Inspired in part by the recession of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the United States is renewing its romance with the land. It gives shape to America’s national myth; it serves as emblem of its past achievements. In his poem “Hamatreya,” Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that man can never truly own the land, that it inevitably outlasts its momentary possessors and passes from one hand to the next. Still, there is pride in ownership of land, and more: trust and identity and responsibility. Thus, when Ike McCaslin voluntarily repudiates his ownership of land in Go Down, Moses (1942), William Faulkner presents the act as an abdication of duty. Even more tragic is to have the land taken away, to be stripped of the past, to lose the generational investment of blood. The archetypal novel (and film) of such loss is The Grapes of Wrath (1939); it is a theme recently rediscovered by Hollywood in such 1984 films as Country, The River, and Places in the Heart. It is further reflected in the writings of such regional writers as Bobbie Ann Mason and Lee Smith, and it is the central theme of Douglas Unger’s Leaving the Land, a novel which, as the title’s twofold thrust suggests, tells of a rural community’s gradual loss of economic and social identity, and of one family’s attempt to maintain its property as inheritance for another generation.
Unger’s novel is divided into two sections. Part 1 is told in the third person and concentrates on Marge Hogan and her family in the years immediately following World War II, a time of violent and disturbing change. Marge’s father, Ben, raises turkeys for the Nowell-Safebuy turkey processing plant, as do most of the farmers in this region of South Dakota. Like the other farmers, Ben began to raise turkeys in response to pressure from the government, which argued that the diversified farming practices these ranchers had long followed no longer met the war needs. Because Ben’s two sons are killed in battle, he finds it impossible to return to his former crops when the war ends; such farming demands full family participation. He, his daughter, Marge, and his wife, Vera, are able to manage a turkey farm, although it is a backbreaking and uncommonly demeaning occupation, for turkeys are incredibly stupid and troublesome creatures, as Unger makes clear. Thus, even before Marge’s story begins, the pattern is set for the series of incursions by which the government and big business, working hand-in-hand, bring radical change to a traditional way of life.
Unger focuses his attention both on Marge’s personal story and the larger story of the community of Nowell, which is transformed into a company town by the Nowell-Safebuy plant. The town and the neighboring farmers at first prosper in their cooperation with the company, although their financial gain comes at the expense of self-respect. When Ben, for example, tries to break with the company and sell his turkeys at his own price, his truck is hijacked and set afire by hired thugs, and Ben resigns himself to doing company business. Marge, meanwhile, dreams of escape from the farm: from turkeys and awkward, crude suitors and limited opportunities. When former soldier Jim Vogel, a Safebuy company lawyer, comes into town, Marge is ready for whatever he has to offer. They embark on a scandalous affair, and the first section of the book ends with their marriage and Marge’s first intimations that their future may not match her romantic expectations.
The second section of the novel is narrated by Marge and Jim’s grown son, Kurt, and is set in the 1980’s, years after the marriage has failed. Nowell is dying as a community, having been used and discarded by the Safebuy company. Jim Vogel played an important role in the takeover, writing unfair contracts and representing the company in its questionable legal maneuvers. His guilt and Marge’s outrage have combined to destroy their relationship. When Kurt returns at Christmas after a stint in the navy and a time of wandering, his mother is still living in the pretentious home her husband built for her in celebration of their marriage, a house that she cannot now sell. In the intervening years, she has watched her marriage self-destruct, taken...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)