I can't imagine why, in all my years of high school, college, and graduate school as an English major, I had never heard of Mildred Walker. Her writing is entirely along the lines and quality of Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner--OK, maybe not quite as spectacular--but pretty darn close. So why isn't she included in American Lit anthologies/reading lists? Why aren't we teaching her when we study the American West or the impact of WWI and II? I have no idea. All I can say is that if I were teaching American Lit again, I would seriously consider including Winter Wheat on our reading list.
But back to the book. Winter Wheat tells the story of Ellen Webb, a young woman born and raised on a wheat farm in Montana, during a 2-year span of her life. Ellen has spent an idyllic childhood on the farm, loved by her parents and completely satisfied with ranch life. She is a hard worker on the farm but desires a college education. With a good crop, her parents are able to send her to college in Minnesota, where she quickly falls in love. As Ellen says, "I hadn't meant to fall in love so soon, but there's nothing you can do about it. It's like planning to seed in April and then having it come off so warm in March that the earth is ready."
Ellen's troubles begin when Gil comes to Montana for a visit, and Ellen begins to see her parents and herself in a whole new way. She is painfully aware of her mother's foreignness (she's from Russia) and her father's sickness, and she convinces herself that they are trapped in a loveless marriage.
The story is beautifully written. Ellen is a tremendously likable character. I loved her romanticism mixed with a healthy dose of sensibility. Mr. and Mrs. Webb are also extremely well-drawn, memorable characters., and Walker's descriptions of Montana are wonderful, as well. This is one of my favorite books so far in 2008.