Book Review: “Winter Wheat”

Tichelle, Amber, and I have been friends since kindergarten.  We went through school together through 12th grade, and we still like each other enough that we get together every once in a while.  (And then we do a lot of giggling.)

Our high school English teacher Ms. Skillen obviously made a big impression on all of us:  Tichelle and Amber both went on to be English teachers, while I dabble in writing.  And us three gals remain connected today by our love of books… especially books that showcase Montana writers and settings.

It’s fitting, then, that we meet under the guise of a book club.  Last weekend we got together to discuss Mildred Walker’s Winter Wheat — and, of course, our collective history and our present lives and our class’s upcoming 20th reunion (unbelievable!).

But back to Winter Wheat, which all three of us had read in high school and which we all re-read this winter.  First published in 1944, Winter Wheat tells the story of a dryland wheat farm in Montana and the family who live there between World War I and World War II.

The only child of a WWI veteran, Ellen leaves the wheat farm for an out-of-state college not realizing anything about her upbringing might be remarkable.  But the majority of the book chronicles the next (painful) 18 months as Ellen matures:  her first heartbreak and her turmoil as she processes that rejection — which leads to her own criticisms of her parents and the farm.  A failed crop which denies her return to college and results in her first job, at a one-room schoolhouse in another part of the state, during which she is fully confronted with the brokenness of humanity.  Throughout it all, she ponders whether love should have to be a decision born of logic.

All three of us gals commented that the story tends to revisit Ellen’s unsettlingly dark thoughts so thoroughly and with such regularity that it’s a fairly gloomy read.  Not that it’s not well written; it’s obvious that Mildred Walker (1905-1998) was a masterful writer.  In fact, though the reading of Winter Wheat can be infuriating because it continually dives deep into Ellen’s dark internal passage to adulthood, I think it’s very likely that the author meant it to be exactly that.  I think she wrote it to be a coming-of-age story.  And coming of age is hard; of course reading about it would be hard.  So that’s what Walker has captured here:  the over-processing, the angst, the realizations and the disappointments… and in the end, Ellen’s clear-eyed emergence onto a more realistic and more grown-up path in life.

winter wheat

© Tami Blake

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