In The Excellent Lombards Jane Hamilton is doing a Jane Smiley-style farm family story for us. Jane Smiley hasn’t always write about the same farm but she usually writes about a similar era, the era when family farms are no longer profitable, or the children don’t want to continue being farmers, or the suburbs crowd out the farms as developers convince farmer after farmer to sell off parcels of land for housing developments or malls or a Walmart Superstore, a Seven-Eleven. There are always a few farmers who are not ready to sell, who cannot imagine any other way of life or who have a child (in this case, a daughter, Francie) who is in love with the family land and the family business. Jane Hamilton gives us such a tale in her new novel.
There are two brothers, the Lombard brothers, who live on the family land with its 3 houses, 3 barns, four hundred acres of forest, sheep pastures and the prize, the apple orchard. This orchard and the surrounding land has been in the family for four generations. In this generation Sherwood and Dolly Lombard occupy the main house with their two children, Adam and Amanda. Mary Hill, an adopted cousin lives upstairs in the big old farmhouse. Sherwood is not a true farmer, he invents things. Adam and Amanda are being groomed for college. They do not like the outdoors and are unlikely to want to run an orchard.
On the other side of the road Francie lives with her Mom and Dad, Jim and Nellie Lombard and Francie’s brother William. Francie is the narrator. We hear her voice through several years as she changes from child to teenager but the book is not childish. In this generation Francie is the Lombard who loves the farm, cannot imagine any other life and is thrown for a loop whenever she glimpses what the probable fate of the orchard and the estate and the lifestyle will be. Does it still matter in modern times that Francie is a girl? You will have to see for yourself what you think about this.
What I always loved about Jane Smiley was the way she immersed us in a farm family, and we experienced the tortuous inheritance decisions, the romance of a life lived close to nature on owned land, the anxieties of the economics of farm families, so dependent on uncontrollable variables like weather and world events and markets. Jane Hamilton brings to life these same elements that have eventually led to fewer and fewer family farms in America. We have all watched farms disappear from the near hinterlands around our cities. We all see the poor Canada geese trying to conduct their natural lives on tiny manicured wetlands near car dealerships. We have watched them cross eight lane highways with their ducklings – well at least I have. Every day I ride on a road that ran through farmland and now runs through senior housing.
Francis never says this but we can see that she worries. As much as she loves the farm she sees that she would have to learn the things that May Hill knows and she does not want to become May Hill. May Hill is a genius when it comes to fixing farm equipment but she is also a rather scary recluse. Francie says this about May Hill, “She did not like anyone – she did not want to see you on the path.”
Jane Hamilton and The Excellent Lombards made me long to inherit an orchard, at least before the realities began to outweigh the romanticism, but she, like Jane Smiley, made me wish that family farms had never become too culturally irrelevant to survive, or too labor-intensive for modern sensibilities and too lacking in economic stability to be attractive. I fall for this sort of farm tale every time. It is always the same, like a familiar litany, but different enough to captivate me, like an old photograph that gives me such enjoyable nostalgia that I don’t mind seeing it again and again. It would be sad if this way of life did not leave a trace, but as long as people read the books about farming written by these two women, it will live on.