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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan

The Ploughmen   

I received this ARC in the mail.  Impressed by the beautiful austerity of the cover, it was a pleasure to discover that the writing was just as beautiful.  The Montana landscape, often harsh and uncompromising, is depicted with such appreciation and skill that it is easy to feel present in the story.

And yet, the story, in spite of the beautiful writing, is not a peaceful or pleasant one.  John Gload, seventy-seven, is a brutal killer who has finally been caught.  Val Millimaki is a deputy, a man of quiet integrity in the last months of a troubled marriage. 

Assigned night duty at the jail, Val finds himself sitting with Gload and sharing problems about insomnia and a similar farming background.  An unusual bond develops between killer and the deputy; a bond that Val is at a loss to understand, but certainly recognizes.  Despite the insomnia and years on a family farm that both share, the two men couldn't be more different.  Gload's career of murder began at 14 and has continued for more than a sixty years.  Val and his dog Tom are at the other end of the spectrum, a search and rescue team; but his rescue missions have been locating only the dead lately, adding to his depression over his troubled marriage.

It is a novel of gradual revelations about the lives of both prisoner and deputy.   The novel patiently and dispassionately provides important glimpses into the lives of both men, and Gload, despite his horrific career, is a fascinating and strangely sympathetic character.  

The night shift and insomnia, however, begin to take a toll on Val--he is lonely and despairing as his marriage disintegrates, his rescue missions are leading only to the recovery of the dead, even the nightly conversations with Gload are a two-edged sword, both adding to his despondency and somehow keeping him engaged.  

While the crux of the novel involves the killer and the deputy and their journeys, I was also fascinated by three minor characters:  the women who felt constrained by their lives. The three women take up little physical space in the novel, but their influence is huge.  All three women are circumscribed in a kind of emotional prison, separated by the emotional distance of their men and the isolation of their homes.  (Montana is "4th in size, but 44th in population and 48th in population density of the 50 United States"  according to Wikipedia). 

But the men, too, are bound by circumstances-- defined and confined by their early life experiences.  

The Ploughmen is an impressive novel, and I'm surprised it hasn't garnered more attention. It is not a novel that everyone will enjoy, but one that everyone should appreciate.

Highly recommended for its prose, characterization, and its lingering impact.

Literary Fiction.  Sept. 30, 2014.  272 pages.


  1. The cover is beautiful! I am glad the contents lived up to its beauty.

    At first glance at the synopsis, I can't say I was drawn to it, but the more of your review I read, the more curious I am. It does sound like a good novel, complex and multi-layered. I will have to add this one to my wish list.

  2. I do like the cover and if your description is anything to go by it seems perfectly apt for this story!
    I think you've done a brilliant review. Part of me wants to read this and part of me doesn't - purely because it sounds so sombre with very little of joy or happiness - not that I need to read funny stories!!
    I think this is probably one of those books that you have to read in the right frame of mind?
    Lynn :D

  3. Wendy - It is a rare novel, definitely complex and multi-layered!

    Lynn - The Ploughmen is a difficult novel to review, but it is one of those novels that lingers. The characters and the atmosphere will be with me for a long time. I look forward to more from this author.

  4. That's a great review, Jenclair!
    The cover is lovely, though the story is not. I find the premise very interesting, not to mention the characters too. I'm very curious about this one. I think this is one of those books that requires the "mood" to read it.

  5. Melody - It is a moody novel; I'm not sure I was in the mood for it, but found myself engrossed anyway.