“The Fall of Alice K.” by Jim Heynen (Milkweed Editions, 240 pages, $24)
Jim Heynen’s first novel, “The Fall of Alice K.,” opens with a shotgun slaughter of hogs, and the bleak tone set by the booming, squealing massacre carries throughout the novel. Despite this desolation, Alice Marie Krayenbraack, a 17-year-old who seems to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, is far more mature for her age than most high school seniors. But Alice weathers the storms — on her 360-acre family farm and in the halls of her small, religious school — like a stalwart character from novels of yore. Heynen’s novel, especially his protagonist, has a touch of Cather, maybe even a heavy hand of “My Antonia.”
The stark Iowa landscape, with family farms collapsing under the weight of corporate consolidation, acts as one of the many conflicts in the novel. Heynen’s description of landscape masterfully captures farm life on the Plains, as unpredictable as it can be.
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Alice’s father, Albert, is a meticulous man, complete with his perfectly tabulated spreadsheets, but the bottom line reads all too clearly: the farm is bushels away from solvent, and will likely not make it through the New Year.
And Y2K acts as a dark cloud that Alice’s mother Agnes clings to, her cause for gloom-and-doom naysaying. She hoards food, fuel and water. The only bright spot for Alice at home is her sister Aldah, a young woman with developmental challenges.
Yet even Aldah is a spot of instability, as Alice’s parents consider sending her to a state care facility due to the farm’s floundering finances.
Alice also has the weight of a tumultuous senior year in high school. While she begins the school year with resolve — she plans to get out of Dutch Center, Iowa, and attend a major university — that resolve begins to fade with the arrival of a Hmong family sponsored by Alice’s church. The Vang family enters Dutch Center, a hiccup in the predominantly Dutch community, especially in the town’s phonebook where the family’s name interrupts the Van Essen and Van Gaalen entries.
Alice quickly bonds with Mai, an older girl attending Redemption College on scholarship. Mai introduces Alice to her brother Nickson, and Alice is instantly mesmerized by his exotic look and the family’s difference from what she’s always known. The Vangs bring out the rebel in Alice, almost to an unbelievable degree. She longs to protect them, both from the sideways glances of her Dutch Calvinist community members, as well as from the punches thrown by outsider thugs.
Anything unpleasant that could happen to Alice in the fall of her senior year — including her straight-A’s dipping, acne and the pressures of a new relationship — does happen. Anything that could go wrong at home – such as the destruction caused by a freak hailstorm on an uninsured plot of land, and her parents taking second jobs to support the farm — goes wrong as well. And in just four months. Yet Alice remains tethered to a sense of reality and normalcy, even though that normalcy means regular fights with her mother, worrying about the farm’s finances while her father sleeps, balancing a boyfriend who no one knows about (except her best friend, Lydia), and grappling with a crisis of faith.
What Heynen does with describing the Dutch community and the Iowa landscape harkens to writers like Willa Cather and Annie Proulx. It’s easy to see beauty and pain of the plains he describes. Albert’s painstaking plans and schemes to save the family’s farm stem from his deeply rooted adoration of his culture, of his people. His office is scattered with tables and texts, some for potential future investments and others old Atlases of the Dutch who settled the area. It pains Alice and the reader to realize that there is no clear way to solvency for the Krayenbraaks. And it’s heartbreaking to realize the back-breaking work that Alice and her father pour into a farm that has nowhere to go but to foreclosure and sale. It’s all just too much.
The landscape and detailed accounts of Dutch farm life are the strongest aspects of Heynen’s novel, while his use of cross-cultural experiences seems cliche, as if stepping into the unknown can only lead to disaster. The novel’s closing does nothing to patch any misunderstandings between families or cultures. Alice is admirable for sure, but her mental toughness seems otherworldly and her final conclusion seems unfounded for a young woman who so strongly sought to step out from the decaying Dutch life she’s known. For Alice, the four months of her fall make a lasting impact, though in the end they lack believable signs of resolution that anyone outside of Alice’s mind would need to understand her change.