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I read this book first simply because I had to - it is one of the set texts for my English literature course - which may not have helped my enjoyment of the novel. I found it hard to get into, a bit boring and at times painful to read. For some reason however, actually studying the text,whilst not causing me to fall in love with the book, has improved it vastly in my eyes - it is not a novel that can be read lightly without really concentrating, and perhaps that is where I went wrong.
The novel deals with the life of Loyal Blood, a migrant worker who flees his home and abandons the promise of a fulfilled and successful life as a farmer - a trade he takes naturally to - after committing a terrible crime. The novel follows him across the United States during the War and on into the late 20th century as he tries to find work and meaning for his life, while the world changes around him and leaves him behind. The story is a rich and detailed account of all who Loyal is attached to - from his family to acquaintances along the way, and people who are linked to him but whom he never meets. Throughout the novel names and events crop up that you may have almost forgotten about - clues about strange happenings in Loyal's life, or characters who he met earlier on resurfacing with new stories. It is an incredibly detailed portrayal of 20th century America, made all the more intriguing for the postcard that appears at the beginning of most chapters - some by Loyal, some by people the reader will recognise, some by people the reader will never know.
Proulx's writing style is at once beautiful and rough; a reflection perhaps of the settings and events she writes about, "resonant prose that both soars and gets down in the dirt". It certainly does both; Loyal's life is often neither pleasant nor easy, and he spends time with the lower class of American workers, the dark underbelly of poverty and violence that seems to be ignored by the idea of The American Dream. Rich description of settings serves to heighten the realism of the novel, to slow the action and give a feeling that you are reading your way through someone's life, particularly the life of a migrant.
The detailed descriptions do not shy away from unpleasant scenes however; death, horrific injuries and meaningless sex are all portrayed with a brutal realism. Despite his crime, Loyal is a largely likeable character, and his constant misfortune coupled with the painful knowledge that he could have been great - or great by impoverished American standards - serves to make reading the book somewhat painful. Proulx takes no prisoners; if you don't want a portrayal of what life was like for migrant workers, then you can put the book down and read something nicer. It would be your loss though.
Careful characterisation also improves the book and adds to the gritty realism. Proulx seems perfectly able to create feelings towards a character with a few simple sentences - when Loyal picks up two hitchhikers the feeling of unease is deep and immediate. None of the characters seem to be entirely wholesome people, which again makes the novel tough going. There are no heroes. However, they all have goodness in certain ways, and the complexity of their natures makes the book also an interesting study of humanity. She uses this to make the reader consider their own prejudices - are you feeling uneasy because the hitchhiker sat behind Loyal in the car is a dodgy looking character, or is it just because he is a Native American? This is also an instance of where tiny clues contained in the prose and later postcards will suggest what the answer is, but you have to be on your toes to notice them.
"Not since Steinbeck has the migrant worker's life been so evocatively rendered," as a critic from The Daily Telegraph put it, and I agree completely - if you haven't read any Steinbeck I would thoroughly recommend him too. It may not be an easy read, but it is a very interesting one, and an experience that stays with you even if you can't decide whether you like the novel or not. Perhaps the ambiguity adds to the reality - and it certainly makes me feel very glad for the easy life I lead.
Published by: Harper Perennial
Annie Proulx's first novel received huge acclaim and marked the launch of an outstanding literary career. 'Proulx has come close to writing "the great American novel" ' New York Times Postcards is the story of Loyal Blood, a man who spends a lifetime on the run from a crime so terrible that it renders him forever incapable of touching a woman. The odyssey begins on a freezing Vermont hillside in 1944 and propels Blood across the American West for 40 years. Denied love and unable to settle, he lives a hundred different lives: mining gold, growing beans, hunting fossils, trapping, prospecting for uranium and ranching. His only contact with his past is through a series of postcards he sends home -- not realising that in his absence disaster has befallen his family, and their deep-rooted connection with the land has been severed with devastating consequences...