Authors: Mildred Walker
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
Other Novels by Mildred Walker
Available as Bison Books Editions
THE BODY OF A YOUNG MAN
THE BREWERS’ BIG HORSES
THE CURLEW’S CRY
DR. NORTON’S WIFE
IF A LION COULD TALK
LIGHT FROM ARCTURUS
THE ORANGE TREE
A PIECE OF THE WORLD
THE SOUTHWEST CORNER
UNLESS THE WIND TURNS
Introduction to the Bison Books Edition by James Welch
University of Nebraska Press
Lincoln and London
Copyright 1944 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.
Copyright renewed 1971 by Mildred Walker.
Introduction © 1992 by the University of Nebraska Press.
All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.
Walker, Mildred, 1905–
Winter wheat / Mildred Walker.
Originally published: New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1944. “Introduction to the Bison book edition by James Welch.”
ISBN 0–8032–9741–6 (pbk.)
ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-9741-8 (pbk: alk. paper)
ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-9876-7 (electronic: e-pub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-9877-4 (electronic: mobi)
Reprinted by arrangement with Mildred Walker Schemm
“There is but one victory that I know is sure, and that is the victory that is lodged in the energy of the seed.”
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY
Flight to Arras
MARGARET WALKER ABEL
Who quickens her teaching with understanding and her living with faith and humor.
by James Welch
“September is like a quiet day after a whole week of wind. I mean real wind that blows dirt into your eyes and hair and between your teeth and roars in your ears after you’ve gone inside. The harvesting is done and the wheat stored away and you’re through worrying about hail or drought or grasshoppers. The fields have a tired peaceful look, the way I imagine a mother feels when she’s had her baby and is just lying there thinking about it and feeling pleased.”
So begins the story of
, the remarkable novel by Mildred Walker that is set in the dryland wheat country of central Montana in the early 1940s, just after America enters World War Two. It is the story of Ellen Webb, a willowy, strong-willed girl who can drive a truck, thresh wheat, milk cows, pluck chickens and turkeys, sit on a tractor seat all day long, even worry with her parents about paying off the combine and the mortgage. It is a story about growing up, becoming a woman, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, within the space of a year and a half. But what a year and a half it is! Ellen finishes the harvest in the fall; goes away to college in the East (Minnesota, which is about as far east as most dryland wheat farmers get, even if they come from Vermont); falls in love with learning and a very sensitive young man with long, beautiful fingers; gets jilted in a very insensitive manner; falls out of love with her parents; teaches the following year in a one-room schoolhouse on a wind-swept plain in northern Montana; begins to enjoy her isolation; begins to love the country children who come to her school, especially one emotionally troubled boy; then witnesses a tragedy for which she blames herself; and comes home to the family wheat ranch.
If the above bare-bones story were all that happened in this novel, it would be enough. We would suffer Ellen’s ups and downs right along with her. We would feel that we had read a story that cut right to the heart of so many stories of hard-scrabble, dryland western existence. We would feel that we had come to know these people and their lives. But it is the character of Ellen Webb that lifts this novel far above the usual narratives of coming of age in a hostile environment.
does have a strong narrative line and is filled with excruciatingly real scenes and details, Mildred Walker’s success is in creating a keen psychological portrait of her main character. We see through Ellen Webb’s eyes. We feel the stalks of wheat through her fingers, the wind through her hair. We hear the howl of the blizzard through her ears. We smell her mother’s borscht through her nose. Above all, we are in her mind as she attempts to make sense of her emotions, of her relationship with her parents, of her parents’ relationship with each other, of their relationship with the land. We are in Ellen’s mind when she discovers, with increasing horror, that her refined, eastern fiancé, Gilbert Borden, not only doesn’t understand her and her parents’ life on the Montana plains, he doesn’t want to make the effort. In fact, he cuts his visit short and takes the train back to his refined world. In one of the loveliest, saddest passages in the book (before Gil leaves), Ellen makes a startling observation at the dinner table:
“I couldn’t keep my mind on what Dad was saying. I was aware of our hands on the white cloth—of Mom’s that were large and red and checked with black. I saw the broken nail on Mom’s finger as she cut her steak. Mom’s hands looked kind, but perhaps that was because I knew them putting on compresses for Dad, doing things for me. Dad’s were brown against the white cloth; they looked tired. I never noticed before that hands could look tired. I knew Gil’s hands better than any of our hands. I loved again their shapeliness, the wrists that were as slender as mine. I looked at my own hands. They were large like Mom’s and already roughened from the little work I had done outdoors, but I always forget to wear gloves and I don’t like the feeling of them anyway. Our hands, all moving, seemed to say things to each other. Gil’s hands didn’t seem to belong with ours.”
Up to Gil’s visit, Ellen had been puzzled by but always accepting of her parents’ strange relationship. Her mother is a Russian; her father a Yankee from Vermont. They met in Russia during the First World War. Ben had been a young soldier who had been wounded by the Bolsheviks the day after the armistice was signed that ended the war. Anna had been a young peasant girl who had nursed him back to health. They fell in love and got married and he brought her back to America. Now their relationship alternates between tender moments, as when Anna puts poultices on Ben’s old shrapnel wounds, and brusque, sometimes harsh exchanges over seemingly meaningless incidents or remarks. But as we come to know more about their marriage, everything between them becomes meaningful.
Perhaps because of Gil’s observations on the impoverishment of life on the western plains—”I should think people would go stark, raving crazy out here in the winter” and “You’re so far away and dependent on each other. Take your mother and father; I would think they’d have been talked out years ago”—Ellen begins to question everything that she had accepted as a happy girl born to live, to play, to work on the family farm. She sees the farmhouse, once a cozy, well-lighted sanctuary against the cold, the heat, the storms, as a kind of patched-together, unpainted, ramshackle symbol of their lives. She sees the wide open spaces, the stands of wheat, the routine of farm life through Gil’s eyes: “That day the sameness of what we did bore into me. I thought of our lives and I wondered what gave them any meaning. When I had Gil to love there was meaning, but now there was none. How did Mom and Dad stand going on and on working to feed themselves and me? What was the use?”
The fall after Gil’s summer visit is a bleak one. The harvest is poor so Ellen cannot return to college. Instead she takes a teacherage in Prairie Butte, eighty-five miles to the northwest of the farm. Even Ellen feels the isolation of the windswept butte. There are few families there; most of them are sheep ranchers who live a good distance from each other. Ellen feels this distance and anticipates her first class with dread and excitement. Happily, things go well for the young schoolteacher—she comes to love her children and they reciprocate in the small ways of children. The days are filled with industry and affection, and the nights are tolerable, often pleasant.
But two things happen to destroy Ellen’s year of tranquillity: A tragedy during a blizzard and the unwanted advances of a young man. I won’t give away any more than I have, for these two events and their aftermath dramatically change Ellen’s life. Let me just guarantee that the reader will be
is a classic novel of the American West. That doesn’t mean it is an old-fashioned novel. It could have been written last year, or next year—but it was written during the period it portrays, giving it an immediacy that is timeless. The descriptions of the country, the passages concerning the vagaries of wheat farming, going to town, listening to the war news and grain report on the radio, the pleasure of buying silk stockings and a new coat, are remarkably current. Overlying all is the spectre of a distant war. While the novel takes place during the early years of the Second World War, when young men are eager to “join up” and mothers and fathers suffer loss, it is that other great war, World War One, that truly haunts the lives of the Webb family. It is the war during which Anna and Ben met and fell in love, the war in which Ben suffered his injuries that will plague him for the rest of his days, and the war which will cause Ellen a great deal of anguish.
One more thing—don’t overlook the brilliant metaphor of winter wheat. It is the type of wheat that does best on the high plains of Montana. If planted properly at the right time, if the gods and the weather and the earth are kind, it will yield a harvest as spiritually fulfilling as financially rewarding. But if there is too little moisture in the ground, or too much, if the winter is severe or the wind blows too hot, or a random hailstorm chooses your farm, then the spirit sinks as much as the financial return. Thinking about winter wheat and how tenacious it is in its attempt to survive allows Ellen Webb to recover her faith and conclude that her life, and her parents’ lives do have meaning.
Mildred Merrifield Walker was born in Philadelphia in 1905. Her father, a Baptist minister, had parishes in and around Philadelphia, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her mother, a school teacher, raised Mildred and her sister as proper young ladies in these cities, but she also drove a fast horse and buggy at their summer home in Grafton, Vermont.
After graduating magna cum laude from Wells College, Mildred met a young Michigan doctor named Ferdinand Ripley Schemm. They married in 1927 and moved to Big Bay, Michigan, on the Upper Penninsula where Dr. Schemm practiced among the loggers and their families for three and a half years. Mildred attended the University of Michigan during this period, receiving an M.A. in creative writing. Her first novel,
, which won the Avery Hopwood Award, was set in the Upper Penninsula. In 1933 the Schemms moved to Great Falls, Montana, which they deemed a good place to raise a family after scouting other western locations. They settled in at Beaverbank, a ranch on the banks of the Missouri River just outside of the city. By this time they had a daughter and a son. A second son was born in their adopted state of Montana.
Dr. Schemm, who had his heart set on being a surgeon before injuring his hands with X-rays, became an expert on the cause and cure of edema. He discovered that the cause was too much salt, not too much water, which was the erroneous opinion of the time. Although his findings were controversial, gradually a salt-restricted diet became the common cure for this malady. Dr. Schemm became world-recognized, giving papers at the Sorbonne and The Hague.
Mildred Walker, although proud of her husband’s accomplishment, was not allowing the dust to settle around her feet. She wrote nine of her thirteen novels while living in Montana, including
, which was a Literary Guild selection in 1944. Another novel,
The Body of a Young Man
, was nominated for the National Book Award, while yet another,
The Southwest Corner
, became a stage play that ran briefly on Broadway, then became a TV movie. Her contemporaries and friends in Montana included A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and Joseph Kinsey Howard.
When her husband died in 1955, Mildred returned to the East, taking a teaching position at Wells College, her alma mater. She taught at Wells for thirteen years before retiring to the family home in Grafton, where she wrote one of her best novels,
If a Lion Could Talk
, the story of a young New England minister who goes west to Montana to civilize and Christianize the Indians with his gift of speech, and returns defeated to the East to brood about his failure. It is one of the best books of fictionalized history that I have come across.
Due to ill health, Mildred came back to Montana in 1987 to be near her daughter, Ripley Schemm Hugo. She now lives in Portland, Oregon, where she has completed her fourteenth novel,
The Orange Tree
James Welch, with much gratitude to Ripley Hugo for the biographical details