In the early pages of Laird Hunt’s new novel, set in Indiana’s heartland, he describes a school outing where students walk through the woods and across the fields in search of interesting objects. The eponymous Zorrie offers her discoveries to the teacher, and he praises them. It is October 19, 1923. Seven years later, Zorrie, now homeless, knocks on Mr. Thomas’s door. During their visit, he shows her an album of pressed leaves and flowers, the very specimens she collected on that October day. The moment evokes a heartfelt tug toward the caring teacher, who saved her assignment. It also signals what’s to come in this tender story, one deep with meaning about “the earth and its wheel of wonders,” the depth in the small things that make up the world and our lives.
Zorrie’s parents died from diphtheria. When her elderly aunt died, the 21-year-old Zorrie was left with nothing, not even a key to the aunt’s farmhouse. Her faint hope that Mr. Thomas might be able to step in dissolves in her shy inability to ask for help during their visit. Resilient and hard-working, Zorrie moves on, finding odd jobs in the difficult 1930’s Depression. She lands on her feet just over the border in Ottawa, Illinois. To our horror, we read she’s employed at the Radium Dial Company painting faces on clocks, a “ghost girl” who glows in the dark as did actual radium factory girls from that time in history. She’s not there for long, thankfully. Two months later, Zorrie returns to her homeland, despite the protests and reasons for staying from her best factory mates, Janie and Marie.
Still, it was Indiana, the dirt she had bloomed up out of, it was who she was, what she felt, how she thought, what she knew.
The pull toward rural Indiana is much more than wrenching homesickness. It is Mr. Hunt’s convincing theme of belonging, of being so deeply rooted in a place as to be indelibly merged into its elements. The novel’s realistic richness grabs and holds with a comforting sigh over that secure feeling of home, the familiar and expected, which in Zorrie’s Clinton County includes a seed spitting contest at a July 4th picnic, the women “as scratched-up as the men” and those men in their “loose-fitting cotton pants” with their “faces burned various dark shades by the sun.” Mr. Hunt is precise but not pushy in these homely visions, and he’s pitch-perfect describing what it’s like to breathe the Indiana air and step through its muddy fields.
Zorrie marries Harold Underwood, and falls into the rhythm of his farm and the community. A pregnancy fails, which we understand is due to the exposure to radium, but Zorrie and her husband believe she works too hard. Neighbors Virgil and Ruth Summers become their dependable friends. Noah Summers, their brooding son, is often seen at the fence line working the fields or reading a letter from his institutionalized wife. He’s not allowed to visit her; Opal reacts poorly to him.
World War II arrives and widows Zorrie, who’s even more alone after her in-laws die. Her sorrow is eased by supper with the Summers. After the dishes are washed, they read aloud wise, thoughtful prose from a book of Montaigne’s essays. Zorrie keeps her farm going with local help, dates Sheriff Hank Dunn, and finds joy in occasional letters from Janie and Marie. She wrestles with her loneliness through the years, and even drives to Chicago intent on an adventure, but she gets lost and turns back. When Virgil and Ruth die, Zorrie cooks nightly dinners for Noah, whose character over the course of the novel drives an ingenious sub-plot wherein Zorrie, for the first time in her life, experiences shame from vulnerability.
Look at you carrying on, Ghost Girl, she thought, wiping at the mess of rain and hair and tears that her face had become. She stepped backward into pure high-water-content Indiana mud and then gave up, crossed her arms over her chest again, threw her head back, and felt it all come down.
While narrative turning points give Zorrie’s story its drama and forward motion – the death of her aunt, marriage to Harold, a visit to Opal at the state hospital, a spontaneous trip to Amsterdam — the book’s power lies in the fact these events are not at all spectacular. This is ordinary life and yet – surprise! – deeply meaningful, right up to the end when Zorrie’s ageing body tells her she must accept its changes. In this engaging, salt-of-the-earth woman, Mr. Hunt brilliantly illustrates the significance of where we belong, and why that, and an ordinary life, are beautifully enough.