Originally Published 1940
Heyday Books, Santa Clara University,
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
General Fiction, California 1940
A young ranch woman takes her cattle each day to graze along the roads, after the family pastures are depleted by drought. When the road verges are almost grazed out, she gets some news that changes her internally. Well, you werenít looking for a plot when you picked up NOVEMBER GRASS, were you?
Author Judy Van der Veer wrote this book to express her love for the ranch country where she lived. The tone seems placid, detached, cushioned from the strong feelings of everyday living and dying, but this is not really detachment. This is the peace that comes from oneness with her surroundings. The authorís deceptive simplicity of style would have been impossible if she had not understood this life in her bones. The clarity of the vision she shares with us comes from long and thoughtful observation.
Even cushioned by the gentle thoughts of this book, the main characterís sense of alienation from most of the people she knows is a jarring note. Hardly anyone she meets seems compatible with the life rhythm in the hills and valleys. Only someone who shares her connection with nature would truly fit into her life. There is one such young man, and when she finally makes connection with those feelings most of us know so well, he is the reason.
I have read many books about the individuality of the animals who share various authorsí lives. NOVEMBER GRASS differs from those books because the author is a part of the animalsí world, not an outside observer. There is nothing contrived, cute or funny about the four-legged friends who share her days along the roadside, or who live in the memories that make up the real story of NOVEMBER GRASS. As we read, we recognize that the author has known the yearling colt Flaxie who frolics and teases on their way to the feeding ground. We can feel no doubt, as a young bull turns into a whirling dervish for pure joy of a newly planted field, the author is remembering just such a young bull in just such a dance; and now he lives in our memories, too. When the girl remembers going out to rescue a heifer and brand new calf from a violent storm, we understand completely why she values the experience so much, even as we know why her mother couldnít understand at all. In spite of the usual disclaimers, we can see the author has recreated all the essentials of the world she values most.
NOVEMBER GRASS has the perfect commentator in Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the Foreword for this new edition. She shares Judy Van der Veerís preference for country living and has much the same love for those surroundings. LeGuin, a premier writer of beautiful words, surely knows the beautiful writing of this book as few others do, and her Foreword is a work of art in itself. She sees everything important and makes the comments that need to be made. Few could have done it more movingly.
So what is a reviewer to do, in the wake of such a combination? If my opinion agreed with LeGuinís, I would be left with nothing to say. However I found this a slow book and kept putting it down. It is very pleasant to float on a silent sunny pool, rocking in little wind ripples, but you canít do it forever. NOVEMBER GRASS was probably meant to be read slowly. It is almost an enhancement to meditation, not for readers looking for events.
Oct 2001 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site
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