The tension between destiny and desire has been fertile ground for stories since at least the day a talking snake suggested that maybe a bite of forbidden fruit would really hit the spot.
And from the beginning of Kali VanBaale’s novel The Good Divide, there are hints that this tension is the source of the book’s sorrow. The novel opens cryptically with a scene of human frailty against the backdrop of generational determinism—two women, inheritors of family farms that have been passed down through their respective families, are unhappily linked by an unexplained infirmity. It is clear that something bad has happened, but to understand exactly what requires two parallel narratives that unfold through the rest of the book.
The novel begins in 1963, as Jean Krenshaw and her husband Jim prepare to show off the Krenshaw’s new milking machine at a Fourth of July picnic. Wisconsin dairy farmers by birth, Jim and his brother Tommy live in a pair of houses divided only by a gravel drive. But despite living next door, Tommy arrives to the party late, and with company—his new girlfriend Liz.
For Jean, this is disruptive, but it takes a much darker turn when Tommy hijacks the picnic for a surprise proposal. By Jean’s reaction we see how precariously the relationships on the farm are balanced—since, though Jean is married to Jim, she is actually in love with Tommy.
The book’s second narrative starts a decade earlier, in 1952, when Jean—then Jean Gillman—first arrives in Wisconsin, traveling with a damaged and dangerous father who is forced by his debts to move from farm to farm. She is soon embraced by the Krenshaws, and especially by sweet-hearted Tommy—funny and charming and flirtatious, he casually offers Jean the affection she’s lacked for most of her adult life.
But affection is not the same thing as love. And when it’s clear to the Krenshaw family matriarch, Eunice, what’s happening between Tommy and Jean, she does her best to warn the newcomer:
“It’s a difficult life to live so close to what you cannot have. Remember that, Jean Gillman.”
Jean shrank from Eunice’s unnerving, rheumy stare. “I don’t understand what…you mean,” she said.
The branches in the tree above them began to rustle, raining bits of leaves and twigs onto the ground and porch roof. Jean and Eunice looked up and a white barn owl, with its heart-shaped face and black eyes, peered down at them from its perch.
“White owl in daylight,” Eunice said, her eyes widening. “It’s a bad omen.”
In very short order, Eunice’s soothsaying proves correct. But Jean digs in anyway—when she realizes that marriage is her best hope of escaping her abusive father, she accepts a proposal from Jim. Steadfast and earnest, Jim offers her the love that his brother can’t, and in that way the three settle into a stable, if not completely satisfactory, triangle.
Or at least it seems stable, until Jean’s best friend, Sandy Weaver, comes to her in crisis. Pregnant with Tommy’s child, she turns to Jean for help, unaware of Jean’s feelings for him or of how Jean will handle the news. What Jean does—or doesn’t—do for Sandy will, ten years later, reverberate in her life with Liz.
And so the two narratives find their resonance. As the story unfolds, half in the 1960s and half in the 1950s, it seems as though the same tragic history is fated to repeat itself, with Jean the key actor in both.
VanBaale manages the complexity of her narrative with surprising ease. For as much as the book hops through time, each scene is carefully constructed and deployed. Information is at times withheld, but it never feels unfair—so much of this novel is about Jean’s struggle to manage her own secrets, and when the character flinches away from revelation it’s clear that this is her own survival tactic, not a narrative tease.
But what’s most surprising about this novel, which ends in a lean 186 pages, is Jean Krenshaw’s complexity. She is likeable and unlikable, deeply sympathetic and profoundly unknowable, and her rendering is so well-executed that VanBaale will probably have to spend years reassuring worried friends and family about the definition of the word “fiction.”
Because this is a novel that feels true, and the truth at the heart of The Good Divide is this: What seems like fate for Jean Krenshaw is only the result of her own desire. For Jean, these two forces—far from opposing one another—instead betray her in concert.
The Good Divide will be released in June, 2016. Click here to find purchasing information and links.
Kali VanBaale’s debut novel, The Space Between, earned an American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s silver medal for general fiction, and the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award. She is also the recipient of a State of Iowa Arts Council major project artist grant.