The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
Jane Hamilton is most well known for her earlier books A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth.
Her new book The Excellent Lombards published this month, is again the story of a farm family, and a portrait of small town America that is rapidly disappearing.
It is the 1980s, and the novel opens with the Lombard family rushing against the weather to get the hay in.
At the centre of the story is Mary Frances Lombard “Frankie”. We also meet Frankie’s father, Jim, her mother, Nellie, and her brother, William. Her Uncle Sherwood also plays an important part, along with his wife and children who live on an adjoining property. The children are playmates and the families are close though there are serious differences of opinion about the management, and the future, of the family farm.
Jim and Sherwood together are the present owners of the farm, which is primarily an apple farm, with a flock of sheep kept for meat and wool. As all farm children often are, both William and Frankie are very involved in the work on the farm. Their mother works as a librarian – and having married into the family does not feel the same attachment to the farm that her husband and children do. Frankie especially, along with her father, cannot imagine a life away from the farm.
The past, and the present dynamics of the family are slowly revealed, mostly through the eyes of Frankie – in a way that often reminded me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Much of the story is told by a pre-adolescent Frankie - she is that magical age, while still a child she is just beginning to observe and understand the behavior of adults in a new way. Frankie is a sensitive and intelligent child – she does not want conflict, she does not want change. She is very attached to her brother – perhaps too closely attached for her own well being. For Frankie it seems too much to bear when he eventually, and very happily, goes off to college.
We see the deep divide between the brothers, Jim who was a Conscientious objector during the years of the Vietnam War, staying on the farm while Sherwood enlisted and fought. There is always a tension between them.
Jim Lombard works in much the same way his father did a generation earlier – the way I remember that the life was on my grandparent’s farm in the 1960s – a way of such simplicity and hard physical work that seems impossible now.
At the local market the Lombards may have the best apples, and some are willing to pay their price, but others make purchases from farmers who are able to sell for less. When customers come to the Lombard farm to buy apples they love to see the lambs and tell the Lombards to keep things just the way they are – but of course, that is not possible, for the farm or for the Lombards, and especially not for Frankie.