Have you ever finished a book and you know it’s affected you on some deep subliminal level because you have very vivid dreams that evening? This has happened to me before when I read the fantastic nightmarish graphic novel Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. I think with that book the dreams were instigated by Gebbie’s powerful drawings. It’s happened again with Harvest and in this case I think it’s because of Crace’s masterful use of language and his subject matter.
This tale is narrated by Walter Thirsk, a long-time resident of a very small and isolated agricultural community. Crace uses almost lyrical language to describe the pastoral pleasures and hardships of farming wheat. There’s a tremendous unity felt for the small group of residents in their annual harvest with its hard work and traditional ceremonies. He doesn’t over-romanticise or shirk from the gritty realism of this rural life describing how there is also domestic strife, meagre eating when crops go bad and terminal disease due to lack of medical care. Nevertheless, the residents labour and subsist in a way that is largely harmonious and connected to the land. Then intruders arrive. There are two types. The first is a small group of three wanderers whose motives are unknown. The community seizes them when they seem threatening and subject them to punishments. The second is the cousin of the lord of the community who has come to claim the land as his own and transform it into a pasture for sheep. The residents react to these intruders in very different ways. The actions of intruders and residents ultimately lead to the disintegration of the community altogether.
While Thirsk has lived in the community for a long time, having married and lost his wife who is a local resident, he is still an outsider and this viewpoint gives Crace the advantageous position of describing village life from both an intimate and a more objective perspective. Walter bears witness to the unravelling of the age-old life in the community over the course of little more than a week. The story speaks to how we are both bound to each other through necessity in order to subsist and the ways in which we are inevitably in opposition with one another through greed and the desire to dominate – the land, resources, each other. I connected with this on a really personal level having wanted for many years to live in an intentional community called Twin Oaks in Virginia which seeks to, as much as possible, live in a way that is self-sustaining within the larger society. The book speaks of the pleasures and perils of living in a way that is so removed.
So now about my dream. I was being held captive by a small group of people in a bleak fortress with many rooms. I tried to escape from my captors running through multiple corridors and climbing over a high fence studded with barbed wire. I woke up feeling very unsettled so to calm myself I watched a film before getting back to sleep. The movie I randomly picked to watch was ‘You’ve Been Trumped’, the story of Donald Trump’s ambition to build a world-class golf course in Aberdeen despite the Scottish residents’ objections and environmentalists’ protests. The politicians and police force are influenced by Trump and leave the residents helpless to stop their land from being bulldozed and developed with most of Trump’s promises of enhancing local life going unmet. Watching this it struck me that this is the same story of Harvest. Rural residents get bullied out of the homes they’ve lived in for generations due to the strategic plans and despotic nature of more powerful outside individuals/groups. By grabbing land, stripping resources and oppressing vulnerable residents, “progress” continues to march on and the weak are winnowed out. After finishing watching the documentary I fell back asleep and this time I was the oppressor. I dreamed I was working to force people out of their homes pushing old women aside and brutalizing the inhabitants. I woke up shaken and disgusted with the thought that I could be an oppressor as well. It’s in all of our natures to dominate and destroy in order to enhance the possibility of our own survival. It’s impressive how Crace deals with this subject matter with such style and power that he can speak of universal truths through the lens of one small lost community.