Laird Hunt’s formidable protagonist Zorrie Underwood of Clinton County is not so much a quintessential woman of the soil as she is the very daughter of the roughly hewn earth. Set in the cleave between the pre and post-depression eras that united the early and late twentieth centuries, Hunt’s lilting work is more bales of nostalgia and bushels of wistful warmth, than raw grapes of wrath. Losing her parents to disease and misfortune, Zorrie is orphaned at a tender age and is brought up under the care of an ambivalent aunt whose predominant claim to fame is drinking “too deeply from the cup of bitterness.” Zorrie’ s woes are exacerbated when her grumpy curmudgeon gives up the ghost making Zorrie an orphan two times over.
Hiking rides and sleeping in isolated barns, Zorrie travels to Illinois in search of stability and succour. Many hand-out meals and odd-jobs later, ‘The Radium Dial Company’ offers her the mundane and repetitious job of painting “glow-in-the-dark” numbers on clock faces. Zorrie quickly makes the best girlfriends of her life in the egregious Janie and a comparatively sober Marie. The troika along with many other girls diligently proceed to give their paint brushes dipped in radium a mighty lick, hour after hour, day after day, and shift after shift, oblivious to the carcinogenic material gently and insidiously nestling in their bones. Zorrie is fondly called “The Ghost Girl” by Janie and Marie as a testament to her inveterate reservedness.
Zorrie soon heeds to the tug and pull of Clinton County and retreats back to farm life. Providence lends a more than benevolent hand when an elderly couple Bessie and Gus, for whom Zorrie works gets her married to their handsome and strapping son, Harold. Just when Zorrie settles down into what she hopes would be a prosaic, yet fulfilling and uneventful life, fate and circumstances contrive to bring not just rain, but a veritable hailstorm down her parade. Harold is sent to Europe as part of the Allied initiative to prevent the misadventures of a marauding Hitler and in the year 1943, perishes as his aircraft takes multiple hits on the fuselage while combating its German counterparts.
Zorrie, after the initial trauma, begins to slowly pick up the pieces of her tumultuous life and soon becomes an expert and enterprising farm hand endearing herself to the entire county. Zorrie also comes tantalizingly close to finding love for a second and unexpected time. However……
It is not difficult to glean personal influences which Hunt brings to bear in this compelling and slim book. Zorrie repeatedly finds herself listening to her eternally caring neighbour Virgil, and his wife Ruby, as Virgil reads out passages from the essays of Montaigne after every social gathering or the occasional dinner. The titles of the Chapters themselves are an unabashed paean to Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”. Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” contributes the epigraph of the book. The beauty of ‘Zorrie” is undoubtedly its stupendous simplicity. Whether it be handling a tractor or cutting home grown carrots into tiny discs, the life of Zorrie Underwood and its happenings constitute an unbelievable exercise in transparency. The truth for both Hunt and Zorrie is neither malleable nor unbending. It just is.
There are two tangentially different ways in which one can capture the peaks and troughs of life as an author and present them before the readers. The more elaborate method is like the very lay of an expansive land. No granular details are spared, no punches pulled, and every intricacy and nuance captured to the finest and exquisite degree. A classic example being the immortal and epochal tome “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. The concise method, however, leaves the finer points of thinking to the reader while setting out an almost didactic contour. The short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, for instance. The latter method is what Hunt takes recourse to. The theologizing, moralizing, fretting, fuming, reconciling and remonstrating, all represent prerogatives absolutely and solely reserved for the reader.
Zorrie Underwood leaves no dearth of opportunity to exercise every single prerogative!
PS: The process of luminous dial painting and the attendant tragedies attached to such a practice have been encapsulated in a hauntingly tragic manner by Claudia Clark in Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, and by Kate Moore in The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.