daughter who loves the land can seldom own the land. Since trees serve as her primary metaphor, she voices her protest this way: “Daughters have been like apple trees, transient, adaptable, wandering the earth with their sweetness and tartness and promise, bending to the will of men in exchange for roots.”
In the epilogue, the daughter has given up the struggle for the land itself. Uncle gives her one final gift before he dies, reciting long passages memorized from the King James Bible all leading to this conclusion: “Then shall I fulfill my promise and bring you back to this place.”