In this first of five novels about Harvester, Minnesota, we look through Lark Erhardt’s child eyes. From first through fourth grade, the Cape Ann house design captures her dreams and desires, shaping how she sees her surroundings. When her mother decides to move to California, where the Cape Ann will never be built, Lark draws up her own designs that carry her into a new life, a life she over which she has some control.
Having read the series of novels backwards, starting with the one published last, that ends the series, in this book I saw Harvester anew through Lark’s vision, full of wonder and metaphor. Lark says, “patches of mystery, like patches of fog, obscured what I ought to know if I were ready to be seven years old.” What she doesn’t understand as a seven year old allows her to show us readers a world our senses have taken for granted. For example, she hears the neighbors’ night sounds: “‘More, more,’ he said, but she said, ‘No, it’s time,’ and they began bouncing up and down on the bed like children. If I bounced on the bed that hard, Mama would come and make me stop.” The world is exciting when it is new and “foggy,” but when Lark grows bored or afraid of the turmoil going on around her, like when she goes through first confessions or when her father berates her for biting her nails, she “slipped into the garden in the clock and discovered a pair of roller skates beside the dutch door to the cottage…. I was glad to have a cozy place to go.” Imagination and reality go hand-in-hand for Lark.
Throughout the book, she sorts out fact from fiction. What Lark knows she can trust is her mother’s plan to build the Cape Ann as soon as the family has enough money. “If I lived in a house like that, I would develop willpower and be a better person,” she says. The house, with its dormers and window seats, shrubs and trellis’, represents everything she wants and doesn’t have: willpower, her own room, and perfection such as Katherine Albers, a beautiful classmate, possesses. She reads the blueprints and descriptions not only to look forward to the house itself, but to give herself goals and ignite the desire to achieve them.
Her mother shows her how to understand the plans, just as she shows Lark how to take care of herself. Her mother is a self-possessed woman, set on making a better life for her family with a new house to replace their current living situation in the train depot. When she’s thwarted by a gambling husband, she leaves him to his own devices. Meanwhile, her sister Aunt Betty is also at a crossroads with her husband. Once they decide to set out for California together, they celebrate. “‘To the three witches,’ Mama toasted, raising her glass and smiling at Aunt Betty and me. Aunt Betty and I raise our glasses. ‘To victory,’ Aunt Betty said.” There is something magical about deciding one’s own fate, especially as a woman at the onset of WWII.
Other female characters present contrasting examples to Lark. Stella Wheeler, mom of Lark’s best friend Sally, whose story unfolds in The Empress of One, retreats from the pain in the world, crying and talking less and less. When her friend Beverly tells her that Santa is pretend, that the parents deliver the presents, Lark runs screaming. She flees another time when Maria, the healer who helps Aunt Betty during the tragic end to the birth of her first child, tells Lark, “not everything in church is truth… and not all truth turns up in church.” Lark’s story is a search for whom to trust.
The Cape Ann hints at Lark’s trajectory. She may not get the house, but is nourished by the hope of it. From poring over the plans, she practices projecting herself into a picture of what could be. On the train to California she and her mother have a conversation in the roles of Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Erhardt, respectively. “It is easy to imagine doing painful things. Before music class, when I was a child, I always imagined that I would volunteer to sing a solo. When the time for solos came, like Mrs. Erhardt, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move at all. ‘I don’t know how to solve the problem [of breathing again], Mrs. Brown.’ I told her, ‘It’s a long way to California, Mrs. Erhardt. Maybe we’ll think of something.’” The novel ends on this upward note, mother and daughter supporting one another as they both imagine and enact a better future for themselves.