Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Zorrie by Laird Hunt

Zorrie is a stunning portrayal of one woman’s life lived in small towns in central Indiana in the middle of the twentieth century. After the death of the aunt who took her in when her parents died, loner Zorrie left home to find work since she no longer had a place to live or any means of support. She made close friends who cared about her when she began working in a radium watch factory in Ottawa, Illinois where the women licked their brushes and dipped them in the radium continuously. Homesick, Zorrie returned to Indiana after only two months and later married Harold, a kind and loving farmer.

Spanning her lifetime from the depression era when she was 21 through her old age and highlighting the people in her life, this novel captures the essence of American life in 161 quiet, grace-filled pages. The writing and evocation of place and people are similar to that of books by Marilynne Robinson and Reynolds Price and of William Maxwell’s classic So Long, See You Tomorrow which is set just 170 miles due west of Clinton County, Indiana where Zorrie spends most of her life. A finalist for the National Book Award, this magnificent novel is simple and spare. That Hunt writes so beautifully without getting in the way of the story makes the book immensely readable. 

“The Newton’s farm formed an L around their own. The Summerses’ farm made another border, and there were Duff’s and Dunn’s scattered across the ditch beyond. Zorrie was always in the field with Harold, and because everyone helped everyone else, she soon became a familiar sight on the surrounding farms. She loved the smell of the clay-rich dirt and the warm ache that sprouted up in her neck and shoulders as the hours wore on. She loved, after a long day, walking back through the tangled beans or sweet-smelling clover. She loved being teased by Gerald Dunn or Lloyd Duff or Virgil Summers when they would meet along the fence rows, and she loved even more the twinkle in their eyes when she would put her hands on her hips and tease them back. Living at her aunt’s, or during the years around Frankfort and Rossville, she had not felt the tilt and whirl of the seasons the way she did on her own farm with its busy springs, summers, and falls that went by in green and brown blurs and its long, quiet winters when the weeks seemed marked only by the scratching of the chickens or the scruffing of the pigs. 

Last month, I moderated a panel titled “Making the Midwest Universal” at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Bookand we discussed the idea that novels set in “flyover” country are often seen as only regional in appeal. Zorrie tosses that notion out the window with its “every woman” portrait of a life lived in love, hardship, kindness, and grace.

I grew up about thirty miles from the book’s setting and Holy Toledo! does it ring true. I hadn’t realized that the book was set primarily in Clinton County when I began reading, but soon I felt as if I were in the company of my grandparents, the tenants working on their farms, and the adults who populated my childhood. Life is real wherever you live it and reading Zorrie will place you in the towns and farms of rural Indiana where the people are so authentic you’re sure you know them regardless of where you were born.

I might have found Zorrie on my own because of the accolades it’s receiving, but I happened to be in Between the Covers bookstore in Harbor Springs, Michigan on a day when one of the best readers on the planet, Susan Capaldi, was working. I bought Zorrie entirely because she was confident that I’d like it. Cultivate relationships with booksellers who will know your taste and you, too, will find gems like Zorrie. 

Summing It Up: Zorrie is a profoundly moving wonder of a novel that makes the mid twentieth century feel like a living breathing soul. It’s gentle, yet filled with surprises. It illuminates all of us regardless of where we live. The  tightly braided story will fill your soul. 

Rating: 5 stars

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie (Historical Fiction), Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: February 9, 2021

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