On Monday, Mar. 3, I was delighted to have had a break from class and listen to Michelle Hoover come visit Brandeis to read an excerpt from her new novel, “Bottomland.”
Michelle Hoover, author of “The Quickening,” is described by iconic novelist and short story writer Charles Baxter as a writer who “recreates for us a way of life and a set of personalities with solidity of detail.”
If that isn’t enough, Hoover also has a great amount of teaching experience under her belt, having worked at Emerson College, Bucknell University and Boston University (where she currently works) as well as dedicating her time to Boston’s Grub Street, a nonprofit creative writing center that offers a high-level adult education for writing. Grub Street is a novel incubator program Hoover founded. The curriculum consists of a 12-month program where students meet in three-hour-long workshops, headed by Hoover herself, during which she provides them with feedback on their work and helps them improve their writing skills.
After an impressive introduction, Hoover then stepped in to take over the show. She began by giving us a brief background of “Bottomland,” which is set shortly after World War I and centers on an isolated German-American farming family. From the first instance that Hoover began reading the passage from her book, I was already transported into the scene, haunted by the foreboding ambiance that seems to manifest over the beginning of the novel. The “miles of grass and field land,” the gloominess outside “as dark as a cellar” and the narrator’s sister Esther’s “arms and feet bare in the cold” all add to the eerie sensation that one feels while reading this first part of the novel.
The mysterious setting is used to reflect the mystery of Esther’s disappearance. The narrator’s other sisters, Merrill and Agnes, constantly complain that Esther is missing while the narrator, the oldest, tries to remain the strong one, especially because their mother has passed away. However, she feels as though she has let her mother down when she starts to think that she has not appropriately handled the duty as the eldest sister. To give the readers a basic background of Esther’s personality, the narrator characterizes her with a “mushroom-cap of her hair,” as “too quick for her own good” and as having a “terrible imagination.”
The most intense and frightening part of the story is when the narrator comes to check out the upstairs room, which is locked. After pushing to get the door open, we see “the frame popped, the wood cracking” and the inside of the room dark. With a “chair fallen on its leg,” and having it compared to “a broken child” gives us chills as we anticipate what is to come next after seeing “a door closed” and “a hammer fallen.” The narrator tries to ease her mind while surveying the scene by listening to what her father had taught all of his daughters: “Never make too much of something, lest that something make a fool of you.”
The reading ended at a cliffhanger, leaving listeners wanting to know what happens after they set out to find Esther. The audience then had a chance to ask the author some questions. Because the audience was rather small, I was less intimidated than I would usually be and felt more comfortable asking questions. Most of the students asked her for some writing tips, wondering how she masters the skill of creating such unique, and at the same time realistic, dialogue. Another aspect of her writing that people thought was particularly interesting was the way that Hoover subtly manipulated the setting to match the ominous mood that plays a big factor in the passage. For instance, she describes the animals in the barn as being restless while the “potatoes in garden were ready to rot.” She provides this description right before she is about to describe her encounter with the locked, dark room. Giving the readers a warning about what is to come next in the story, small hints of detail actually provide a huge impact to not only this specific passage, but to the book’s main theme as well.