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Broken Ground

A Novel

When a young oil rig widow escapes her grief and the Texas Dust Bowl, she discovers a surprising future—and new passion—awaiting her in California in this lyrically written romance by the author of Sing for Me.

Newly married to her childhood sweetheart, twenty-one-year-old Ruth Warren is settling into life in a Depression-era, East Texas oil town. She’s making a home when she learns that her young husband, Charlie, has been killed in an oil rig accident. Ruth is devastated, but then gets a chance for a fresh start: a scholarship from a college in Pasadena, CA. Ruth decides to take a risk and travel west, to pursue her one remaining dream to become a teacher.

At college Ruth tries to fit into campus life, but her grief holds her back. When she spends Christmas with some old family friends, she meets the striking and compelling Thomas Everly, whose own losses and struggles have instilled in him a commitment to social justice, and led him to work with Mexican migrant farmworkers in a camp just east of Los Angeles. With Thomas, Ruth sees another side of town, and another side of current events: the numerous forced deportations without due process of Mexicans, along with United States citizens of Mexican descent.

After Ruth is forced to leave school, she goes to visit Thomas and sees that he has cobbled together a night school for the farmworkers’ children. Ruth begins to work with the children, and establishes deep friendships with people in the camp. When the camp is raided and the workers and their families are rounded up and shipped back to Mexico, Ruth and Thomas decide to take a stand for the workers’ rights—all while promising to love and cherish one another.

Broken Ground ONE
Charlie wakes me as he rises, mattress springs creaking beneath his long limbs. This early in the morning, with the sun yet to come up, shadows cloak our small bedroom. But I can make out the sleepy shape of him sitting on the edge of the bed. I can smell his warm skin. Ivory soap and, beneath that, the gritty hint of Lava. Charlie starts with a cake of Lava when he returns from the rig each night—all but sandpapers himself clean—then finishes with Ivory because he knows I like that scent better. Only when he’s shed oil, grease, and dirt like a second skin does he draw me into his arms. “Mrs. Warren,” he says then, because he still can’t believe our good fortune. “Mr. Warren,” I say back, because I can’t believe it, either. Here we are, just three months married, with an oil camp tent house to call our own, complete with kitchen, bedroom, front room, and a privy out back. There’s hardship all around us, out there in the big beyond, and close at hand, too. Our own pantry with its slim pickings, our well-worn clothes and hand-me-down furniture—this very creaky mattress, which was Charlie’s aunt’s before it became ours—are testaments to the times taking their toll. But two months before our wedding, Charlie found a job as a driller on this East Texas oil field. He came on down here without me and got to work. The few hours he wasn’t on the rig or sleeping, he readied this place—slapped up wood walls and a tin roof, laid planks for a floor, cut out the window over there. And now here we are, as happy as any pair of newlyweds can be. John D. Rockefeller, richest oil baron of them all, couldn’t be happier. He’s less happy, I’d lay odds. John D. Rockefeller doesn’t have Charlie in his life.

A mourning dove calls outside our open window, from the scrawny honey locust tree that grows beside our home. The shadows are swiftly paling to just that mourning dove’s gray. Sun’s coming up. The curtains on the window hang stiff as planks of white board; not a breeze stirs. It’s going to be another stifling day. A deadly heat wave in March. Who’d have thought. Then again, who’d have thought this winter, and early spring, too, would prove dry as a bone—the drought so bad that some days the black blizzards roll east from the Texas Panhandle and right over us, then on to places as far-flung as New York City and Washington, D.C. Just last week, according to accounts, a fog of prairie dirt shrouded the Statue of Liberty. The White House, too, turned less than white. On the worst days, Charlie says he and the other fellows on the rig measure visibility in inches, not feet. Static electricity crackles in the air. Blue flames leap from metal equipment and barbwire fences, making dangerous work all the more so. One man bumps against another, they generate a spark so powerful it can knock them both to the ground.

Charlie doesn’t complain, but round about noon every day, even when the sky is a stark blue ceiling marked only by the searing sun—no dust to be seen, not even on the far horizon—I’ll turn sick with worry. Sometimes the dust gets so thick in the nose and throat, a body can barely breathe. Sometimes, unattended, that thickness turns to dust pneumonia, and then a body simply can’t. And then there’s heatstroke, the most common ailment.

Maybe today I’ll hitch a ride out to Charlie with a jug of cold water and a towel. It won’t be easy. “Woman on the rig!” the warning will sound, and the roughnecks and roustabouts—men of a different ilk than Charlie—will whistle and worse. But the sight of my husband cooling off, his head thrown back as he drinks from the jug, the muscles in his throat rising and falling as he swallows—well, I’d walk through hot hell for that. Let them whistle and worse. I’ll pour water on the towel and rub it down the length of Charlie’s arms. Down to the tip of his callused fingers, I’ll work my way, wiping away grime, tending his sun-scorched skin.

I press my hands to my chest, where my heart suddenly punches. “Charlie?”

He has tipped his head toward our window in an attitude of listening. The mourning dove—that’s what he’s trying to hear. Charlie loves the sound of that bird, but his ears ring more often than not these days due to the noise on the rig. He says you haven’t heard a ruckus until you’ve heard a gusher let loose. Twenty-two years old and he’s losing his ability to make out discreet sounds. The mourning dove’s muted, throaty coo. Me softly saying his name. The yearning in my voice. He’s missed all that.

I take hold of Charlie’s arm and say his name louder. He turns. “Well, hello there.” His hand settles warmly on my waist. “Didn’t mean to wake you, Ruth.”

There’s enough light now to see the freckles emblazoned across his sharp nose and high cheekbones. The coppery strands burnished into his curly, auburn hair. The fine lines at the outer corners of his blue eyes, which are just the color of the bellflowers that grow in the field behind my parents’ house back in Alba, Oklahoma. Flowers I used to sink down into when things inside the house got hard. Now Charlie’s gaze is all I need for solace, along with the wondrous rest of him.

I hear myself sigh. Wistfulness, that sigh could be interpreted as. Or desire, which would be the truth.

Charlie smiles. “Stay in bed. I’ll get the coffee going.”

He moves to stand, but I keep hold of him. “Our Bed Is an Island,” I say.

It’s a game we play. We want to see the ocean together one day. For now, we pretend instead.

“Ruthie.” Charlie regards me. “You know what day it is.” A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Not Sunday or Christmas. A plain old Monday in March—that’s what day it is. If I had one magic wish, I’d make it otherwise, believe you me.”

“It’s barely five.” I peer at the round-faced clock on the bedside table, sitting squat on its three little legs. “Why, it’s not even a quarter till!” I beam at Charlie, triumphant. “We have time. We don’t have to—you know.” I snuggle down under the hand-stitched wedding quilt that was a gift from Miss Berger—the librarian in Alba, my previous employer—who unpacked it from her hope chest and gave it to me for mine. Miss Berger, who’s decided she’ll never marry, wanted the quilt put to good use. Well, then. I lift the quilt’s edge, so Charlie can join me under its interlocked rings of bright fabric. “We could be here a little longer. All tangled up in each other. You know.”

Charlie knows. He knows that if he returns to me under the quilt, our bed will become an island surrounded by an ocean we most often call the floor. Hawaii, our bed will become, or Barbados, Bermuda, or Bali. Or maybe one of the Galápagos would be nice, or the Cyclades, or the Canaries. Places we once mapped in geography lessons, the names of which I savor like candy on my tongue. Castaways, that’s what Charlie and I will be, and we’ll dreamily drift, lost in each other, far from civilization, free from dust, drought, and demands.

Charlie leans toward me, the low sound in his throat somewhere between a purr and a growl. The round identification tag he always wears—it belonged to his father, who died in the Great War—slips free of the confines of his pajama shirt to dangle from its leather cord in the air between us. Gently the silvery tag swings, steady as a hypnotist’s watch. Charlie draws nearer. I stretch my arms above my head, relish the waiting. Any moment, we’ll be all tangled up.

But then, when he’s nearly close enough to kiss, his expression twists, and he draws away. “Nope.” He tucks the quilt around me. “We’re drilling on a new tract of land today. I’ve got to get an even earlier start.”

Still, I don’t let Charlie go. Moments pass, my hands doing this and that, all the while holding on, until finally he tickles me nearly to death and I have to release him. Then he’s up like a shot, and our island is just a bed that he’s not in, and our ocean is just a floor he’s crossing, and the other side of our far horizon is just the kitchen in which he’s making coffee.

And so it’s begun, Monday. The camp town awaits me, for better and worse, and the oil field that never quits awaits Charlie. There he’ll give orders, and take them, and work himself to the bone, breaking up and drilling down, drawing up the black crude that helps men like John D. Rockefeller get rich, and helps people like us get by.

WHILE CHARLIE DRESSES, I pad barefoot in my nightgown to the kitchen. No time to waste now; breakfast needs making. I heat the stove, whip up some biscuits, fry the last three of our eggs. We like them fried hard, make a big show of calling the crackly edges bacon. I cook a can of beans, too. What with the long day Charlie faces, beans and a biscuit will satisfy me.

He sits at the table as I’m setting down our two plates. I join him, and we clasp hands. Skin against skin like this, I can’t help but notice the obvious differences between Charlie and me. My skin doesn’t freckle in the sun like his. Instead, never mind how much I try to cover up, I turn as brown as the biscuits on our plates. My hair is brown, too, except in the summer, when it’s streaked with the sun’s yellow. But nothing, not even the sun, will change the color of my eyes, which are as black as my mood used to get before Charlie and I married and moved away from Alba. There’s nothing bellflower blue about my eyes; they more reflect a stormy night. I’d like to change that about myself—my black moods most of all—but Charlie says this difference in our natures is a fine thing. “Put a glass half empty and a glass half full together, and you’ve got the whole glass,” he teases. Once I shot back, “Half empty, my dainty foot. I’d be empty without you.” But the look he gave me was worried, not playful, so I never said that again.

Sometimes, holding hands with Charlie, I feel like a child, cared for and protected, which is a warm feeling indeed after the cold comfort of my growing up. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am grown up. This provides the single (so far) source of tension between Charlie and me. “Make yourself heard,” he said once, his voice heated. “Don’t kowtow to me.”

“Let’s pray,” I say now, my voice clear and firm, loud enough to be heard, no matter the state of Charlie’s hearing. Together, we thank God for food and work and each other. As always, I add a silent prayer of thanks for this, the we of our prayer, which, since Charlie and I have been married, has made me feel closer to God than ever before. The we of our prayer is entirely different from what I heard growing up, at home and at the Holy Church of the Redeemed, which was established by my father, along with a few others who felt the rest of the churches in town weren’t good enough. They rented a small building, called themselves Elders, found their preacher, and established their covenant. At the Holy Church of the Redeemed, we means the Elders, who speak for everyone else.

“Amen,” Charlie and I say.

Charlie digs in first. Or starts to. Biscuit nearly to his lips, he hesitates, eyeing my portion. Then he sets down the biscuit, scoops a heap of egg onto his fork, and reaches for my plate. I snatch my plate away. “I’m not hungry.”

“You’re as hungry as me.”

“Keep this up, mister, and I’ll take my breakfast on the front porch.” I look at him in a manner most queenly. “Alone.”

Charlie shakes his head and laughs, egg cooling on his fork. But I see the resignation in his eyes. He knows I mean it.

For further emphasis, I snap my fingers. “Tempus fugit!”

Dutifully, Charlie slides the egg back onto his plate. “I had to go and marry the one gal who actually remembers her Latin.”

I shrug. “I liked Latin. The little we learned of it. Which is to say, if you’d paid attention, you’d remember your Latin, too.”

“You liked geometry, Ruth. Proofs and all that. Heck, you liked everything, from kindergarten to twelfth grade.”

What Charlie knows and doesn’t say is that from the get-go, I’ve been hungrier for learning than I’ve ever been for food. In spite of Daddy. Because of him, maybe. Maybe that’s the gift Daddy’s given me. Take something away, or make it hard to get, or put limits around it—barriers of judgment that say This is evil and so is that and The only good book is the Bible—the desire only grows greater. Long before Charlie and I got married, I wanted to go to college and become a teacher, share knowledge and information even as I kept on learning myself. But then there was Charlie, who’d always been there, my best friend, only this time he had a ring and a promise: We’ll leave Alba. We’ll move far away. We’ll see this big old world. I still want to go to college. But now I won’t go alone. Charlie will come, too.

He cocks his head at me, grins. “You know very well why I didn’t pay attention in school, Ruthie.”

The upturned corners of his mouth draw me closer. Our bed could still be an island.

“Because our teacher was stern and stuffy?” I know this is not the answer (though it is one aspect of the truth). But I want to hear him say it. And he does.

“I was too busy looking at you.”

With my fork, I pretend to wave his words away, though I cherish every last one of them. “We both know you paid more than enough attention in school during science. We were always different like that.”

Different from most of the other students, I mean, as Charlie well knows. Most of the other students were there because they had to be. Charlie and I were there because we wanted to be.

He shrugs and keeps eating. He wants to be a doctor someday, he’s always said. Now that we’re married, he’s more likely to qualify: “If I can.” If. Depends on how long these hard times linger, and on how the money comes in, that’s what he means. And there might be a baby first, if God wills and the money comes in. No, simply if God wills: a baby.

It’s only sometimes, when the chores are all done and I’m alone, drifting a bit, that I let myself daydream about college first and teaching right after, before a baby or anything else. I’d be an interesting schoolteacher, unlike our teacher, Mrs. Himmel. Sometimes, I think we learned despite Mrs. Himmel, not because of her. Miss Berger, the librarian, was my real teacher. In fact, last August, right after Charlie and I got engaged, when he was working as a farmhand and I was working at the Alba public library, Miss Berger got Charlie and me to apply to college. “You must,” she said. “As an intellectual exercise. An experiment, if you’d rather put it that way.” I grabbed Charlie’s hands like we were about to set off on a great lark. But then he said, “No money, no point in exercising or experimenting either one,” and I felt my shoulders sag. “Maybe someday,” he added quickly. “But we’ll let you go first, Ruth. I don’t need to go right away. There’s only one thing I need right away. One person.” He put an arm around me, drew me close, and for some days, distracted by the question of money and the answer of each other, we forgot about any old college application.

But Miss Berger didn’t give up. One September night, she sat Charlie and me down and slapped two manila envelopes on the library table between us. The envelopes each held an application to Union University in Pasadena, California. Miss Berger, way back when, considered attending this college. It’s a good school, she told us, with strong programs for future teachers and doctors both. “Fill out the applications as a favor to me,” she pleaded.

So we filled them out, goaded by Miss Berger, and sent them off in the mail. And I usually only dwell on this—that our applications are out there somewhere, on someone’s desk or file cabinet in faraway California, when I’m alone in the afternoon, chores all done, drifting and daydreaming.

I take hold of Charlie’s shirt, pull him close, kiss him full on the mouth. We taste like biscuits and us. Who needs jam? Who needs college? Who needs anything but this? When I release him, yellow dirt dusts my fingertips. East Texas soil. So different from Oklahoma’s red clay. He kept his promise. We did move—not far, far away from Alba, exactly, but far enough.

I wipe the dirt on my napkin. “I’ll do laundry today. Promise.”

Charlie shrugs. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. This pair of dungarees will make it to Wednesday before they stand up of their own accord.”

He’s not kidding. After a few days’ work in the field, his clothes are as stiff as can be, caked with oil, gasoline, dirt, and sweat. Thus, the necessary cake of Lava and the bar of Ivory soap for me.

“Monday is wash day,” I say firmly. I’ve almost finished cross-stitching a set of tea towels that testify to this fact and others: Monday, Wash. Tuesday, Iron. Wednesday, Clean, etc. Beneath reminders like this, I’ve cross-stitched little animals for decoration. Monday’s animal is a lamb. Tuesday’s, a goose. Wednesday’s, a cat. I have yet to stitch the others. But since Thursday is Mend and Sew, I’ll be done soon enough.

Charlie takes his empty plate and cup to the kitchen sink. I stand, too, though I’m nowhere near done. “I wish you wouldn’t eat so fast.” I can’t keep the missing-him-already out of my voice.

Charlie picks up his lunch pail. “I’d just be putting off what’s inevitable.”

“That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about your digestion.”

He leans over and, playful as my cross-stitched lamb, nips at my ear. He pretends to chew and swallow, then pats his stomach, satisfied. “My digestion is fine.”

Together, we go to the front porch. The sun shines brightly. Other birds are singing—black crows, brown thrashers, blue jays—but the mourning dove has fallen silent. It’ll be dusk before she sings again, and soon after that, Charlie will return home.

We tell each other I love you. We hold each other for a long moment. Then what else can we do? We say good-bye.

I’M KNEELING IN a skittering strip of the honey locust tree’s shade, scrubbing a pair of Charlie’s dungarees on the rub board while his shirts soak in a pot, when I hear the high, thin voice of one of my neighbors. “Two plus two equals five.”

I smile down at Charlie’s dungarees, the knees worn paper-thin. My neighbor knows better. I’ve taught her better. She’s teasing me.

“Very good, Edna Faye,” I tease her back.

Surprised silence from behind me. I press my lips together to keep from laughing, then start scrubbing again. Almost, these dungarees hold the shape of Charlie. Almost, I can feel the curve of his bones when he kneels or bends.

“Three plus three equals seven.”

“Excellent.” Working at the frayed hems, briskly rubbing left hem against right, I tell Edna Faye that she is the brightest girl for miles around.

At that, her bare feet patter against the dirt, and the late-morning glare softens. She’s standing behind me now, lending her skinny shadow to that of the honey locust. “You’re not listening, Mrs. Ruth.”

From what I’ve seen, Edna Faye has spent most of her six years not being listened to by anyone—especially anyone in her family of nine. The one constant in the life of a roustabout’s child is change, and in the case of Edna Faye’s family, constant change has yielded constant chaos. As the middle child of the brood, she’s particularly lost in the shuffle. Maybe a month ago on a Monday, Edna Faye drifted over as I stepped outside. She hungrily eyed the pot I was carrying, seeming to think it might hold soup. It held only hot water and laundry. Still, when I smiled at her, she began prowling the yard in ever diminishing circles, evaluating the situation. Finally she sidled up and sat right down on the ground next to me. I asked what her name was and told her mine, and that was all it took. Edna Faye has barely stopped talking since.

“Four plus four equals nine,” she says. Her voice breaks with temper or tears, I can’t tell which. I can’t bear the thought of her unhappy under my watch, so I turn around and take her small grubby hands in my wet ones.

“Do we need to review your addition tables?” In spite of my best intentions, I sound stuffy and stern, a younger version of Mrs. Himmel. But if Mrs. Himmel’s methods worked for me, I guess they work for Edna Faye, too; at least they do today. She nods solemnly, blinking her round gray eyes. If she weren’t so thin—dangerously thin, her belly a taut ball bulging beneath her flour-sack shift—her pale face, framed by a milk-colored corona of hair, would resemble nothing so much as a full moon. As it is, the hollows at her cheeks and temples betray a very hungry child.

“Well, then.” My voice gentles. “Let me hang up Mr. Charlie’s clean things, and we’ll get to work on your math.”

Edna Faye smiles, exposing the crooked, gray nubbins of her teeth.

I hang Charlie’s dungarees from the clothesline, along with several pairs of socks that have soaked long enough in a bucket of bleach and, on Thursday, Mend and Sew, must be mended and sewn. Then I take Edna Faye’s hand and lead her into the house. I set a piece of paper and a pencil on the kitchen table. “Addition. The ones. Do odds first and then evens, opposite of usual.” I stress this because Edna Faye likes variety. Or variety is all that is familiar to her, all she’s known over the course of her brief but ever-changing life.

Edna Faye bows her head over her work. 1+1, she writes carefully on the paper’s top line, her tongue working inside her mouth, pushing her cheek to nearly full-moon full. I take a pitcher of milk from the icebox and peer down into it. I can spare a cup, at least. I pour milk into an empty canning jar, then cut a slice of bread and spread molasses on thick. I set all this before Edna Faye, and she breathes in deep. Smelling is the next best thing to eating, and she’s clearly learned to live on the scent of food alone. The smell of bread, molasses, and milk sustains her through the odds and well into the evens, too. It’s a good while before she takes her first bite, her first gulp. And then, like that, the plate is empty; the jar, drained. Edna Faye eats faster, even, than Charlie. Soon as I can afford to buy the ingredients to bake a pie, I’ll bake two and let this child and my husband battle it out in their own personal pie-eating contest.

Edna Faye covers her mouth with her hand like I taught her before she burps. “Excuse me,” she says. I taught her that, too. She’s still hungry as a bear cub, so I pour more milk. “Take it slowly, now,” I say, and she does her best to obey while I review her sums.

“Well done.” I smile. This time she deserves the compliment. “Perfect, in fact.”

Edna Faye licks the milk mustache from her upper lip. “Subtraction now.”

This is what I like most about Edna Faye. She wants to learn. She needs to.

Time passes, the only sounds the ticktock of the clock and her pencil’s scratching, and I eat my own little lunch, the twin of Edna Faye’s.

“Here,” she finally says, handing over her paper. And now I’m the one bowed over the smudged numbers, calculating differences.

Edna Faye has made a few errors on her eights and nines, but really, she does a fine job for a child who’s only in the last handful of weeks learned methods for making things increase and decrease predictably. As a reward, I invite her into the front room to sit on the sagging sofa that Charlie and I found by the roadside. It must have fallen from some traveler’s overburdened truck; it threatened to fall from ours. But we got it here, and it’s become the lesser island in our lives.

Here on the sofa—as the sun peaks in the sky, then begins to sink lower, and shirts soak too long in the pot, dungarees and socks dry on the line, and little shadows begin to gather in corners again, which means the minutes truly are ticking toward the time when the mourning dove coos and Charlie returns—I read a tale to Edna Faye from my copy of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. We choose “Rapunzel,” her favorite and one of mine, too. “Why do you like this story so much?” I asked her once. “The tower,” Edna Faye answered. As if the greatest joy in any life would be to be locked away alone, all by oneself in a quiet place, with only hair to grow and a guard to deliver regular meals. I like the story for an entirely different reason: the escape. Edna Faye probably would be content if we never got to that part, but I always read on to the happily-ever-after end.

I read on. The sun sinks. The shirts soak. The minutes tick-tock. The shadows gather, deepening, clinging to one another. I turn page after page.

It hits me near the happily-ever-after end. My teaching got the best of me. I neglected to hitch a ride out to Charlie, bearing a jug of cold water and wet towels. It’s too late now. I will visit him on the rig tomorrow.

I turn another page, listening for the mourning dove.

Instead, there’s a sound like I’ve never heard before—a sound like trains colliding. Our little house shifts, the sofa lurches, the window rattles. The jar from which Edna Faye drank falls from the kitchen table and shatters on the floor.

SILENCE FOLLOWS THE sound. The tornado that hit Alba in 1930 left in its wake such a silence. But this silence stretches even longer. This silence becomes its own kind of terrible noise.

Something moves beside me, breaking whatever spell has kept me frozen in place. I look down. Edna Faye. Her gray eyes seem to swallow her hollow moon face. “What was that?” she asks.

I shake my head, and once I start, I can’t stop. Shaking my head, I walk to the front door. I open it. Even now there’s not a sound to be heard. No one stands in the silent road. Any birds in the trees—black crows, brown thrashers, blue jays—are stunned dumb. Our mourning dove . . . I hope she flew far away from here this morning. I tell myself she flew far away. She will return at nighttime, when Charlie returns, because Charlie was working in a new field today, a faraway field, a safe field, far away.

I stand on the porch and watch for him, though it is not yet time for him to come home. In fact, time seems to have stopped, which no doubt will delay him all the longer.

I look toward where the sun should be, fixed to a standstill on the horizon, and where the sun should be looms a black cloud of smoke rising, rising, enormous already and ballooning bigger. I smell it then. Burning oil. And something else—something like scorched meat and singed hair.

I clap my hands over my nose and mouth to block the smell, to suppress the cry thickening in my throat, and time starts again. Neighbors spill from tents and homes like ours, women and children and men—men too old to be working or injured men unable to work—who are shouting. “Blowout!” Over and over I hear the word, but no matter how many times I hear it, I can’t think what it means.

Someone tugs at my dress. “I have to find my ma.”

Edna Faye’s high, thin voice is solemn with understanding. I drop to my knees. We are eye to eye, and she is the teacher. “What happened?”

“Blowout,” she says.

Something in my expression—impatience? anger?—makes Edna Faye wince. She is afraid. I don’t want to be another adult who makes her fearful. I should smile reassuringly and tell her to go find her ma. Instead, I grab her shoulders and yank her close so I can hear her every word through the noise of lamentation rising all around us.

“What’s a blowout?”

“A fire. A big fire. A bad fire.” She’s crying now. “Killed my uncle and my grandpa, too, up in Whizbang a while back.”

Whizbang, Oklahoma, she means. The boomtown that sprang up almost overnight around one of the biggest gushers ever discovered—nearly as big as the gushers here. I heard about Whizbang. I heard about that fire. It destroyed everything in its path. It almost destroyed Whizbang.

I look to the horizon again. The fire is in the west. Which way did Charlie drive this morning after he folded himself into our truck’s front seat? I watched him walk to the truck, his lunch pail swinging at his thigh. I watched him climb inside. I raised my hand and blew him a kiss. He blew a kiss back. Waving, he backed the truck toward the dirt road that took him in whichever direction he went. But I didn’t watch him drive away. Already, I’d turned back to the house. Because today is Monday. Monday, Wash. I had to get busy. And there are his shirts, soaking in the pot. There are his dungarees, hanging from the line, and his socks, clothespinned into place. The East Texas wind has dried them already. But I will wash them again—Monday, Wash—because look: faint tendrils of oily, black smoke, black as any dust storm’s blizzard, black as any mood, snaking around the dungarees and socks, and the shirts still soaking in the pot—clothes that Charlie will wear against his skin. My husband’s skin smells like Ivory soap, and beneath that, a hint of Lava. I can’t have him heading off to work smelling like something—oh, God—like someone burned.

This is what I’m doing when a man comes and tells me that Charlie is dead, killed in the blowout. I’m scrubbing Charlie’s shirts, dungarees, and socks. The man talks to me. He talks to me. Talks to me. To the back of my bowed head he talks, to my rounded shoulders, my body heaving with effort. I hear “husband,” and I hear “dead,” and that is all I hear. That is all I need to hear. Now I must get busy. Never have I worked so hard at one simple task. Monday’s task. I work at it.

But I cannot get Charlie’s clothes clean enough. I cannot wash them white as the snow that I have seen only a few times in my life. One time I was with Charlie. This was eight years ago. He was fourteen. I was thirteen. We were walking home from school late one January afternoon, when the moon already hung in the sky, as the moon must hang in the sky now, only that January moon was hidden by clouds and this March moon is hidden by smoke. Charlie and I were walking and talking, discussing a comment Mrs. Himmel had made about the sixth day and Adam and Eve. In a low voice, Charlie told me about something he’d read on the sly, tucked away in the corner of the Alba public library where one day I would work. Charlie had read bits and pieces from a book by a man named Darwin. This man Darwin thought seven days wasn’t all it took to make the world, and Charlie wondered what I thought about that. I was thinking on what I thought, and Charlie was waiting for my answer, when snow began to fall like manna from the sky. “Look!” Charlie said. And we raised our mittened hands like hallelujah, and the white flakes dusted the wool. Charlie’s hands were big. Mine were small. Charlie’s mittens were blue. Mine were red. I remember this. We gazed at our mittened hands, at the crystals sparkling against the wool, each as unique as a human soul, shining fiercely, swiftly extinguished. “It’s a miracle,” I said, and Charlie said yes. A miracle. Our first snow together, a miracle we shared, and we promised each other we’d share many more.

Our first snow together was when Charlie and I fell in love, I realize as I wash his clothes all through the dark, smoky night. I wash holes into the knees of his dungarees and bigger holes into the heels of his socks. I wash the cuffs and collars of his shirts to shreds. I wash my hands raw. I wash my hands bloody.

The day Charlie and I fell in love. The day of the one and only miracle in my life.
Photograph © Greg Halvorsen Schreck

Karen Halvorsen Schreck is the author of three previous novels, Sing for Me, Dream Journal, and While He Was Away. She received her doctorate in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short stories and articles have appeared in Literal Latté, Other Voices, Image, as well as other literary journals and magazines, and have received various awards, including a Pushcart Prize, an Illinois State Arts Council Grant, and in 2009, first prize awards for memoir and devotional magazine writing from the Evangelical Press Association. A freelance writer and frequent visiting professor of English at Wheaton College, Karen lives with her husband and two children in Wheaton, Illinois.

“Well-written, lyric… Readers will love Ruth's stamina and heart, and come away with a new understanding of immigrant experiences both then and now.”

– Publishers Weekly

“A masterfully written historical novel …Broken Ground is not to be missed.”

– USA Today

"The characters remind the reader that while the world is full of broken people, promises and ground, there is hope. Ruth is an encouraging character who finds herself after losing everything."

– RT Book Reviews (4 Stars)

"A wonderfully engaging and consistently compelling read... highly recommended."

– Midwest Book Review

"The evocative story proceeds fluidly, in the strong and delightful voice that is Ruth’s. The stark landscape of Oklahoma, the emotional tugs of the heart, and the rewarding outcomes all meld together to form a compelling novel."

– Historical Novel Society

"Karen Halvorsen Schreck has done it again… Engaging, lyrical, and inspirational"

– Julie Cantrell, New York Times bestselling author of The Feathered Bone

"Karen Halvorsen Schreck tells a compelling story, emotionally honest and beautifully written.

– Joshilyn Jackson, author of The Opposite of Everyone

"With the greatest empathy and insight, Broken Ground lays bare the brutal reality of a young widow's struggle to survive in Depression-era America. Schreck captures the subtleties of the American South and West with such muscle–her detailed eye snagging every detail–that I felt as if I’d been dropped into another time and place."

– Christine Maul Rice, author of Swarm Theory

“A wonderful novel… large-hearted and well-researched...makes an important contribution to current debates about immigration andprovides a much-needed example of Christianity as a force for compassion,enlightenment, and social justice.”

– Trudy Lewis, author of The Empire Rolls