An engagingly examined country life for her

Jessie Neilson reviews Harvest, by Chris Carrell. Published by Nugget Stream Press.

It is the early 1930s and Rose is growing up in Havelock North, Hastings, against the backdrop of the Napier earthquake and the Great Depression.

Eager to make her own way, and keen to avoid joining the family fruit-growing business, she  sets off to Victoria University to enrol in teacher training just as World War 2 kicks into gear.

While at university she meets a farm boy from down South, Robert, and begins a new trajectory.

Despite being welcomed into the Otago farming community, she cannot help but feel an outsider due to her formal education, which intimidates the local women.

Robert too, it seems, is threatened by her knowledge and training, much as he hopes to cement a country life with her.

However, she throws all her energy into embracing this new lifestyle, in a countryside covered in gorse, manuka, broom, tussock and matagouri, far different from that up north.

There are plenty of challenges, not least the sight of dripping bloody headless sheep carcasses: an aspect of farming  that never fails to unsettle her.

She worries about remaining childless, as she realises how integral children are to farming families: "Land wove a binding around the heart, strengthening as it passed down the generations".

Still, she need not have feared, and with a burgeoning domestic scene she also takes on leadership roles in the wider community, joining the women’s division of Federated Farmers.

The uncertain political times, followed by full-scale war, impact on all members of the small community, as grief, uncertainty, and lack of clear communication take their toll.

Dunedin writer Chris Carrell’s debut novel takes us  from the 1930s to the 1970s, predominantly rural-based but drawing in urban settings as well.

In themes and character development, Harvest is reminiscent of Jane Smiley’s sweeping sagas, with its careful attention to finer, domestic details and examination of character motivation.

The settings and actions are acutely described.

Rather than be concerned with large-scale issues, although these form the ever-present backdrop, Carrell’s study is of the individual in relation to their social and physical environment and how each shapes the other.

Her main character, Rose, had  the option of  pursuing an urban lifestyle, yet it was a southern rural one that she chose instead.

Harvest is notable for its contribution to our literature, set locally, in a landscape that the author clearly knows  well.

This is an enjoyable and convincingly etched work of a woman’s struggles and achievements as she adjusts to life in southern rural New Zealand, set against the wider, changing socio-political times.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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