How can you keep them on the farm?
With weather not conducive to raising crops, the Beamers met to discuss Leah Bobet’s novel about life on the farm after the Big Bad has been beaten, An Inheritance of Ashes. Caught up in the family drama of the Hoffmann sisters and their struggles with missing husband, mysterious stranger, and recurring incursions of little monsters, the Beamers were able to forget the outside chills and concentrate on what really matters: is it science fiction or fantasy?
YA for Young(ish) Adults
Ms. Bobet’s second novel tends to defy easy categories. Marketed as a Young Adult (YA) book, and winning an Aurora Award for YA no less, her examination of Hallie Hoffmann’s coming-of-age has a number of classic YA elements, such as the awkward first kiss. Yet, she layers Hallie’s growing pains in a larger context that includes Tyler, her romantic object, also suffering from permanent disabilities from his wartime service. The Hoffman sisters own and farm their own land, but had to take it over when barely of age after their (abusive) father died. Legal fights with the Mayor of neighboring Windstown did not make it any easier for them, as well. Nor is Marthe’s third-trimester pregnancy. So, a lot of issues that go beyond “first date/first kiss” are piled up on Hallie’s plate. These complications, including secrets about the new farmhand that are not hers to tell, estrange her from Marthe and do not make her a character of simple sympathy.
Chris, in particular, while admiring the exactness of how the family dynamic was portrayed, found it hard to warm to Hallie’s rather impulsive and reckless outbursts. Our discussion of her growth and change by novel’s end did help him feel more admiration for her, but it did take a bit of convincing and a lot of evidence. Donna, on the other hand, could feel a lot of immediate understanding for the situation of the two sisters, working together and yet remaining apart, trapped in their own impressions of what was best and how to keep the other from being upset or hurt.
No Good Deed Goes Unprobated
The relationships in the book are certainly its strongest feature, not only Hallie with Marthe, but Hallie with Tyler and with Heron, the new farmhand. Liz found that it was the character interactions that carried the book, much more than a plot that seemed a bit overstuffed and confusing. I agreed, right away, as the key to Hallie’s personality comes out in her first meeting with Heron, a tired veteran looking for a place to stay and way to earn a living. When Hallie offers him even the courtesy of talking, Heron deems her to be kind, a word that resonates with her, and offers her a goal to live up to for the rest of the book. Apologizing to the Mayor and asking outright for help is one of Hallie’s major accomplishments, which in turn allows the Mayor to understand that his own offers to help were made without listening to the sisters to find out what they actually wanted. Being kind is a simple, yet powerful motivation, all the more admirable for not being part of more genre works.
And the character bonds are what carried us through the book, right up to the simple ending that Kathy loved, with Hallie, Heron, and Tyler off to return a dead man’s ashes to his daughter and maybe find Hallie’s missing uncle. When Tyler begs off, being too slow to keep up with his bad leg, they argue that they are in no hurry. The journey and whom one takes it with is the point, Liz added, much more than the destination.
More Twisted Things than are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy
Still, some of the journeying in the book did offer us glimpses at the worlds in which these characters travel, including, with only tantalizing peeks, the world “next door” that spawned the awful Twisted Things. Here is one place where the issue of placing the book into science fiction or into fantasy was clearly a bit muddled. For some Beamers, it appears as a standard-issue portal fantasy (things from the Bad Place slip/sneak into Our World). Except that the author provides some science-y explanations, and includes a whole family of experimenters (the Chandlers) who pooh-pooh the idea of Twisted Things as “monsters” and sees them as animals with more acidic physiologies, thus causing the burn marks, heat, popping sounds, etc. Given the post-apocalyptic setting that Ms. Bobet employs (set a century or so “after the fall of the cities”), the issue of Science vs. Superstition (usually layered on with a whiff of “Science caused the fall, so Science is Bad”) is not a novelty for genre. But that opposition does tend to add a sense of pre-Industrial/medieval times, which pertains more to fantasy than to science fiction. Donna and Kathy both found the book falling into the fantasy genre because of its less prominent role for the scientific method.
It Takes a Post-Apocalyptic Village
On the positive side, the post-apocalyptic setting also enabled one of the pleasant surprises, the wide diversity of the characters. Alan was happily caught up in finding just how wide a community was assembled on the banks of a river, somewhere in the American Mid-west (as best we could tell – I was guessing Minnesota, due to the region being called “lakelands” and a number of Hmong characters present). Kathy, too, liked that the book’s characters represented our modern society in all its mixtures, rather than restricting to a more limited, homogeneous cast. Not everyone agreed, though; Nick was unsure what the diversity was meant to show, and he was unable to see how it improved or advanced the plot. Chekhov’s Gun remained unfired for him.
On the negative side, the worldbuilding was a bit incomplete. How did the cities fall? We were unable to say. And not only Chekhov’s Gun, but guns in general were unfired, as the book’s culture has lost even the idea of guns, despite hunting likely being a necessary means of safety and supply. Much of the technology of the novel was open to question. Clearly, the cities did not fall too long ago, as they were still sources of salvage. But, their names were certainly gone and their major structures, like the suspension bridge that Hallie crosses just as it collapses, are falling into rubble. While the dating of the setting is only a minor point, it does affect our understanding of how this new society operates and how they understand their past. Alan suggested it was akin to the fall of Rome, echoing through the characters’ lives. But I could not see the characters taking much interest in preserving their past (unlike post-Romans hoping to rekindle the Empire).
Way Many More Things
And the climax of the book was a bit overstuffed, as well. Liz thought too much was happening at too-loud a volume. How does Roadstead Farm survive if so many Twisted Things came pouring through the portal? Nick wanted to see the various plot threads (fight against the Twisted Things, rescue of missing husband, advancing march of law-enforcing militia) tied better into one neat bundle instead of resolved with separate knots. There did seem to be too many ingredients in the stew, as I called it.
But, we did rally to support the Hoffmann women and their neighbors, awarding the book a bevy of 8’s, with a 6 and a 7 tossed in. Liz wondered to whom she could recommend this book, since it crosses a number of lines (YA/adult, sf/f, family drama/action-adventure). Overall, we did feel that it could find readers in any of the genre groups with whom we meet. Alan and Kathy both thought the ending was ready-made for a sequel, one that most of us would welcome. So, if we have a problem in placing An Inheritance of Ashes in another sf reader’s hands, it seems plausible that we may need to face that enjoyable task yet again.