Newly married to her childhood sweetheart, twenty-one-year-old Ruth Warren is settling into life in a Depression-era, East Texas oil town. She’s making a home when she learns that her young husband, Charlie, has been killed in an oil rig accident. Ruth is devastated, but then gets a chance for a fresh start: a scholarship from a college in Pasadena, CA. Ruth decides to take a risk and travel west, to pursue her one remaining dream to become a teacher.
At college Ruth tries to fit into campus life, but her grief holds her back. When she spends Christmas with some old family friends, she meets the striking and compelling Thomas Everly, whose own losses and struggles have instilled in him a commitment to social justice, and led him to work with Mexican migrant farmworkers in a camp just east of Los Angeles. With Thomas, Ruth sees another side of town, and another side of current events: the numerous forced deportations without due process of Mexicans, along with United States citizens of Mexican descent.
After Ruth is forced to leave school, she goes to visit Thomas and sees that he has cobbled together a night school for the farmworkers’ children. Ruth begins to work with the children, and establishes deep friendships with people in the camp. When the camp is raided and the workers and their families are rounded up and shipped back to Mexico, Ruth and Thomas decide to take a stand for the workers’ rights—all while promising to love and cherish one another.
“My mother told me about your husband.”
I look at Thomas, startled. With his thumbnail, he digs viciously at a potato eye, flicks a nubbin of tuber toward the patchy grass at the bottom of the porch steps. “I’m sorry. I lost someone, too.” He nods to where the woman and man and their baby just stood. “I loved the girl who used to live next door. Sounds like a song, doesn’t it? I guess it’s kind of your song, too, as Ma said you all but grew up with your husband.”
“We did, indeed.” I swallow hard against the lump in my throat. […] “No all but about it.”
He nods. “The girl I loved was – is – named Guadalupe. She had to leave with her family.” He is soft-spoken, his voice deep, but the words tumble from him as if pent up too long.
“Were they repatriated?”
Thomas stiffens. “Did my parents tell you?” His jaw goes so tight that the little muscles ripple. “What was their version of what happened? No, don’t tell me. I can just imagine.”
“It wasn’t them,” I quickly say. “They haven’t said anything about her. It was her name. It’s not any name. And your newspaper – the story on the front page. I wasn’t sure, but the way you were absorbed in that article, it seemed a logical conclusion.”
“My parents would have told you the official story. The unofficial story – that’s the one you should hear.”
“Well, they didn’t tell me anything, if that’s any comfort.”
We both start as the door opens behind us and Alice peers out. “Why don’t the two of you come inside and do that?” She flicks her eyebrows at Thomas, trying to make light. “If you’re in a better mood, that is.”
After a moment, Thomas nods. Clearly pleased, Alice turns back inside. We start to get up, but Thomas’s crutches slip on the click porch. I catch his arm to keep him from falling.
“Thanks.” His voice is sharp. “But I don’t need any help.”
I quickly release his arm. “Well, I do.”
He cuts me a look. “What help can I give you?”
“Tell me the unofficial story when you have a chance.”
From the very first sentence of this book, I was drawn into Ruth’s world: the joy of being newly married to Charlie, living in their own little oil-camp tent house. Theirs is a life of hardship – a slim pantry, well-worn clothes, and hand-me-down furniture; a husband who spends his days as a driller on an East Texas oil field, and is already beginning to suffer the associated hearing loss. But as far as Ruth is concerned, even John D. Rockefeller couldn’t be happier. After all, he doesn’t have Charlie in his life.
And then, in one moment, Charlie is gone. Forever.
Set against the backdrop of the racial and economic tensions of the 1930s, Broken Ground is an evocative and poignant story of a young woman’s journey from heartbreak to embracing life – for better or worse. The book’s description pretty much summarises the entire story, so I will not add to it here. What I will say is that Karen Halvorsen Schreck has penned a well-crafted story – economical, and yet lyrical in its prose, and perfectly capturing the essence of the era, the setting, the racial and economic tensions, and of course, Ruth’s physical and emotional journey.
There are many who share in Ruth’s journey: Helen, her roommate at college; Silvia and Luis, a young Mexican couple living in Kirk Camp, a Mexican migrant camp east of Los Angeles; Daniel, a troubled young Mexican boy; and Thomas Everly: by day, overseer at Kirk Camp, and by night, teacher to the Mexican children of Kirk Camp. She begins to learn the unofficial story of the migrant communities: raided, corralled, and exported, like so much cattle. Through it all, she gains a deeper appreciation for the gift of life, both its beauty and its brokenness, and for the privileges that are hers: freedom, education; privileges that are often taken for granted, even today.
A thoughtful and engaging read.
I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
Release date: 3 May 2016
Publisher: Howard Books
Author’s website: http://www.karenschreck.com/