Dust Bowl misery and the Great Depression of the 1930s dominate this family saga, one of the most descriptive novels I have read of the terrible years of country dwarfed by drought and economic hardship, farmers walking away from generations of commitment to seek a future in a more forgiving landscape. The dominant character in Todd’s saga is Eli Paint, a man who purchases a wide swath of Wyoming to set down roots for his family only to destroy the bonds of that family through unreasonable expectations and harsh judgments of those found wanting.
When Eli travels to the deathbed of his daughter, Velma, in Nebraska, he learns from his bitter granddaughter, Emmaline Hughes, that Velma has already died, buried beneath a solemn tombstone in the local cemetery. Eli embarks upon a long and thoughtful process of making amends for past mistakes, seeking Emmaline’s reluctant forgiveness, offering her a place on his land and in his heart, if she will accept it. But Emmaline’s personality has been honed from the same harsh soil as her mother’s, a proud, work-hardened woman who is willing to consider the relationship she might enjoy with Eli in the future but claims the right to determine her destiny in her own way.
Harboring the dream of a small farm in Nebraska, Emmaline falls in love and marries a washed-up prizefighter who adores her but cannot control his temper or his independent ways in the world. Marriage to Jake McCloskey proves a difficult testing ground even for a young woman of such mettle, the stubborn and loyal Emmaline worried that she may have made a terrible error in judgment. The couple tries to make the farm profitable, if only marginally, only to pack all their belongings to begin a new life in Oregon when McCloskey fixates on the promise of a job in a new place. But McCloskey takes his bad attitude with him (drinking, gambling and womanizing), and the couple remains in Oregon only a short time before they have pulled up stakes to return to Nebraska and the woefully diminished farm they left behind.
Between the vast beauty of Wyoming, where Eli comes to terms with his mortality and the consequences of a rash youth, to the howling Nebraska plains and a lush Oregon drenched in rain, the author paints a vivid picture of a country in crisis, a family on the way to mending broken bonds and the demands of an indifferent world where economic chaos and nature’s fury have forged formidable obstacles. But Todd’s novel is nothing if not a paean to the American spirit, a reminder of the vast promise of a land held together only by the courage of its inhabitants.