Set in modern times, in a small “passing-over place” in northern Utah, the debut novel by Idaho author Braden Hepner, Pale Harvest, follows Jack Selvedge, a 20-year-old dairy farmer working his grandfather’s land, struggling against his own indifference.
Young Rebekah Rainsford shakes things up when she returns to town, fleeing her abusive father. She becomes Selvedge’s obsession, a symbol of hope. “She had brought with her an essence. … It was a sullen thing she carried, in some ways frightening and in some ways appealing and in all ways maddening. It was something he needed but could never get in the remote and meager collection of houses.” As their relationship forms, her dark history forces him to confront the chasm between his ideals and reality, while two major betrayals threaten everything.
Hepner captures the nuances of the dramatic landscape of the Cache Valley, where cultivated fields give way to desert, and mountains rise up against open skies. He employs a meditative language drawn from the land, delivering the richness of Selvedge’s inner life: “On the gentle hillside bones stood from the sand and yellow grass like ruins, the white architecture of death. How to describe what flowers grew from those bones in the springtime. Of deep purple and yellow, blue and red and white. Each one a marvel worth contemplation. How many times had he stopped to watch them tremble in the wind among the white bones.”
Pale Harvest is a dark novel by a deft storyteller, a modern retelling of the legend of Adam and Eve. It explores tensions between good and evil, ignorance and knowledge, and hope and belief. The occasional appearance of phrases like “primitive and beautiful squaw” does nothing to further the characters; Hepner does a superb job of making them full and authentic, and doesn’t need to resort to language of exoticism and conquest. Pale Harvest walks the reader into the liminal spaces between life and death, and shows how a human being can be made anew: “Hope was his faith, his religion. It was the consequential vestige of maturity, of knowledge, a remnant product of adult sin. In the end they had nothing more than a hope commensurate with their fear, and in this way they were purified and set free.”
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
By Braden Hepner
360 pages, $16.95