Bruce Holbert describes “The Hour of Lead” as “a story of the isolation inherent in the miles between people in a still unsettled place,” where those distances turn people “strange and sometimes mean.” Set in the rough farm and ranch land of eastern Washington, the novel follows the lives of several people from 1918 to the late ’70s.
At age 10, Matt Lawson survives a historic blizzard that kills his twin brother and father. (“The Hour of Lead” takes its title from a passage in Emily Dickinson’s “poem 372” concerning freezing in the snow:
This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the snow.)
As a result of the deaths’ impact on Matt and his mother, he soon leaves school to run the family farm. He awkwardly courts Wendy, daughter of the grocery-store owner in the nearby town of Peach. But clearly knocked off center by events, Matt leaves Wendy and his slowly deteriorating mother to fend for themselves. He stays away for years, working on the railroad, logging, driving a truck, paving a highway and, particularly, laboring as an itinerant farm hand.
Matt grows into a man reminiscent of a simple and flawed character in a modern Western movie: laconic, unsentimental, large and muscular, hardworking, quick to fight and occasionally brutal. He is short on insight but possesses a crude moral code. (Think Gene Hackman as the sheriff in “The Unforgiven.”)
In the middle third of the story, he settles on the farm of the dysfunctional Jarms family, where father and adult son feud constantly and the mother’s whereabouts are a mystery. Because of the father’s health problems and the fact the son, Horace, is more interested in drinking and running up gambling debts than in farming, Matt stays longer than he intends. With the father, he forms what may be the healthiest relationship he has had as an adult.
After a bloody and unrealistic showdown with Horace, Matt concludes that he is “‘safe for people now’” and decides it is time to return to Wendy. It has been 19 years with no contact between them, and Matt brings with him a 2-week old baby.
The former town of Peach has been submerged by Lake Roosevelt, and he and Wendy quickly marry and migrate to Grand Coulee, where Matt works constructing the dam. They start new lives in very challenging circumstances, living in a tent and short on food, but in the book’s final acts the family strengthens and their kids grow up with much more love than Matt ever experienced as a boy.
Bruce Holbert has written a book that pulls the reader along: What dispiriting or violent set of circumstances will next confront Matt — or other characters in the book? Until Matt and Wendy move to Grand Coulee, “The Hour of Lead” is almost relentlessly grim. The level of violence and despair is almost unbelievable, more than one person would ever face, but Matt is not a person able to look the other way.
Although other reviewers have called this book “a masterpiece” and compared the author to Cormac McCarthy, early John Steinbeck and Larry McMurtry (but without the latter’s sense of humor), that is a stretch I will not make. But Holbert’s prose is frequently compelling: “[The death of the school teacher’s husband] the year previous had deposited her in a sad, inevitable season. She weathered it as a dumb animal scratches for summer’s remnants beneath the snow, not understanding winter or seeking to, only enduring it.” Or while Matt listens to a preacher’s sermon: “His head thought nothing; he stared into blackness and listened to words that had torn loose from meaning and become only sounds a man made, no different from the barks or grunts from animals.”
The descriptions of the country in eastern and central Washington are particularly evocative. Holbert occasionally tries too hard to be descriptive or use archaic language, perhaps in an attempt to evoke an earlier time, as in “The sky had blued” or “purpled” or “It rained a week entire.” But on the whole, his descriptions are one of the novel’s strong points.
Holbert’s previous novel, “Lonesome Animals,” was highly acclaimed. The Seattle Times and Slate magazine named it a Best Book of 2012. With that as the standard, the author’s second effort may fall a little short. But if the reader can see past the grim nature of the plot and the “mean” and “strange” nature of many of the characters, the craftsmanship of the prose makes for a worthwhile read.
Book Review - The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert