Bottomland by Michelle Hoover: A Review

Set in Iowa on a lonely farm, the book opens as two youngest adolescent daughters, Myrle and Esther, vanish in the night. One girl’s bed is perfectly made, the other covered with disheveled blankets. An aura of foreboding and confusion is quickly established. As the mystery of their disappearance unfolds, we learn of the family’s history. German immigrant mother and father meet in New York City in the late 1800’s. Longing for a bit of soil to call theirs, the Hess family settles on an isolated farm in Iowa. As decades unfold, they fight anti-German sentiment stemming from World War I. A year after the end of the war the sound of the family’s German accent continues to brace the town against the perceived enemy.

Nan, the eldest sister, reveals the bleakness of the family’s existence. Her father, brothers and sisters are skin and bones. Feed for the steers is low, the potatoes growing in the garden are almost frozen, smoke from the neighbor’s chimney is barely visible in the whirling snow. Her sisters are gone without a word. A wooden chair lay on its side with a broken leg and a hammer covered with wood chips the only clues as to their whereabouts. Memories of what Nan’s mother would have done grimly floats through her brain. “I should have been wary of the stillness the next morning, but quiet in a house is a thing a woman likes to keep.”

  • Did Myrle and Esther simply lose track of time and stay overnight in town?
  • Had they pried loose the window their father had nailed shut?
  • How could they withstand winter’s elements dressed only in thin cotton dresses?
  • Were the girls taken by the townspeople to punish the family for being German?
  • Did the sisters run away to begin a new life?
  • How could they just vanish on a prairie where one could see for miles?

The struts of the book are poverty, alienation, resilience, and family ties. After the mystery of the disappearance is revealed a sense of foreboding is beautifully rendered. The remainder of the story, told through the various voices of family members, rewards the reader with a full understanding of the family dynamics. The sobering tale reveals itself subtly, but when it does, we are fully aware of the corrosive effects of a family desperately trying to stay intact in the wake of post-war persecution. Sweeping descriptions of the bleak prairie are masterfully written. Highly recommended.