by Michelle Hoover
Grove Press, Black Cat, 2016
As a reader and writer, I am not normally drawn to historical fiction novels. I tend to think of them as being more for history buffs, or people with a special interest in a specific era, event, or figure of importance. As such, I was hesitant going into Bottomland, especially with very little knowledge of the period of post-World War I American history that is its setting. But Michelle Hoover’s writing soon proved a pleasant surprise.
Bottomland is the story of the German-American Hess family, who struggle against xenophobic post-WWI sentiments in their small, Midwestern town. These tensions escalate when the two youngest Hess daughters, Esther and Myrle, vanish mysteriously in the middle of the night, leaving the rest of their family to pick up the pieces. Each section of the novel is narrated by a different member of the Hess family – oldest sister Nan, father Jon Julius, brother Lee, and, finally, Esther. Hoover differentiates well between the voices of these narrators, and I found myself the most naturally drawn to Lee, a World War I veteran whose segment of the book often included vivid flashbacks to his time overseas. Lee is the most unreliable narrator of the bunch due to his mental illness, making his narrative so dreamlike and temporally fluid that the reader is never sure that the information they are being presented with is true. Although Lee is also the most passive narrator, letting those around him “[break] around [him] as if [he] were a stone” (151), I was intrigued with every new tidbit that I learned about him, his time as a soldier, and even his perspective on events that other narrators had already mentioned or described in detail.
The Hess family in general is easily one of the most sympathetic families I have had the pleasure of reading about lately, and the air of despair and distress that Hoover builds around them with every subsequent chapter is chilling. The mystery of Esther and Myrle’s whereabouts often takes a backseat to other drama in the Hesses’ lives, or extended flashback sequences, but the knowledge that two young, vulnerable girls are inexplicably missing hangs heavy over every single chapter. Hoover does an excellent job leading the reader to one solid conclusion about the mystery before dropping a gut-wrenching clue that blows everything apart. The standout for me was in the first section of the book, when Nan finds “one of Myrle’s good dresses, a blue crepe [she] had made her for Easter” (61) at the bottom of a bin of rags, torn and bloody. I had been convinced, up until that point, that Myrle and Esther must have simply run away from home. But with one simple revelation, Bottomland forced me to call into question all of my prior assumptions.
The payoff at the end of Bottomland, happily enough, stands up to the artful way Hoover leads the reader towards it. The way all of the narrative threads are tied together is nothing short of masterful, and I felt that, while the ending was not necessarily emotionally fulfilling for every character, it was fulfilling and natural from a reader’s standpoint. Bottomland’s emotional arc certainly comes full circle, and hits hard, even for readers like myself who might be more hesitant to pick up a piece of historical fiction.