1944, characterization, farm life, German prisoners-of-war, historical fiction, Lucy Sanna, sexual mores, trite fiction, twentieth century, Wisconsin, World War II
Review: The Cherry Harvest, by Lucy Sanna
Morrow, 2015. 321 pp. $26
You know what must happen next. It’s spring 1944, and Thomas Christiansen, a Wisconsin cherry farmer who’ll lose his orchards if he doesn’t get help for the harvest, asks the U.S. Army to supply German prisoner-of-war labor. His wife, Charlotte, though she’d do anything to save the farm or ease her daily struggle to put food on the table, has severe misgivings. Her favorite child, Ben, is with the army facing German bullets, and Charlotte wants no Nazis near her house, especially nowhere near her beautiful, innocent, teenage daughter, Kate.
Charlotte never expresses her feelings, except about Ben, but for some reason, she’s dissatisfied with her marriage. Her husband, though hardworking, is a mild-mannered intellectual type who’d much rather be running a bookstore, and the physical spark she once felt for him has lessened considerably since Ben went to war. Thomas is always quoting poetry and talking about books with Kate, a subject that Charlotte disdains when she’s not feeling jealous. Naturally, however, she won’t discuss any of this, because her answer to every problem is to shut up and soldier on.
So am I spoiling anything by saying that it’s Charlotte, not Kate, who has an affair with a German prisoner? Further, the jacket flap gives away that Ben returns wounded, though you’d have guessed that too. And when you read, early on, that he romanced the girl next door at a dance, you need no crystal ball to figure what kind of wound he has. As for yet another dose of predictable, when Kate nearly drowns in a lake and washes up at a fancy vacation home, who should rescue her but a handsome senator’s son, who’s smitten with her from the get-go and promises to fulfill all her dreams? That said, however, I do like the scenes in which she tries to mingle among his posh friends, which capture what a poor, simple farm girl trying to pass in La-La Land would feel like, including her reaction at a bathroom large enough to live in.
My point isn’t to beat The Cherry Harvest into the ground, but to figure out what went wrong. Sanna has tried valiantly to re-create a moment in time, and though I don’t really believe we’re back in 1944, particularly, I do believe we’re in Door County, Wisconsin, during hard times, and farm life comes through loud and clear. She’s got an excellent premise to work from, and Charlotte’s a mess, which means she has potential.
So what could Sanna have done differently? Let’s start with Ben, who, though a crucial character, doesn’t show up until fifty pages from the end. Aside from rare smiles or jests, he’s a hundred percent the angry, bitter, young warrior, spiraling out of control, repelling everybody faster than you can shout, “Incoming!” because, well, the novel has to end. Thomas has possibilities, but, aside from an explanation that he has the farm only because he inherited it, we see only that he’s forgiving, reasonable, thoughtful, and everything else a patient, long-suffering husband should be. At one point, Charlotte wonders, briefly, whether he had another life before they met, an instance of authorial telegraphy that repeatedly mars this novel. But we never witness his soul-stirring. Nor do we get past the surface of Karl, the English-speaking German who tutors Kate in math (natch; what Germans are expert at, ja?) and makes love to her mother. He’s got a feral side that draws Charlotte, but the rest of him is blank, aside from his many declarations that Germans are good people, just like Americans. It was all Hitler’s fault, you see.
When he says that, I’m waiting for Charlotte, proud of her Norwegian heritage, to blurt out, or at least think, Then what the hell are you SOBs doing in Norway? Or the rest of Europe, for that matter, where surely she knows that goodness has folded its tent long ago. But nobody says anything like that, only repeats that Ben has been fighting them, so they have no place on the farm.
What kills The Cherry Harvest for me, then, is its narrowness. If you’re going to whistle an old, hackneyed tune, add a harmony or three, an improvisation, a surprise, an unexpected duet or trio. Charlotte clearly has an Oedipal entanglement with her son, but we don’t know why he’s her special child. Likewise, Kate never resents playing second fiddle, nor does Thomas question his wife’s obsession. As for Karl, he could be a fascinating character, someone who entices Charlotte but also repels her for who he is, not just the uniform he wore. Instead, he rescues her from rape, and the prisoner who assaults her is the badass nobody likes, who so happens to have a scarred face. Compounding these literary felonies, Sanna has Charlotte fantasize all too easily about a life with Karl, though never really developing the idea, just dropping it in, only to dispense with it even more quickly two pages later.
Pure, uncomplicated qualities–and their inevitably flimsy transitions–make for weak fiction; they’re Hollywood. Round them out, give them depth through complexity. That’s what The Cherry Harvest fails to do.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.