The Plain Sense of Things, Pamela Carter Joern, University of Nebraska Press
Pamela Carter Joern’s The Floor of the Sky was an impressive first novel, published in the Flyover Fiction series from the University of Nebraska Press. For the setting of The Plain Sense of Things, her second book and also part of the series, Joern returns to rural Nebraska, where she grew up. The undercurrent of this novel-in-stories is a love for the Midwestern plains, while the surface is rocked by the frustrations and small joys of tenant farming and rural life.
Each story focuses on one or more characters, all members of the same extended family, but Joern tips the balance of perspective in favor of the women—young and old, widowed and married, all trying to find happiness despite the odds. These women are unflinching as they face the challenges of rural poverty and uncertain times, but they also reveal a desire to strike out, to stop being the good girl, to risk heartache and worse.
Mary faces the difficulty of managing her family of eight children and stepchildren after the death of her second husband. When her stepdaughter Grace denies that she’s jealous of her sister being courted, saying she doesn’t want to marry “some old hayseed farmer,” Mary declares, “Want don’t have much to do with most things.” Learning to live with what you’re given is what Mary understands life to be about, and she clearly thinks her stepdaughter needs to learn this lesson early.
This bleak outlook isn’t presented without a foil. Alice tries to straddle adulthood and childhood for a while after her marriage at age seventeen. She finds an escape from domestic responsibilities while playing Kick the Can with boys in the street, “laughing and spinning, her hands held high in the air, her laughter bubbling and carrying them along until the whole group spirals and whirls, kids falling down right and left as if they are playing statue.” Shortly thereafter, her husband, Jake, appears, and she calmly walks with him into the house.
The relationship between Alice and Jake is the crux of the novel. The stories told from Jake’s perspective portray him as emotionally fraught, hindered by his inability to find his way in the world, and dreaming of a better future that never comes. Alice ultimately appears to be the more practical of the two, and she seems resigned to a life of hardship and making do. But she too has dreams:
She sees herself out the door, up the road, swinging her arms. A melody rises in her throat. She breaks into a run, and she doesn’t stop, not for him, not for fences, not for ditches, not for miles. She flies out the door like a wild woman, a witch on a broom, her rage rolling her like a tumbleweed. She rises on the crescent moon, she splits into a glowing sun just before she sits down to tie Robert’s shoe and read all four boys a story.
Here Joern makes a break from her careful, spare prose used to describe the everyday lives of her characters and uncovers deep emotional hunger. The sentences are suddenly longer and more fluid, evocative and metaphorical, pulling the reader into Alice’s dreams and desires, the little bit of wildness she holds onto from her brief childhood. Her powerful yearning leaps off the page, and then she turns away from her fantasies and goes back to caring for children and home. Joern induces the reader’s sympathy for Alice’s anger and thwarted desires—and for her tenderness.
The plain sense of things is what the characters try to grasp at all times, but sometimes it isn’t enough. Dreams and fantasies are what make life worth living, after all, especially when real life is ordinary, filled with hardship, or simply disappointing. Joern skillfully captures the tensions and contradictions of her characters’ lives, drawing the reader into their sorrows and simple pleasures, their rage and their momentary joys.