Book review: “Harvest” by Jim Crace

Jim Crace has said that his 2013 book Harvest will be his last novel. It’s not that he’s going to stop writing. He promises more books of other sorts but not another novel. We’ll see.

It would be a loss for readers. No novelist creates a world with quite the same intensity and tangibility as Crace does. The forces of Nature and their impact on human beings are always at the heart of his fiction. And so it is with Harvest.

crace --- harvest

It is set in an obscure corner of England in the 17th century — on the Jordan Estate, also called the Property of Edmund Jordan, a manor house, a barn, a dovecote and a cluster of cottages amid farm fields, hills and a forest. The place has no name as Walter Thirsk tells a visitor: “It’s just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land.”

Walt, the narrator of this tale, is a middle man, as even his name suggests. (One loutish character giggles with great glee when he realizes that Walt’s name sounds like “Water” and “Thirst.” Ha, ha.)

Walt was born in a town and grew up with Master Charles Kent as his boyhood playmate. Indeed, they both nursed at the breasts of Walter’s mother. As an adult, he worked as Master Kent’s manservant and came along when that gentleman’s wife inherited this property.

During the next dozen years, Walt fell in love with a village woman, Cecily, and left the manor house to live with her and join with the 50 or so other residents to farm the fields in the circuit of seasons as ancestors had done time out of mind.

He has become one of the villagers although he still does special jobs for Master Kent. Both men are now widowers.


“A commonwealth of habit”

Harvest tells about a week in the life of the Village when everything the villagers have known is turned on its head, in large part because of the appearance of Master Kent’s cousin Edmund.

This cousin, it turns out, has a higher claim to the property than Master Kent. He is a modern thinker and plans to cut down the forest and enclose within fences the farm fields and all other land to provide pastures for raising sheep. The planting and reaping of crops will end. Under his plan, some of the villagers will be able to stay to work for pay on the sheep farm. Most will have to leave.

Cousin Edmund, who shows up just as the harvest has been brought in, has no patience for the rhythms of farm life. Sheep are without question a much more efficient and profitable way to employ the land.

He is maddened at our way of life. He is exasperated by the disarray his has discovered in our village….. [He sees] this village as… a slow-paced commonwealth of habit, custom and routine, of wasting time and sauntering, of indolence.

“Nothing but sheep,” Cousin Edmund says with double meaning. Under his plan, there will be no farming — only sheep. But also, looking at the villagers, he sees them all as lambs.

There is nothing more pitiful than us he thinks. There’s none more meek. There’s none to match our peevish fearfulness, our thoughtless lives, our vacant puny faces, our dependency, our fretful scurrying, our plaints. I can tell he wishes he could see the back of all of us. He’ll put an end to all the sauntering. He will replace us with nobler stock.


“Thud on thud”

Harvest could be seen as a book about the exploitation of the farm worker by the hundreds of Enclosure Acts, beginning 1604 — a book about control of the land, its ownership or “ownership.” But historical fiction isn’t Crace’s intent. He’s grappling with bigger themes.

Cousin Edmund is short-sighted, mean-spirited and ornery. But so are the villagers. Witness their handling of two men and a woman who seek to claim squatting rights on the land.

No question, Cousin Edmund plans to drastically alter the way these people — like those before them — have lived on this land. And, no question, these people are victims.

Yet, Crace makes clear that they’re not innocent.

Five-year-old Lizzie Carr — “a little twig of a girl” — is one of three villagers who have been locked up by Cousin Edward’s men on vague suspicions of sorcery. Standing in the center of the village, Edmund’s groom makes a joke about her captivity: “We’ll have a bit of charcoal from her yet.”

And the villagers attack.

No one is calling or saying anything. All I hear is thud on thud, a farming sound, a livestock sound. A thousand stinging grievances are settling on the groom, a hundred angry, waspy fists are hurting him…then one of the Saxon lads decides to outdo his brothers by stepping forward with his pruning blade…

The groom is disfigured, and the villagers realize they’ve gone too far.


“The Kingdom of God”

There is no counterbalance to Cousin Edmund. Master Kent is a weak man, and, unlike more places of that era, there is no church, so no priest or bishop to take up the cause of the villagers.

The villagers once began to build a church, but soon gave up. On its foundation stone, instead, is the pillory, rarely used, a cross-shaped emblem of…what? The village’s pagan ethos perhaps.

Cousin Edmund is planning to take control of the land. Up until now, the villagers have felt they controlled the land. For them, God doesn’t enter into the equation.

We do not dare to say we count ourselves beyond the Kingdom of God. But we do not press too closely to His bosom, rather we are at His fingertips. He touches us, but only just…No, we dare not think and even say among ourselves, there’d be no barley if we left it to the Lord, not a single blade of it. …You never find Him planting crops for us. You never find us planting weeds. But still we have to battle with his darnel and his fumiter, we have to suffer from his fleas and gnats and pests.

God, for them, isn’t Lord of the land or Lord of them. He’s an irritant.


“Inflexible and stern”

Walt seems like the central character of Harvest, but he isn’t. It’s The Land.

On page after page, Walt tells about the beauty, vitality and strength of The Land and its setting. For instance, the sky talks to him and the others in subtle ways:

I have my blues: this blue betokens harvest days (it will not rain), and that one promises a cracking frost; another — higher, darker and more ponderous — reveals itself only silently and briefly when the sun has already withdrawn into his bedchamber but the windows of his heavens are not yet quite closed; this is the blue that says we’re free to stretch and finish work and rest.

And, if the sky speaks, The Land roars and demands and requires:

The countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you. It wants to dish out scars and bruises. It wants to give your roughened palms and gritty eyes. It likes to snag and tear your arms and legs on briars and on brambles every time you presume to leave the path.

….the land itself is inflexible and stern. It is impatient, in fact. It cannot wait. …It will not let us hesitate or test; it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it…It wants to see us leathery, our necks and forearms burned as black as chimney oak; it wants to leave us thinned and sinewy from work. It taxes us from dawn to dusk, and torments us at night; that is the taxing that the thrush complains about.

The song of the thrush is Tax Tax Tax.


“Our sacrament”

Better than the Kingdom of God — and certainly better than the Kingdom of Cousin Edward — the Village is best thought of as the Kingdom of the Land.

“Plowing,” Walt says at one point, “is our sacrament, our solemn oath, the way we grace and consecrate our land.”

At a key moment in the story, Walt and Master Kent are standing alone, equals again in some way because of the great changes that have come and will come in their lives.

Master Kent tells Walt, “This land has always been much older than ourselves. So much older than ourselves. Not anymore.”

He is thinking about how the land that they and many previous generations have known — a land of farm fields and seasons — is about to change to a land of sheep and shearing and fencing.

The land, given a new use by Cousin Edmund, will be younger, he implies.

Yet, if Harvest is about anything, it’s about how such things are secondary — how such human plans and “control” are illusionary.

People scratch the surface in this way or that, as farmers or shepherds — as shopping center builders, backyard gardeners, street pavers or landscape architects.

The land — The Land — endures.

Patrick T. Reardon

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