You Can’t Pick Your Neighbors
Michelle Hoover’s first novel, The Quickening, enters the gritty, high-stakes relationship between two women building homes and raising families on the austere Midwest prairie at the turn of 20th century. Sturdy and determined Enidina “Eddie” Current has been rescued from spinsterhood by her quiet and faithful husband Frank. Her farm skills and solid work ethic promise to yield a satisfying but hard life, until the neighborly interference of Mary Morrow begins to affect the course of Eddie’s family. Mary is Eddie’s opposite, a delicate urban transplant. Jack, her loud vivacious husband, can be something of an abusive brute, but nothing seems to happen to Mary unless she is a part of his whirlwind. Ironically, Mary is the partner with a dark past and a history of destructive self justification. Jack shares her propensity toward interference in others’ affairs, specifically when he kills the Current’s hogs in response to the difficult economic conditions, but against Eddie and Frank’s wishes. Throughout the course of the novel, compromise becomes a method of survival for both families.
Hoover explores these methods of compromise through a parallel narrative structure, with the two accounts of the action written from the perspectives of Eddie and Mary. This structure invites the reader to explore the impulses toward self preservation that propel these families toward one another and later into hard-locked conflict. Eddie’s narrative is addressed to a grandson she has never met and whom she calls “My boy”. Her narrative serves as a history of her life but also an attempt to help the grandson understand the people he comes from. Unfortunately, Eddie’s narrative begins and ends with the bitterness that has plagued both women since the Great Depression. “The Morrow family, they were a worry to ours from day one,” Eddie says, “And once you know what they took from us, you might just understand the people you come from.” Mary’s version reads more like a testimony from a defendant. Mary is the more traditionally religious of the two, but her elaborate justifications to herself and to the reader thinly veil the moral weakness that characterizes her life choices. She is the first to initiate friendship but also arguably the first to betray it. Even in the tender moments between the women, especially during the childbirth scenes, the relationship is overcast with the promised betrayals from the beginning of the novel, which emerge halfway through and snowball to the finale.
Both narratives adopt distinct voices. Eddie’s narrative is characterized by interruptions into her delusions about seeing the grandson and contemplation of the familiar but intrusive nurse that looks after her. Eddie’s sections are understood to be written narrative, while Mary’s sections enter directly into her mind with a wheedling tone that does not address any one character. Both women linger in episodes of childbearing and rearing, which ironically serve as the basis for both community and isolation between the Current and Morrow families.
Hoover also uses the split narrative to give the reader insight into the women’s differing upbringings and marriages and to establish the psychology that fuels their disunified and at times alarming behaviors. When Eddie wakes the morning after her wedding night, she washes the blood from their new sheets. But Mary must endure Jack’s interrogating gaze when he wakes to find their sheets still crisp and white. The novel dwells in the physicality of childbirth, baptism, abuse, farm activities, and death although its narratory landscape is the mind. Hoover’s hog slaughtering and butchering scenes are characterized by raw physical data and the brutality of men. Hoover transports the reader into the rain, the muck, and beside the dead body of a slaughtered pregnant sow and a child burying it.
By creating a harsh unforgiving landscape in both the physical, political and monetary climates of the Great Depression, Hoover establishes footholds for the reader to identify with, condemn and vie for Eddie and Mary. Readers are invited to observe the trajectory of human nature during times of deprivation and examine situations where excessive grief and self-preservation result in alienation. For both Eddie and Mary survival necessitates some version of community that is expendable and distorted during times of hardship. Yet, Hoover’s tender rendering of these two women, their universal longing for the good of their children and the hazy future of their families leaves the novel open to both fatalistic and redemptive readings.