In Open Spaces
SYNOPSISIt’s 1916, and fourteen-year-old Blake Arbuckle is sitting in his eighth grade class in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, when the teacher calls him into the hall to show him a telegram from his mother. It says "Brother George drowned in river." Blake knows immediately that this means he must return to the family ranch, not just for the funeral, but for good, as his family will need him.
Blake Arbuckle is based on Russell Rowland’s maternal grandfather Frank, whose parents were first-generation homesteaders in eastern Montana. Frank’s brother George did indeed drown when Frank was fourteen, and Frank returned to the ranch and never left - until his body broke down and he couldn’t work any longer. In Open Spaces is Russell Rowland’s attempt to explore what it was about this wide open, brutal landscape that inspired Frank and so many others of his generation to such undaunted devotion. The story covers thirty years in the life of the Arbuckle family as they struggle to keep the ranch going and cope with two world wars, the depression, and betrayals within the family.
What the critics say:"Russell Rowland’s novel, In Open Spaces, is a throwback to the days of epic realism. His bumptious family saga of rural Montana in the first half of the century is sage, humane, and immensely readable."
C. Michael Curtis, The Atlantic Monthly
"I found it mesmerizing to join the Arbuckle family for a few "reading" years, vicariously experiencing the sense of being rooted in the soil of a ranch that has passed from generation to generation, as much a member of the family as its human members, imbued with history and family tradition. ... Rowland's debut novel is a worthy one (it was published in 2002, and has since had a continuation in the just-published The Watershed Years). He writes with that prairie peace that conveys distress in a critical scene without melodrama, sensuality without resorting to cheap graphic descriptions, emotional exchanges without bleeding into sappiness, all the while building tension with a keen sense of balance. Like the patriarch of the Arbuckle family, the author, too, holds a gentle rein on the family and unfolding scenes, maintaining literary skill in an array of scenes that would expose a lesser writer as beginner."
Zinta Aistars, The Smoking Poet
"In Open Spaces is a strong, dark novel that vividly describes the harsh lives of men and women of a bygone world. Russell Rowland’s earnest prose makes his characters entirely human with their dignity, virtues, guilt, desires. The book is charged with dramatic tension - a joy to read.”
Ha Jin, author of Waiting, winner of the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction
"Russell Rowland is at his best when writing about what people talk about when they talk about nothing - as well as what they don’t talk about when they talk about big somethings. In Open Spaces, his first novel, follows a Montana ranching family from 1916 through the Great Depression, and closes in 1946. It is a homage to big skies, stingy soil and the art of the articulate silence practiced by its human inhabitants (who often take a back seat to its animal inhabitants, as well as to the land itself). ... Rowland, a fourth-generation Montanan, has written a family epic that has a muted elegance. There are some uneven patches - notably an overwrought ending - but for the most part this is a gracefully understated novel."
Amy Benfer, The New York Times
"Sibling rivalry turns sinister in Rowland’s outstanding debut, which follows a Montana ranching clan as it struggles to survive the Depression, two world wars, and family tragedy. Narrator Blake Arbuckle finds himself torn between trying to preserve his tattered family and striking out to pursue a baseball career after his older brother George drowns in the Little Missouri River near the family’s ranch and his younger sister dies of spinal meningitis. George’s death brings out the manipulative dark side in another of Blake’s brothers, Jack, who is suspected of foul play in the incident, and after a series of bitter fights with his father about ranch work, Jack takes off and enlists in the army. He reappears several years later with a beautiful woman, Rita, in tow, and Blake’s instant attraction for his brother’s bride increases as Jack’s various character flaws begin to resurface and he eventually leaves Rita. Blake turns down his chance to escape after a promising tryout with the Cardinals, and the family turmoil over the fate of the ranch increases exponentially when another brother, Bob, brings home Helen, a partner as devious as brother Jack. Rowland’s examination of family dynamics is poignant and revealing, especially as he unveils a series of revelations about Jack’s womanizing, his fraudulent war record and a series of unscrupulous business deals culminating in a scheme to take control of the ranch. Blake’s compassion makes him a memorable narrator, and Rowland’s sense of craft and control, as well as his ability to integrate the land into the tale, make his book a noteworthy debut."
Excerpt:In our country, there is a quietness, a silence that surrounds you and fills you up, beating inside like blood until it becomes a part of you. The prairie is quiet even during the day, except for the sounds of work - the snort of horses, the clang of a plow’s blade against rock, and the rhythm of hooves pounding the ground. But even these sounds drift off into the air, finding nothing to contain them. It’s quieter still at night, when you can sit for hours at a stretch and hear nothing except the crickets, or the occasional chicken cluck. It is a silence that can be too much for some, especially people who aren’t fond of their own company. And it seems that living in such silence makes you think twice before speaking, or laughing, or crying. Because when sounds are that scarce, they carry much more weight.
So like most people I know, we Arbuckles don’t say much, especially in times of tragedy, when no one knows what to say anyway. When something leaves us wondering, we mostly sit and stare off across the prairie, as if somebody might come along and explain a few things. This stoic silence does not come naturally to some people. In those early homestead days, it led to frequent cases of the "loneliness," or suicide. And although most of us talked about these afflictions as if they only happened to newcomers, we all knew better. We all lived with a constant awareness of how vulnerable we were. All of us.