The introductory story, “The Balers”, gives us our compass points. The farm daughter that narrates it has the chore of waiting on the neighboring menfolk who come to bail the hay:
I knew I’d have to put up with the sons’ stares and the balers’ bold looks. I knew what it was like to wait on balers. My sisters had done it before, and now that they were gone and waiting on their own husbands and balers, I had to do it. Take my sisters’ place, that’s what I had to do, and put up with the balers’ gawking, looking me over like I was some heifer at the county fair.
The volume expands from there to include weird, comical, sad and sometimes violent caricatures of Iowa life. “The Many Stages of Their Making” is a thoroughly enjoyable story depicting the Women’s Isaac Walton League carving wooden ducks. The maid of the hostess, who is cajoled into joining the party, reveals that she had done prison time for stabbing her brother:
“He beat me real bad so I grabbed a knife—a little bigger than this one—and shoved it into his stomach.” At that, the green lady stood up. “Bathroom break,” she mumbled, and hurried into the kitchen.
“The Men with the Leopard Wallpaper” sounds like it would be a funny story, but in fact it is sad, to the point of despair. It turns out that gays can actually have their hearts broken too—and die of horrible diseases. Then there’s the brutal little vignette entitled “The Last Trapshoot”. Reading the story one evening, my wife actually cried out, as though she had been frightened by a loud noise. “And Now He’s Gone Your Back” is an acute study in relationship psychology, as is the title story. In “The Egg Lady”, a group of nosy neighbors investigate an eccentric widow who is believed to put a little something extra in the eggs she sells.
The standout of the collection, however, is “The Raffle”, about a irritable, drinking Monsignor and his secretary. It captures all reserve and homeliness of small town Iowa without neglecting the quaint pride of its residents. As a whole the book, though plain as broccoli casserole and lyrical only in fits and starts, is genuine; if its familiarity sometimes fails to intrigue, it is always faithful, a clear and unadorned mirror of Iowa and its people.
- Joel Van Valin