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review– George Garrett on HARVESTING BALLADS

The Dictionary of Literary Biograpy: The Year in Fiction

My personal choice for the finest first novel of 1984, surely a superb novel at any stage of a writer’s career, first or last, is Harvesting Ballads (Dutton) by Philip Kimball. I have observed this one develop from its first appearances in little magazines, and it has been a long time coming and finding a publisher. In my view it is a triumph worth waiting for. In justice the only appropriate thing I can do is to quote myself, the statement I sent to the publisher after reading the book in galley proof:

Harvesting Ballads is wide awake and all alive, with its string of memorable, intricately related, splendidly told stories; with characters whose jokes and joys, songs and sorrows, brief triumphs and losing battles are things you will want to bet on and can believe in; with a dazzling realization of place, the Plains, with its sad, fabulous history; with a language that sings and crackles with all the wide range and poetry of American speech; and with, above all, the potent, powerful controlling imagination of the author, Philip Kimball, a writer who here takes his place, with one wonderful novel, among our very best.

A blurb, to be sure, lost in a world of blurbs. But I will stand by every word of it, and I recommend it to all readers who care.

Kimball’s book, by the way, received quite respectable reviews nationally. But in his home country, the Great Plains, Harvesting Ballads has been treated lavishly as a major work and an important contribution to the literature of the Plains. The difference in treatment may well be less a matter of local versus national interests than another example, out of 1984, of the failure of the so-called national center to speak to or for the large and populous regions which make up the nation.

-George Garrett