The Floor of the Sky tells the story of a family whose lives are rooted in the rural farmlands of the Nebraska Sand Hills. It's small-town living, and granddaughter Lila has come "home" pregnant. She's left her mother, Nola Jean, behind in Minneapolis; Nola Jean doesn't seem to want anything more to do with her pregnant daughter, or so Lila thinks. Lila has come to stay with her grandmother Toby, although the level of animosity coming from Lila makes it difficult for Toby to communicate with her. The novel centers on Lila’s story, but through her the reader learns what ties all the characters together and to a tragedy that happened many decades ago.
Gertie, Toby's older sister, currently lives with Toby, but the two sisters do not get along. A long history lies between the two sisters, and Lila is going to learn what it is that has kept the two sisters from remaining close. Gertie's husband, Howard, suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in a home. Gertie wants him back with her, but there is no way she can take care of him and herself at the same time. So, for now, she lives with Toby, and every weekend she and Toby visit Howard at the home. Often times he does not recognize them, nor does he seem to want to.
Lila's cousin Clay works Gertie's land, the farm that was handed over to HIS father Grady until his death a few years ago. Lila and Clay were close while they were growing up, almost inseparable, but they have not seen each other in years, and Clay does not know Lila is pregnant. In the meantime, Clay has become close to Alicia, who happens to be married. When Lila and Clay become reacquainted, she learns about Alicia and does not like what she sees.
George has lived with Toby's family for decades, along with his brother David. David died when Toby was only eighteen. His death happened to coincide with the death of Toby and Gertie’s mother, Rosemary, which made their father a bitter, angry man who treated his son John like dirt, a man who was already broken down by the war.
There is a mystery here that Lila has yet to uncover, but it piques her curiosity; she knows there is something important that needs to be revealed. George and Toby's lives have been intertwined since the tragedy, and Gertie has stood in the wings, as angry and bitter as their father had been. The dynamics among these characters is fascinating as it is slowly revealed what motivates each of them and what secrets they have been keeping since David's tragic death.
It is hard to categorize The Floor of the Sky or to easily explain what it is about. I could say it is a story about family dynamics churned by the death of two people, Rosemary and David. But it is also the story of Lila and her search for family, and the answers she needs regarding her unborn baby. She has felt unloved and unwanted for many years, but her visit with her grandmother during her pregnancy helps her understand her own mother, who has kept her distance from Toby for most of Nola Jean's adult life. One wonders what happened to keep these two apart in the first place. Lila also learns what family is all about as she blossoms into a young woman slowly coming into her own.
Joern’s writing is beautiful, and the backdrop of the Nebraska Sand Hills is perfect for this often dark tale about a divided family. While this story may come across to some as a highbrow literary novel, it pulls the reader in because of what everyone can relate to - family, relationships, and owning up to one’s mistakes and one’s past. The conclusion - and Gertie's true secrets - will bring to the reader an "aha" moment when it is finally understood why Gertie has been such an antagonistic and acrimonious woman nearly all her life. Jealousy and guilt are two of the strongest emotions, and it is one of the main themes of this novel. The novel, whose themes are based on a tragic event, will end with yet another tragedy. This last tragedy might be a bit too much, but the book still reads from front to back as a near-perfect novel. The Floor of the Sky