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review– Alan Cheuse on HARVESTING BALLADS


If this lyrical first novel were a movie, about the first thing you’d notice would be the cinematography. Kimball sets his book in the Great Plains, from the Dakotas down to Oklahoma. and his skies– and his prose– the upper boundaries of his vision, reach just as far. Here’s how, for example, he shows us the great rolling prairie in early evening:

Thunderheads, sturdy, slow, changing with the light. Rolling dark and purple gray, rippling restless electric discharge, red blue fitful white. Inexorable movement along the southwest horizon. Silent. Domes thrust 40,000 feet suffuse vermillion transparent to the intense white of the slanted sun. The moon. And Venus.”

These staccato impressions belong to the main character, a young drifter born out of wedlock to a rodeo cowboy and an innocent, 30 plus-year-old farm girl.

“Sorry” is the character’s name, but Kimball need not apologize one whit. He’s made in this fellow a credible, sweet, confused, but appealing late-hippie whose progress across the Plains most readers with a sense of place, or a longing for one, and a capacity to wonder, will want to follow. When we first meet Sorry, he’s shooting a game of snooker in a broken-down Dakota prairie roadhouse; he’s been following the wheat harvest and singing for a living when he’s not working from sunup to sundown on a combine, For all the distance Sorry traverses, and for all the sky he marvels at, the Plains turn out to he a brief circumference with respect to his origins.  A chance encounter with another field hand, and he’s on the trail of his mother’s identity. When he meets his only actual living relative and becomes entangled in a plot to marry the man off – and becomes entangled with his prospective aunt herself – it’s clear that in-addition to Kimball’s lovely impressions of the land and sky and wind and water, and Plains folk, past and present, he’s entangled us in a plot here, too, one that encompasses several generations and makes us brood on paternity, sonship and the question of the ownership of the land.

The same staccato-like, impressionistic style that Kimball employs to make his times and places and people so memorable becomes occasionally wearisome. Reading it in great swatches can be a bit like looking at an epic tapestry done in the pointillist mode. But the characters stand tall here – and possess widescreen emotions that never compromise our sense of reality even as they stretch it. In “Harvesting Ballads.” we work hard. drink a lot of beer, sing some tunes, shoot some pool, fight a lot and love a lot. And we eavesdrop on voice after out of the history of this special place. In fact the sound track of this recollective little epic is like nothing like we’ve heard from this part of the country since Wright Morris first set his own plough to break the plains.

–Alan Cheuse