Rare is the novel that contains both a sense of place so evocative the reader feels he has been there himself, and characters so vividly drawn that they tenaciously lure the reader into their inner lives. Such is the case with Kent Nelson's magnetic new novel, Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still, set in the southern plains of South Dakota.
There, on an alfalfa farm situated between the Lakota reservation to the east and the Black Hills to the west, three determined women and a Native American teenager come together as a unique family, determined to keep their farm alive. Mattie is the recently widowed owner; she struggles not only with the accidental death of her husband, Haney, but also with her discovery that he had a secret gay life. Their daughter Shelley leaves college to help with the chores piling up after Haney's death and decides to stay. Mattie needs help keeping the various tractors, balers and sprinklers in working order, so she advertises for a "hired man." The call is answered by Dawn, a young woman running from an abusive husband, who is handy with machinery; Mattie hires her on a temporary basis. They are joined by Elton, a runaway from his own abusive home situation.
As this hastily assembled mÅ½lange of farm hands comes together, they learn not only how to keep their farm in working order, but how to help each other come to terms with what is missing from their lives, empowered by loyalty to the new family they have created. Numerous side plots involving romance and troublesome neighbors keep the story moving in unexpected ways, culminating in a violent encounter with Dawn's husband that affects them all.
The land becomes part of every character and plot turn, as the author's lyrical descriptions of approaching weather and sunsets inhabit every scene. Nelson obviously feels as close to nature as do the resilient characters he has so carefully crafted, connected as they are to the survival of this patch of land they have made home. Deborah Donovan is a writer in Cincinnati, Ohio.