North Country, New York by Gabrielle Hovendon
The guidelines for the CRAFT 2023 Setting Sketch Challenge define setting as the “key to any narrative.” In “North Country, New York,” Gabrielle Hovendon ventures well beyond those guidelines. In “North Country,” setting is far more than a “key,” it is the very door that grants the reader entry into the minds and lives of Hovendon’s characters. In her author’s note, Hovendon writes, “Characters who exist in no particular setting often seem not to be fully alive. Without a clearly delineated setting, characters can seem unmoored, floating in a kind of gray pickling solution of vagueness and never quite touching the walls of their jars.” With sentences like, “Tonight my mother was silent, her bad mood building like the snow clouds that hung low and sullen over the fields,” the reader experiences the cold, raw hardness of these characters’ lives through the world around them. The emotion is apparent on the landscape—in the view from the back seat of a car, on the mother’s face—and it is emotion that makes this setting sketch pulse, that urges the reader to keep going, to keep reading, to continue shivering in the cold. —CRAFT
In dreams at the backs of my eyelids, I was still twelve years old traveling in a car luminous with anger. I could feel the slow braking as we turned onto the county highway. I could see the horizon rippled with cold and chemical colors from the factory smokestacks. The winter sun sat low in the sky, a baleful red wafer above the fields.
I knew this landscape in the dark and the snow. Weathered barns, empty except for the exhausted light, dotted the fields along the road. The failing farms were everywhere, all of them littered with broken irrigation equipment, collapsed outbuildings, junked sedans sunk up to their hubcaps in drifts of dead bunchgrass. The soil had gone grayish and hard from years of overfarming, the exhausted fields reduced to a torn envelope for engineered soybean and corn.
We lived on a bitter and unlovable plateau that was once home to loggers and brawlers and barefoot workers in dirt-floored paper mills. You could see them in photographs from the early part of the century: Men working in machine rooms, their breath rising and crystallizing among steel beams, their enormous rollers of paper lined up beside windows in long bars of light. Or a single colloidal moment, a half-dozen men standing beside logging equipment in overalls and shirtsleeves, arms folded, eyes staring blankly across the wet flats.
To the west of the plateau were the more prosperous dairy farms and river valleys. To the east were the mountains, an immense black expanse of pine forests and white cedar swamps. You could drive for miles without seeing any lights, just the occasional greasy trash fire and dark figures silhouetted against the glow.
It was a country where you learned to keep your observations to yourself.
From the passenger seat, I watched as we turned onto our long dirt driveway, our headlights scything across the empty land and the broken fence posts. Tonight my mother was silent, her bad mood building like the snow clouds that hung low and sullen over the fields. Next door, I could see the Amish boys in their stiff blue jackets tossing buckets of flint corn to the pigs.
Sometimes, my mother would repeat what the pastor told us, that the apocalypse was coming closer every day. But here it seemed like it had already come and gone. There was no salvation waiting for the grain silos and frozen fields, for the collapsed mills and empty barns, for anything in this terrain of inertia and slow decay.
If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine a different world. But when I opened them, all I saw were the dirty snowdrifts and ice.
There were animal tracks crisscrossing the empty land.
There was snow falling on the broken combines.
There were humans standing in the fields like wounded animals, looking at the sky.
GABRIELLE HOVENDON is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She received her MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University and her PhD in English literature from the University of Georgia. She’s currently at work on her novel in progress set in the North Country, as well as a hybrid poetry collection and a second novel about queer socialists in a stonecutting empire in nineteenth-century France. Her work has appeared in publications including Electric Literature, Verse, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Cincinnati Review, Redivider, Day One, and Ninth Letter. Find Gabrielle on Instagram @gabes_redacted.
Featured image by Anne Nygård, courtesy of Unsplash.