Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award (Fiction)
"A virtuosic portrait." –New York Times Book Review
"A tender, glowing novel." –Anthony Doerr, Guardian, "Best Books of the Year"
"Pages that are polished like jewels." –Scott Simon, NPR, "Books We Love"
"Lit from within." -Mark Athitakis, Los Angeles Times, "Best Fiction Books of the Year"
"A touching, tightly woven story from an always impressive author." -Kirkus (starred review), "Best Fiction of the Year"
"Radiates the heat of a beating heart." –Vox
"A poignant, unforgettable novel." –Hernan Diaz
From prize-winning, acclaimed author Laird Hunt, a poignant novel about a woman searching for her place in the world and finding it in the daily rhythms of life in rural Indiana.
"It was Indiana, it was the dirt she had bloomed up out of, it was who she was, what she felt, how she thought, what she knew."
As a girl, Zorrie Underwood's modest and hardscrabble home county was the only constant in her young life. After losing both her parents, Zorrie moved in with her aunt, whose own death orphaned Zorrie all over again, casting her off into the perilous realities and sublime landscapes of rural, Depression-era Indiana. Drifting west, Zorrie survived on odd jobs, sleeping in barns and under the stars, before finding a position at a radium processing plant. At the end of each day, the girls at her factory glowed from the radioactive material.
But when Indiana calls Zorrie home, she finally finds the love and community that have eluded her in and around the small town of Hillisburg. And yet, even as she tries to build a new life, Zorrie discovers that her trials have only begun.
Spanning an entire lifetime, a life convulsed and transformed by the events of the 20th century, Laird Hunt's extraordinary novel offers a profound and intimate portrait of the dreams that propel one tenacious woman onward and the losses that she cannot outrun. Set against a harsh, gorgeous, quintessentially American landscape, this is a deeply empathetic and poetic novel that belongs on a shelf with the classics of Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson, and Elizabeth Strout.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
We needed some tissues for this emotional novel from Laird Hunt, which lays out the life of orphaned Midwestern girl Zorrie as she comes of age during the Great Depression. We see her battle her way through harsh menial jobs (like painting clocks with poisonous radium paint). Yet even as Zorrie finds a happy life on a farm, there’s an uneasy feeling that things won’t stay calm for long. Hunt provides a rich inner monologue for Zorrie’s travails, and shows how she finds joy amidst a life of poverty and hard labor. These inner struggles are woven artfully with vivid descriptions of the rural Illinois’ farming belt, written in prose so beautiful that at times it sent shivers up our spine. Zorrie’s story is a dark but beautiful slice of life. It’s a short, powerful novel of the type John Steinbeck used to write—and the kind we want to read over and over.
Hunt (In the House in the Dark of the Woods) documents an unremarkable life in this compassionate outing. Though the elderly farmer Zorrie Underwood is in failing health and near the end of her life, she continues working the fields as she has for 50-plus years. Perseverance and an industrious acceptance of her lot are the hallmarks of orphaned Zorrie's existence from birth, as shown by the time-jumping narrative. After the stern aunt who raised Zorrie dies in 1930, when Zorrie is 21, she takes whatever work she can find until she meets the loving elderly couple Gus and Bessie, for whom she splits and stacks wood. Her acquaintance with their upright son, Harold, who runs the family farm, evolves naturally into marriage. With Harold away during WWII, Zorrie bonds with their empathetic neighbor and farmhand, Noah, especially after Harold is killed in action, and it's Harold's memory that stays with her in the decades to follow. As the years progress, Gus and Bessie die, and Zorrie finds joy in a puppy, and forms a strong friendship with her neighbor Ruby. Hunt's storytelling flows smoothly, its rhythms unperturbed by preciousness or superfluous detail. Fans of Kent Haruf's Plainsong trilogy will love this subtle tale of rural life. Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated a plot point and referred to the character Ruby by the wrong name.
Back to Indiana
I listened to this on an unplanned and hasty road trip to rural Indiana to help my father who fell at home for probably the last time. It is a reminder that every life is a story.