The Harrows of Spring: A World Made By Hand Novel
By James Howard Kunstler
317 pp., hardcover. Atlantic Monthly Press – Jun. 2016. $24.00.
And so it ends. With The Harrows of Spring, James Howard Kunstler officially draws his acclaimed World Made by Hand fictional series to a close. We certainly had fair warning that this book would be the last. Kunstler has said all along that he intended to write four parts, each representing a different season of the year within his speculative vision of a post-industrial America. But that doesn’t make it any easier for ardent fans of the series to part with its infinitely fertile milieu, or to escape the feeling that there are still plenty more worthwhile tales to be told within it.
Like its predecessors, The Harrows of Spring takes place in the fictitious community of Union Grove, New York, at least a couple of decades from now. In this future, life as we presently know it has vanished. Oil shortages long ago ravaged economies, crippled technological infrastructures the world over and made life in suburbs and large cities untenable. Adding to this early mayhem were nuclear terrorist attacks on Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., which rendered these areas uninhabitable. In due course, major die-offs ensued from starvation and the return of epidemic disease, both of which were amplified by the increasingly dire impacts of climate change. In short, modernity finally found itself mortally stricken by the converging catastrophes that had long threatened it.
Nearly every constant of everyday life today has been turned on its head. With the miracle of industrial agriculture gone, tremendous amounts of labor are required to keep people fed. People barter and trade for most of what they need, and when money is exchanged, it’s in the form of antique coins whose value comes from the precious metals of which they’re made. Human ingenuity is still in evidence, but it’s applied more to recycling and repurposing old trash (by, for example, using metal refrigerator racks or sections of chain-link fence as fire pit grills) than to developing new inventions. Vast amounts of scientific knowledge have been lost, and science in general has fallen into disrepute for failing to deliver the utopian future it promised. In the absence of industrial-age drugs, healers use herbalism and other natural therapies. People have developed a less rigid sense of time and generally don’t work after dark, lacking access to accurate clocks and electric lighting. When not working, people amuse themselves not with TV, recorded music or televised sports, but with live, low-tech equivalents of these bygone entertainments.
While Kunstler has never provided a map of Union Grove in any of his novels, it’s clear that he’s imagined the place richly enough to be able to map it in great detail, right down to the artwork in people’s homes and the shape of a window in one particular barn. Described as being near the real-life hamlet of Starkville, Union Grove has a general store, a livery, a barbershop, a physician’s office, a bakery and a community laundry, among other vital businesses. It also has farms, orchards, a cider works and a plantation whose laborers live a serf-like existence in exchange for security. Abandoned properties are everywhere, testaments to the blights that more than quartered the population. The nearby Battenkill River, long known for its plentiful trout, teems with even greater numbers of the prize fish now that the human impacts that once drove its numbers down have waned. We also become acquainted with many landmarks spread throughout Union Grove’s nooks and crannies, each with its own legends and superstitions.
In this future, it seems people’s understanding of psychology has atrophied as much as their grasp of the physical sciences has. One of our main characters is a ruthless businessman named Stephen Bullock, who today would probably be diagnosed with some sort of personality disorder. Yet there’s a scene in which two characters slighted by Bullock struggle to articulate what might be wrong with him as they’re talking about the incident afterward. All they can come up with is that he’s quite “moody.” This loss of a vocabulary concerning the workings of the human mind and behavior is to be expected, though, since psychology and psychiatry haven’t existed as professions or areas of inquiry for decades.
Bullock’s moodiness can be seen in the way he kills and strings up would-be thieves he catches on his property, as well as in his recent decision to separate his interests from those of the rest of the community. As we learned in previous novels, Bullock owns and operates what many regard as a plantation (albeit run by voluntary workers) located outside the town limits. He was the reluctant magistrate of Union Grove until he grew frustrated with the position after some in the community couldn’t accept his harsh ways. His recent decision to dissociate himself from Union Grove poses a grave problem for the townspeople, because they depend on goods from outside the community that arrive weekly on his trade ship. Now Union Grovers face having to obtain their own ship, and they can’t afford to delay since supplies are already running short.
Another threat to the community soon becomes apparent in the form of several dozen interlopers camping out near town. They represent a breakaway nation called the Berkshire People’s Republic, headquartered in Massachusetts. (Though a remnant federal government does survive, it has relocated at least three times since the D.C. bombing and is now basically a sham, leaving the way open for any number of diametrically opposed rival governments.) To those familiar with Kunstler’s social criticism, the Berkshires are plainly his vehicle—deftly deployed—for satirizing what he sees as the follies and pretensions of present-day American society. They espouse antiquated ideals like income equality, the inevitability of progress and faith in fiat currency, all of which have long been objects of criticism in Kunstler’s nonfiction writings. The Berkshires have come to Union Grove as part of a mission to spread their territory westward, but they quickly alienate the locals with their socialist ideology and grifter mentality. However, these socialist kooks won’t be denied. When they encounter resistance from the denizens of Union Grove, they set aside their egalitarian rhetoric and get nasty.
As the danger from the Berkshires becomes more apparent, there are intimations that perhaps Bullock will once again ally himself with the people of Union Grove to defeat a common enemy. But will he actually do this? Or will Union Grovers do just fine in both driving back the Berkshires and making new arrangements for trade with the outside world? Kunstler keeps us guessing.
Aside from those already mentioned, Kunstler weaves several other compelling threads into the plot. There’s a girl who becomes deathly ill with tetanus, the latest microbial menace to resurface now that vaccines are no more. There’s the troubled town doctor, who, despite having a drinking problem, keeps on working because he’s needed and the mechanisms for stripping him of his license no longer exist. There’s the dilemma of a childless couple desperately wanting to have a kid, but unable to do so because the medical technology for reversing a vasectomy is forever lost. We also witness more than one character grow increasingly complacent with the idea of vigilante justice, since the means of administering any other form of justice have fallen away. And we behold a promising revival of newspaper journalism as two plucky young adults restart the long-defunct town paper.
Kunstler is nothing if not a descriptive, tactile storyteller (as well as an avid painter when he isn’t telling stories) and thus he has a terrific knack for fully immersing readers in his settings. The physical spaces described in The Harrows of Spring are often so well developed that they’re like characters in their own right. Certainly the sky counts as a character, and it’s one that Kunstler relishes casting against type. During an especially tense juncture in the story, he gives the sky an exotic beauty that belies the apprehension and mistrust felt by the human characters. “A three-quarter moon was rising over Schoolhouse Hill to the southwest,” he writes, “in a lustrous blue green sky the color of a tropical sea.”
In addition to their lush descriptive style, one thing I really like about the World Made by Hand novels is how each one can be enjoyed as its own self-contained story. In every book, Kunstler takes the time to rehash events of previous novels as they relate to what’s happening now. This never feels like drudgery, though, since Kunstler is a master at gracefully handling exposition. Thus, readers of this new book will both enjoy a good yarn and gain a sense of how it fits into the larger saga.
In its final passage, The Harrows of Spring comes full circle in an immensely, almost musically satisfying way. The narrator informs us, in the same beguiling tone as was used by the first book’s narrator when that tale concluded, that our story is ending because this is “all there is to tell” about the events of this particular spring in the little corner of post-oil America known as Union Grove. Yet in spite of the satisfying finale, I again feel the door is wide open for future, spin-off stories. And I would gladly welcome them.