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About The Book

Virginia Mendenhall, a Quaker from North Carolina, is thirty-three years old when she travels to the arid plains of eastern Colorado in the mid-1930s to marry Alfred Bowen, ten years her senior. They have met only twice and have come to love each other through letters. Now, on an isolated ranch in the Dust Bowl, they must adjust to the harsh ranching life and the dangers of an untamed landscape, as well as the differences between them.
With an extended drought worsening the impact of the Depression in the West, neighbors turn against neighbors, and secrets from Alfred and Virginia's pasts come back to haunt them. But it is the arrival of Virginia's troubled brother on the ranch that sets off a chain of events with life-and-death consequences for them all.
Plain Language is a beautifully told tale of a man and woman fighting against tremendous odds for their land -- and their love.


Chapter One

The buckskin gelding pawed the ground and tossed his head back. Alfred urged him on, but the horse moved in quick side steps without going forward. The horse had an Indian background and a stolid temperament. It was not his nature to be nervous. But something was upsetting him.

Alfred looked out over the windy plains of eastern Colorado. Broad hillsides sloped into grassy bottoms dotted with spiny yucca, prickly cactus, and thistle. The land was barren of trees, except for the occasional gnarled scrub cedar clinging to a rocky bluff, or the scraggly cottonwoods that congregated near the creek beds. He saw nothing amiss. Closer in, Alfred checked the ground. No rattlers, gopher holes, or other dangers a sharp horse like Sage might detect.

Alfred clenched his jaw and heard a familiar crunch. Grit. What he didn't breathe in through his nose, he took in through his mouth. Grains of sand lodged in the crevices of his teeth. It was a condition of working on the dry, brittle land.

Six months earlier, when Alfred had bought the ranch, no one had put a name to the long dry spell. He had been living in Mexico for eight years and had read about Roosevelt and the hard times across the country. People had put a name to that: the Depression. What were the odds that, hard on the heels of massive unemployment, would come the misery of drought -- for that was the word everyone now used: drought.

The wind picked up, and the air took on a bilious yellow cast. Alfred had grown up on a ranch in the Rocky Mountains and was not yet familiar with weather patterns on this terrain. He had not yet learned to read the currents and eddies of dust, the way an experienced canoeist could read a river, could tell by the roar of the water, the height of the spume, and the churn of the foam, the exact degree of danger the rapids held.

Overhead, ducks dragged their purple shadows along the backs of the grasses. Sage whinnied and shied back.

"Come on, pal. Help me out here."

Alfred was not in the habit of talking to his horses. Sure, a word or two -- "Good boy," "Giddy-up," that kind of thing. Yet here he was, speaking in full sentences.

He didn't have time for a balky mount. He was losing patience. He thrust his heels into the horse's side, and Sage moved reluctantly forward.

Alfred needed to get home and clean house to prepare for the arrival of his bride. At that very moment, Virginia Mendenhall was on the train from Mexico. She would arrive in Denver the next day and they would get married at the Quaker meetinghouse. It was impulsive to bring Virginia to this desolate land. They were both older and had worked at other jobs -- he as an organizer for the YMCA in Mexico, she for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization based in Philadelphia. She knew nothing about ranching but was game to try. Her enthusiasm reassured him, though he knew, deep down, that she had no idea what she was getting into. If he had been more prudent, he would have waited to see if he could make a success of ranching before bringing her out. But he was not prudent. He was in love, and love and prudence were not compatible. So he abandoned the sense of responsibility that throughout life had been both his curse and his blessing, and asked her to marry him.

Alfred heard a sound like a freight train and looked behind him. A massive cloud rolled toward him, muddy tan at the top, black at the base. Before he knew it, the cloud caught up with him. The wind hit like a tornado, blowing dirt so violently he could not see beyond the brim of his hat.

A dust storm. Sage had known, had tried to warn him. Perhaps it was the static in the air, or some high-pitched signal, some disturbance in the natural order of things that his horse could pick up, while Alfred, with all his reasoning and intelligence, could not.

The cloud guzzled up the light. He could not see beyond the back of Sage's head. All he knew was that home was east, directly into the wind, and miles away. He pulled his bandanna over his nose and turned the horse in that direction.

The wind came at them with unrelenting fury. It stirred up particles and hurled them through the air with such force that they scoured his face. Dirt crept down his pants, like insects. Tumbleweed spinning crown to head flew at him from out of the darkness, grazed his face, then moved on. Sticks, gravel, and flying debris pelted him full force. The wind pushed his hat further onto his head, as if a giant hand were pressing against it. His thoughts were not for himself but for Sage. It was cruel to have an animal out in this.

His best bet would be to go to the old sod house. It had been left there by the original settler who had proved up the claim. The roof was caved in and the windows gone, but it huddled against a rise and would offer some protection from the storm.

He turned Sage around. Now the wind flogged their backs as they made their way toward shelter.

Suddenly something spooked Sage -- a darting animal or some wind-borne debris. The horse reared up and pranced backward. Alfred heard a crackling sound, like a rifle shot. The weight of the horse fell from beneath him. He jumped clear as the horse crashed to the ground. Alfred got up, but Sage didn't. Sides heaving, the horse kicked his feet and strained his head upward, to no avail. Alfred knew from the terrible sounds of pain that the animal was in trouble. He circled Sage and approached from the back so he could check for damage without getting kicked. Blinded by the dust, he felt the animal's lower pastern for the bone between the hoof and the fetlock. All he could feel was gelatin.

He had to act quickly, before he lost courage. The saddle pitched and yawed as the horse flailed about. Alfred had trouble unstrapping the rifle. When he finally had it in his hand, he came around in front of the horse and aimed between the eyes, getting up close so that he would not miss. Sage tossed his head, caught the barrel of the rifle, and sent it flying. Alfred groped in the dust until he felt cold metal. The better target was behind the ear, he decided. He changed position. The horse's anguished neighs lacerated Alfred's insides. His hand shook. He concentrated on steadying his hand. He cocked the rifle. It didn't catch. He tried again. No use. The thing was jammed. The dust had clogged the mechanism.

Alfred's stomach turned nut hard. The wind cuffed his ears and numbed his face, but not his heart. Working the ranch alone, Alfred had done about everything a man could do. But this was one chore he had not counted on. He thought of every way to get out of doing it. Perhaps he could go get help. Perhaps the horse could be saved. But as the wind screamed and the dust built up, he knew what he had known in his gut from the beginning. He had no choice. He was wasting time, trying to save himself from the unpleasant chore, thinking about himself and not Sage.

He pointed the rifle into the air and tried again, just to make sure. Nothing happened. He took off his bandanna. Should he tie it over Sage's nose or eyes? Nose, he decided, so that for the last few moments, the horse could breathe dust-free. Even this close, Alfred could not see Sage's eyes. For that he was grateful. It was because of his liquid, intelligent eyes that Alfred had selected Sage from the many wild horses that the trader Caruthers had for sale. He felt the plush warmth of Sage's nose against his palm.

He got out his knife and crouched behind the horse's head. His lips burned, and his skin felt cracked and abraded, like old shoe leather. For his own safety he could delay no longer. Before putting on his gloves, he gave Sage one last pat. Each moment was another moment the horse was in pain. He held his breath, closed his eyes, and pulled the blade across the horse's throat. The knife caught at first -- why hadn't he sharpened it more recently? He changed his grip and pulled harder. He felt the blade slide across. The neighing stopped. The legs went still. Sage's head flopped to the ground. Alone with the wind, Alfred backed away in horror and held up his palms to his face. This close, he could smell his gloves, which were darkened with blood. The wet fingers were a magnet for the dust. In disgust, he threw the gloves into the whirling dust. Then he flung the knife after them.

He turned into the wind and he headed toward home. His chaps scraped against the low-growing cactus and sagebrush. Without his bandanna, he had nothing to keep the dirt out of his face. Sludge coated his tongue. He spit out a wad of mud. Flying grit scratched his eyes. He lowered his face into the crook of his elbow to protect his eyes. Suddenly he thought: His eyes. I should have covered Sage's eyes.

As doubt set in, he began to lose his sense of direction. To get his bearings on the ranch, he depended on visual relationships, how one thing lined up with another -- that butte across from that gate, this hillock in relationship to that gully. But he could not see an arm's length in front of him. He was walking east, directly into the wind and in the direction of home. But suppose the wind had shifted, even slightly, so that he was actually walking southeast, into the vast open range? If a ship veered off course even a few degrees, it would miss an island.

Too much thinking interfered with his homing instincts -- whatever it was in man that told him where on the earth he was, which direction to go, and how to get home. Everything around him was the same. He could be walking in circles, for all he knew.

If something happened to Alfred, no one would miss him for days -- weeks, even -- except Virginia. And what would she think when he wasn't there to meet her at the train station? She knew no one in Colorado. She didn't even know where the ranch was. All she had was a rural-route address. The only other person who might miss him was the postman, who would notice the mail collecting in the box -- any letters Virginia had mailed from Mexico that would arrive after she did.

Up ahead he saw sparks traveling waist high, in succession, cutting their way horizontally through the dust. A trail of stars, each one fading before the next lit up. Was his mind turning feeble? As he got closer, he realized that he had reached a barbed-wire fence. The wind was so strong it generated electricity that jumped from one barb to another along the length of the wire.

A fence spitting stars. Its strange beauty calmed him. Cutting a wide berth, he followed the fence until he came to a gate. He climbed over the weathered plank boards to the road. He chose a direction -- left -- knowing he had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. Now he traveled by the feel of the ground beneath his feet, sensitive to any change in elevation. When he felt himself going down into the bar ditches, he regained the high ground. When he came upon the curved metal mailbox, he was home free. From here he knew the way by heart.

Without eating supper or taking a bath, he fell into bed. Tomorrow he would take care of everything. Tomorrow he would get married. Now, the only thing he sought was sleep.

* * *

Sleep did not come to Virginia until deep in the night, after the border crossing. She had passed most of the time in the tiny curtained sleeping compartment, listening to the rotation of the train's wheels, fast for long stretches, then slow, pulling her toward her new life. The future hung shining before her, without a hint that anything could tarnish it.

After a few short hours of rest, she freshened up as best she could in a bathroom that wasn't much bigger than a telephone booth. She wore her long blond hair the same way she had for the past ten years, up in a bun, which made her look a bit too severe, but it had the virtue of being a quick hairstyle. She had never been one to waste time in beauty parlors. As she wound the thin ponytail at the nape of her neck, the train lurched around a corner and she was thrown against the side of the lavatory. The hairpins in her mouth fell to the floor and scattered. She washed them off and started over, then pinched her cheeks and looked at herself in the saucer-sized mirror.

She was not a beauty -- her forehead was too high, her nose too big, her cheeks not defined. But she had a pleasant face. With a touch of mascara, a bit of red at the lips and some powder on her nose, it would even be a handsome face, but she had never gotten in the habit of putting on makeup, and when she did, she felt like a stranger to herself. So even today, on her wedding day, she wore none. But she felt beautiful and knew instinctively that her face had a special glow. Not even lack of sleep could keep loveliness from her face. Not today.

She found a seat on the train and gazed out over the flat New Mexican desert. Low scraggly bushes gave the terrain a nubby appearance. Adobe houses the same color as the earth fit against the hillside. Near the front of the car, several men read newspapers, and a mother tried to quiet her two small children. Cigar smoke wafted through the window from another car.

Virginia unfolded a handkerchief on her lap and got out a roll she had saved for breakfast. After she finished eating it, she carefully brushed the crumbs from the pleats of her purple crepe dress -- her best dress. Not new, but of solid quality. She could not afford a new dress for her wedding.

She thought of Alfred, dear, sweet Alfred, waiting for her at the station. Would she even recognize him? She pictured his strong jaw, his square chin, and his eyes, which were...which were...What color were they? She couldn't remember. This flustered her. She had only seen him twice in her life -- once eight years ago, in the Washington, D.C., train station, and once six months ago, in Mexico. After that, they had gotten to know each other through the mail. Over the months, the details of his face had blurred, and the only thing that stood out was the lightning-shaped scar that divided his forehead. Taut and shiny, the scar did not tan the color of the rest of his skin, and made his face look lopsided. But his eyes. She closed her own -- would he be able to say what color they were? -- and tried to picture his face.

She felt a stab of apprehension as it occurred to her that she did not know him at all. She had no idea what it would be like on the ranch, far from her family, who gave her strength; from Quaker meeting, which grounded her; and from the Quaker work that gave her life meaning. She was giving up everything she knew in order to go to a place she had never seen, to marry a man she had known for less than two days. The folly of it hit her with full force.

The apricot-colored desert jerked by the window in flits and flashes. The rocking of the train made her queasy. She began to question her judgment. A rancher's wife? She was afraid of horses and didn't know a thing about cattle. She was a complete greenhorn. And the thought kept returning to her: she did not know the color of his eyes. She was marrying a man and she didn't even know the color of his eyes.

She had first met Alfred in 1925. She was on her way to graduate school at Haverford, a Quaker college near Philadelphia. She had never traveled outside of North Carolina. Her father was worried about her long train ride alone, and he had come up with the idea that she should travel as a pregnant woman. No man, no matter how unsavory, would bother a pregnant woman, he had reasoned. Her mother had made a special pillow that Virginia fastened beneath her slip. The strings hung down against her bare skin and tickled her back.

During the intervening eight years, she had traveled frequently and had come to love train stations, those cavernous spaces that are made intimate by all of the human drama of partings and arrivals. But the trip to Philadelphia was her first, and she was terrified by the world, so unimaginably large and different from Whittier, North Carolina.

She had to change trains in Washington. Unaccustomed to her new body shape, she kept bumping her elbows into her padding as she dragged one suitcase a few yards, then went back to get the other. As she advanced slowly down the platform, a tall, attractive man in cowboy boots approached her.

"Please, ma'am, let me help you with those," he said.

Remembering her father's stern warning, she pulled the suitcases to her. "No -- no, thanks. I'm fine." He was handsome, and therefore dangerous.

"You shouldn't be lifting heavy things in your condition."

"Oh -- right." She had forgotten she was supposed to be pregnant.

The authority and command of his physical presence made an impression on her. She was tall for a woman, and measured five feet nine in her stocking feet. This placed her eye-to-eye with most men she knew, and she gazed over the heads of most women. With Alfred, she looked directly into his neck, where the top pearl-snap button of his Western shirt opened to accommodate his tanned, hairless neck.

"I'm sorry. I haven't introduced myself. Alfred Bowen." He shook her hand. "Where are you headed?"

"Philadelphia." She looked around her and realized, with growing panic, how confusing the station was. "I don't know where the train leaves from. All these different tracks. I had no idea."

"No need to worry. I've got a long layover. I'll make sure you get on the right train." He tucked his worn cardboard suitcase under one arm and picked up her two bags. He had muscular forearms and thick wrists, and he moved with an easy athletic grace.

She took off her glasses so Alfred could see her eyes -- her best feature, with long lashes and slate-colored irises so large there was little white visible. As she walked beside him, she hunched her shoulders forward, but no contortions could hide the large bulge at her midsection.

They walked to the main terminal. Light streamed through the large glass windows and scattered onto the floor among the bustling crowds. She and Alfred stopped for a moment at the big board. She squinted but could not read the timetable.

par"Your train leaves in two hours. Is your husband going to meet you at the station?"

She looked at him in confusion. People swarmed around them.

"The baby's father," he said.

"Oh, yes. Well -- " She blushed and clutched the handle of her purse. Her fingernails dug half-moons into her palms.

She did not want to lie, but then her whole masquerade was a lie. Surely her father, a devout Quaker, had not foreseen this predicament when he came up with this ridiculous scheme. "I'd rather not go into it, if you don't mind," she said.

"You should be careful traveling alone," he said. "You never know who you might meet."

Here was a man who would get along with her father, she noted.

He invited her to eat with him in the dining room. They sat at a corner table overlooking the street. She felt comfortable around him. He had a gentleness and a sense of confidence that reminded her of her older brother Jonathan, before his head injury.

"Where are you going now?" she asked, after deflecting several questions about herself. An inexperienced liar, she had no idea how to assemble the structure of falsehoods in order to make the lie of her pregnancy blend in with the rest of her life.


It seemed unspeakably adventurous and exotic. She was nervous about going to Philadelphia, and here he was off to another country where they spoke a different language. "Why Mexico?" she said.

"I love children. Especially adolescents. I worked at the YMCA in Chicago for years, and when they asked me to open a branch in Mexico, I jumped at the chance."

"You worked in Chicago? Do you know Jane Addams?"

"Not personally. But I've been to Hull House. I was looking into doing some joint programs with the Y."

Her eyes widened. She knew all about Jane Addams's settlement house for immigrants. She wanted to model herself on this pragmatic woman and her brand of democratic social ethics, which had less to do with handouts and more to do with helping immigrants help themselves.

"I can't believe it. Jane Addams is my hero. She's the reason I'm going to graduate school in social work."

"Graduate school?" he said. Two creases formed at the bridge of his nose, like a chute his lightning-shaped scar might slip through.

"Yes. I mean, eventually. When the time is right." She felt herself floundering. Pregnant women did not go to graduate school. Period.

When the time came for her train to depart, he paid for her meal, accompanied her to the train, and made sure she was settled.

"You take good care of that baby," he said, like an affectionate uncle.

She watched him through the window as the train pulled out. He did not turn around, did not wave, did not see the tears of disappointment that dropped from her cheeks and onto her collarbone.

She had felt such a connection to him. He was idealistic and adventurous. He had been to Hull House. There were so many things she wanted to find out about him. He was ten years older than she, and so much more advanced in his knowledge of the world. But every avenue of conversation led to a potential trap that would unmask her ridiculous disguise. What a stupid idea. A fraud. She should never have consented to it.

When the train was outside the city, she went to the lavatory. It was stifling inside the tiny cubicle, and the smell made her nauseated. The window was tilted open, leaving a small space at the top. She lifted her dress, untied the pillow, and stuffed it through the window. Standing on her tiptoes, she watched it tumble down the steep embankment like a giant marshmallow and land in the reeds.

Years passed, and she thought of him often. She finished her degree and worked for five years as youth coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. Her job involved seeking placements for Quaker youth in settlement houses, Indian reservations, prisons, and reform schools across the county. She eventually visited Hull House. In 1933, she went to an Appalachian mining town to organize a Quaker-sponsored child-feeding project. After an incident she couldn't bear to let herself think about, she suffered from nervous exhaustion, and went to Mexico City. A friend's aunt, an English Quaker who had married a Mexican anthropologist, graciously provided a place for her to recuperate.

A few months into her stay, Virginia was walking on a crowded commercial street with the maid's eight-year-old daughter, Claudia. Among the jumble of signs in Spanish, she saw the familiar letters ymca and thought of Alfred. On a whim, she went inside. A Mexican youth behind the desk was moving his lips silently as he read a book called Speak English Today.

"Do you know an Alfred Bowen?" she asked.

The boy marked his place in the book with his finger and looked up at her. "El Se?or Elfego Bowen? He is very very big man? Giant size?" He raised his hand over his head to show the height.

"Yes, that's the one. Is he here? In this office?" Virginia said.

"He is to go in America," the boy said. Apparently he had not reached the chapter on verb tenses.

"He's gone?" Virginia said.

Virginia turned to Claudia, who knew more English than the boy behind the desk. After several exchanges, Virginia was able to determine that Alfred was leaving for Colorado the next day. The boy went and found an American, who gave them instructions to Alfred's house.

She and Claudia took the tram across town. They found Alfred's house and Virginia knocked on the door. A tall man answered. When she saw the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, she knew it was Alfred.

"May I help you, ma'am?"

She remembered how odd she felt when he had called her ma'am in Washington.

"Hello. I'm -- I know this will seem very peculiar, but I met you many years ago. My name is Virginia Mendenhall."

He looked at her without recognition. She blushed furiously but continued on. "In Washington, D.C. You were on your way here. Oh dear, it was too many years ago."

"I'm sorry. I can't say that I remember." Suddenly it became clear to her. In the intervening years, she had been preoccupied with him and he had not given her another thought. There was no reason for him to remember every single person he had helped in his life, particularly not a pregnant woman traveling alone.

"On the train...I was..." She held her hands out in front of her stomach.

His face brightened. "Oh yes, of course." He glanced at the dark child beside her. "And this is your daughter."

"Oh, no. This is the maid's daughter. Actually, I don't have a child."

"I'm so sorry," he said and looked down.

"No, I mean, I wasn't -- it was all a ruse. My father's idea. It was...a put-on. He was afraid that, well, you know, that a strange man might talk to me." She smiled at the irony.

He led Virginia and Claudia across a courtyard to a small room that was empty but for an open trunk and some odds and ends scattered on the floor.

Alfred pulled a doll from the trunk and gave it to Claudia to play with. "It's for a friend's child," Alfred explained. Claudia beamed with pleasure and ran off to the courtyard to play.

"I'm sorry I can't offer you a place to sit," he said to Virginia. He closed the trunk, and she leaned against it. He sat on the floor.

"Where are you headed?" she asked, and remembered that she used those very words, or ones similar, when she had met him in the train station.

"Colorado, where I'm from. I'm going to start a ranch."

He told her, with great enthusiasm, about his plans, and the time passed quickly. Before she knew it, the light began to fade. Outside, the pepper tree in the courtyard shimmered with movement from hundreds of wild parrots, tiny drab birds unlike their colorful relatives that Americans kept as pets. As if on signal, the birds flew away all at once, rising in a magnificent racket and joining swarms of other parrots until the pink sky became stippled and dark like a day-old beard over sunburn. Virginia was filled with happiness, until they exchanged addresses and said good-bye, when she realized that for the second time in as many meetings, their crisscrossing paths would lead them to different countries.

His first letter arrived the day after he left. He had mailed it before boarding the train. She sat down immediately to respond. They began corresponding every day. Because the mail was picked up three times a week on the ranch, some days she would get several letters and some days none. She lived for the post. She cherished his letters, which arrived with a thin line of grit in the bottom of the envelope.

Each afternoon when she sat down in front of the tissue-thin stationery, she found herself loosening up. The blank page drew words out of her that she had never said to anyone, certainly not a man. In her squat, manly handwriting, she confided in Alfred, the way strangers on buses and trains had opened up to her. Convinced she would never see him again, she felt free, unbound, as if the laces of a corset had been snipped. Gone was the self-consciousness, the shyness she felt around other men. Her letters were filled with her thoughts of the past, the future, what she saw around her in Mexico. She fell in love with the person she was on paper, and the way she felt when she wrote to him.

His letters were practical, plainspoken, filled with details of ranch life. He exuded decency and integrity, and this commanded her respect. But she longed for a bit of poetry, a romantic, heartfelt confession or some raw unguarded revelation.

When he proposed, he wrote, "I would be honored if you would be my wife. Together we could make this ranch prosper. I can do it on my own, but I'd prefer to do it with you, if you can stand it."

He had actually said that. Not "I love you," but: "If you can stand it." So much for poetry.

But she could not accept his offer, for there was one thing she had failed to tell him during their courtship (she was not even sure while it was going on that courtship was what it was, since he had never offered any clue to his heart's feeling). The thing she had not told him was this: she could not have children. That was what the doctor in Philadelphia had told her after the women's problem she had experienced in graduate school. She had to let Alfred know. If she had been forced to tell him face to face, she was not certain she could have done it. A letter was hard enough. She crumpled up page after page, dissatisfied with each version. She did not know which affected her more, telling him in the first place, or knowing that doing so would cause him to reject her.

His response came quickly: "Dear Virginia, I read your letter with great sadness..." She could read no further. Tears dropped onto the page, dissolving words into pools of blue, dissolving pools of blue into each other.

She did not have the courage to finish reading the letter until the following week, and then she had to decipher the words through the smudges: "Dear Virginia, I read your letter with great sadness, knowing what you have had to suffer. But I love you, and want you, not a progeny. So if you are still willing to have me, this poor old heart will not have to break."

She realized that what moved her was not flowery language or romantic flourishes, but a heart's honesty.

Remembering this, her fears fell away and her thoughts turned giddy and girlish. Today was her wedding day. She was ready to meet the future, whatever it held for her.

By the time the sun cast its first light over the plains, Alfred was out with the two drays and a wagon, searching for Sage. The virgin dust created a strange but beautiful sheen in the early morning sun. Dunes had appeared overnight, rippled on the surface like the rib cages of starving cattle. Smaller drifts had formed around tumbleweed, cactus, driftwood, and bushes -- anything that trapped the traveling earth. Somewhere, in the vast sweep of prairie totally reordered by the storm, Sage was buried aboveground.

Alfred surveyed each drift, looking for the one that had, at its heart, the remains of his horse. When he saw a hoof protruding, he stopped the team. In a strange reverse of the burial process, he dug around the horse until the weight of the dirt was reduced enough for the drays to pull Sage out. Covered in dust, Sage had a petrified look, as if he had been there since prehistoric times. If an archaeologist uncovered this horse and found the animal's throat slit, what assumptions would he make about the behavior of man and animals, Alfred wondered.

He had no great affection for horses. He had been bitten, stepped on, and splashed with urine. Horses had rubbed him against trees and blown out their stomachs to keep him from properly tightening the cinch. But Sage was an exception. He was a first-rate cutting horse, range-smart, with cattle sense bred into him. He could hear or scent cattle before Alfred could. He knew how to keep order without stirring up the herd. He could outrun a cow and turn it back in a quick, smooth motion.

Alfred had admired Sage's athletic prowess. More importantly, the horse was attuned to Alfred's moods and compensated for his deficiencies so that together they operated far more efficiently than either could with another partner. In Alfred's experience, this true understanding with an animal came rarely. He felt a deep sorrow at his loss. Hat in front of his heart, he stood by the newly formed dune and paid silent tribute to his beloved horse.

He had not felt this way since he lost his first horse. Streaker was a black gelding with a splotch of white on his forehead, as if someone had hit him between the eyes with a snowball. Alfred's father had given him the horse on his twelfth birthday -- a rite of passage. He adored Streaker. Like all first loves, this one was passionate and unguarded, his heart still unscarred by loss. His father mocked him for pampering the animal. In his father's view, a horse was utilitarian, period. One day, when Alfred was helping his father repair fences, Streaker got tangled in a bale of barbed wire. The more he thrashed about, the more the barbs ripped his flesh. Alfred watched in horror. He was paralyzed. He turned to his father, who knew what to do. Always.

"Shoot him," his father said and handed him the rifle.

Alfred had been brought up with guns, had been hunting since he was a young boy, but he could not bring himself to shoot Streaker. "I can't," he said.

"It's your responsibility, son," his father said.

The wire thorns sliced through the horse's black coat and into the glossy red muscle beneath. Alfred screwed up his face and closed his eyes tight, as if to keep out the tears. Images reeled before him: Streaker carrying him bareback across the meadow; Streaker's tongue sweeping his palm for sugar; Streaker coming when he was called, like a dog.

Alfred opened his eyes. "Please help me," he pleaded. For his father, shooting Streaker would have been no more difficult than killing a rattlesnake or a coyote.

"He's your horse. Man up to it."

No, no, no, no. Alfred repeated silently to himself, hoping his voiceless screams would drown out the horse's cries.

"You'll thank me later," his father said.

He didn't want to cry in front of his father, but he couldn't stop himself. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. The horse was screaming. The boy cursed his own weakness. His older brother, Shrine, could have shot the horse, no problem. But Alfred couldn't do it.

Losing patience, his father said gruffly, "You can shoot him or stand here and watch. Your choice." He walked away.

Silently cursing his father, young Alfred raised the rifle. His hand quivered against his cheek. The lick of white between the horse's eyes marked the target. He fired. The screams stopped.

He turned for his father's approval, but all he saw was his father's back. His father did not turn around. He did not come back. He just kept walking.

Alfred hated him.

He curled up on the ground, making himself small beneath the immense blue sky.

Nothing else would ever approximate the grief he felt at the loss of his horse. But the tears stayed inside him, safe from ridicule. He would not show weakness again, at least not in front of his father. From then on, whenever he felt any emotion surface, he would swallow it, as if he were swallowing his own vomit, and the taste was just as acrid.

He never felt that way about a horse again. Better not to risk the pain of loss. Of course, nothing bad ever happened to any of the horses he didn't care a whit about. Then came Sage. He forgot himself, became attached again. And now it was as if the mere act of loving that horse had marked it for loss.

Alfred dragged Sage to the bone yard, then headed home. The grit under his clothes scratched his skin. On the front porch, he took off his clothes and shook them out. Buck naked, he hauled the tin tub to the kitchen and took a bath, cleaning places he usually didn't bother cleaning. The channels of his ears had collected sand, like the chambers of a conch. He gently lifted his private parts and washed. Grit had collected in the folds. It would not do to bring sand to the wedding bed.

ardHe thought of Virginia's body. Tonight he would see it for the first time. They would be husband and wife, and it would no longer be unseemly to think of her in such a way.

As he lay folded in the tub, he looked at his own body and wondered how it would appear to her. He was forty-three, no longer a young man. Though his muscles were taut from physical labor, he had more soft spots than he would like to admit.

After his bath, he prepared the house for Virginia's arrival. Alone, he had not paid much attention to housecleaning. He had bought the ranch from the bank. The previous owners were bachelor brothers who had leveraged the property in the late twenties and invested the money in stocks. When the market crashed, they lost it all. The two-room house stood abandoned for several years, and the prairie winds pushed the dust through the cracks and crevices of the house. When Alfred moved in, he shoveled the accumulated dust out of the rooms, but he did little in the way of improvements or serious cleaning. There was a bed on which to bunk down, and a stove to keep the place warm. The only thing of value to him was a grand piano that his grandmother had brought across the country in a covered wagon. His mother had taught him to play on its stiff keys. The hard action had forced him to develop great strength in his fingers.

Alfred wanted everything to be pristine for Virginia. First impressions were important. Every woman he had ever known was particular about cleanliness, and he didn't want to start off on the wrong foot. He dusted the piano and the other furniture and carefully swept the rooms. Yet he knew that during the two days he would be gone on his honeymoon, a layer of dirt would collect on the furniture and floors.

Suddenly he had an idea. Virginia's mother and sisters had sent out a trunk packed with tablecloths and sheets. He would simply cover the two small rooms from wall to wall with the linens, and when he and Virginia returned from Denver, he would leave her in the truck while he rushed inside and removed the sheets. Then he would carry his bride over the threshold -- if, in fact, that's what she wanted. He didn't know much about these Quakers. His general impression was that they were a little odd. Maybe being carried over the threshold wasn't a Quaker thing.

After he packed and dressed, he opened Virginia's trousseau and covered the rooms with cloth.

The train slowed down as it approached Denver. Virginia looked out the window and saw some dilapidated brick buildings and the backs of a few wooden houses that overlooked the railroad and had been left unpainted. One neatly kept backyard had crisp white sheets bleaching in the sun. Virginia smiled as she thought of the trunk of linens her mother had shipped to Colorado. Virginia could picture her mother the way she had seen her so often in childhood, with a wooden embroidery hoop in her lap, picking at the taut fabric with a needle, in and out, in quick movements.

A ninth-generation Quaker, her mother believed in plainness, and spurned worldly goods. The Quaker concept of plainness had nothing to do with homeliness or ugliness. It was a form of genuineness. Her mother did not spurn beauty, only frivolity -- anything that was not necessary. Their house was spare, with a few well-made pieces of furniture. There were no knickknacks or porcelain figurines to clutter the room. No wallpaper covered the walls. Books added the only hint of color.

Virginia's mother believed that anything useful should also be beautiful. This included embroidered pillowcases, pitchers, and furniture. Honesty was a quality she expected of objects as well as of people. She had lovingly prepared a trousseau of embroidered sheets, a damask tablecloth, crocheted runners, and pillowcases edged in tatting. Virginia had never had patience with a needle, and the thought of starting out her married household with her mother's exquisite handwork filled her with delight.

The train pulled into the station and hissed to a stop. Virginia took her bags from the overhead rack and carried them to the platform. People milled about, and the crowd parted to make room for a porter's cart. She heard a man shout, "Vivian," and her heart leaped. She looked in the direction of the man's voice, thinking that perhaps it was her name that had been called. Then she was bumped aside by a young woman in a red suit and hat who was striking enough to be a movie star. The woman zigzagged her way through the crowd and rushed into the open arms of her lover. They kissed fervently, oblivious to the surrounding observers. Virginia blushed and turned away.

The crowd thinned out, and still she did not see Alfred. Suddenly she was seized by a nameless panic. What if he had changed his mind? What if she had gotten the day wrong? But she thought better of it. Alfred was not a man who made careless mistakes. There was a reasonable explanation, she was sure.

She made her way to the main terminal, a cavernous room with high-backed oak pews set in rows facing each other. She spotted him across the room. He was wearing a cowboy hat and a suit with a string tie. His hat turned this way and that as he searched for her. She waved to get his attention.

Beneath her breastbone, her heart felt stiff and twiggy, as if a bird's nest had lodged there. The intimacy of their correspondence had created an illusion of closeness, but now, confronted with his physical presence, she felt awkward.

When she reached him, he tipped his hat and quickly took her suitcases, tying up his hands and erasing the need for physical contact.

She felt a touch of disappointment, thinking of the wild abandon of the lovers she had witnessed earlier on the train platform.

"Your eyes are brown," she observed.

He cocked his head slightly. "Yep," he said and waited for her to explain herself. When she didn't, he said, "Sorry to be late. I had to take care of some unexpected chores. Did you have a good trip?"

"Yes, lovely," she said. There was an edgy politeness between them.

In the parking lot, they found his navy-blue truck, which was sandblasted into the mottled color of sun-bleached asphalt. He put her luggage in the bed of the truck alongside some rusted machine parts and several burlap feed bags.

She opened the door, and dust dribbled down the window. She brushed off the seat with her hand. Seeing this, Alfred quickly pulled out a red bandanna and dusted off her seat, with apologies.

"I'm fine," she said, sensing his embarrassment. She hiked up the skirt of her best crepe dress and climbed into the dusty truck. She didn't want him to think she lacked the mettle to be a rancher's wife.

They drove to the Friends' meetinghouse near the university and met briefly with the Quaker elders who had agreed to oversee the wedding.

At the appointed time, Virginia and Alfred went into the meetinghouse and took their places near the front on one of the plain wooden benches arranged in a square.

Virginia sat in the stillness of the meeting and let the dappled sun warm her skin. Unadorned windows looked out over a yard shaded by enormous oak trees. Squares of sunlight fell across the unoccupied benches. A vase of purple phlox on the center table sweetened the room with its scent. Around her, people sat with heads bowed, hands clasped, faces quiet and composed. These Friends had come for an opportunity to worship and to extend the fellowship of celebration to another Quaker.

In her travels, she had worshipped in silent meetings all over the country, and she felt comfortable amidst people of like mind, united by the conviction that the inner light, or "that of God in every man," revealed itself directly to each individual. The people who were gathered in the room believed, as she did, that religion was a personal experience and that no intermediary, such as a minister, was necessary to communicate with God. She waited in the silence, warmed by the fellowship she had come to expect of Quakers, though today, on her wedding day, her excitement made it impossible to ease into prayerful meditation.

After people had settled down and several minutes had passed, she nudged Alfred to get up. They stood by the table in the center of the square, faced each other, and said their vows.

They returned to their seats, and the ceremony continued in steady silence. Birds chirped outside, and the smell of smoke drifted through the open windows. A cat meowed and scampered under the benches. It approached Alfred and rubbed against his leg. Several of the members smiled.

Alfred reached over and felt the edge of his hat, a familiar object. He lifted his head and glanced around him, careful not to be too conspicuous. He saw bowed heads and expressions of calmness and serenity. Virginia had explained to him that a Quaker wedding was a silent meeting for worship in which a marriage took place. This struck him as an odd way to conduct business, but he was indifferent to religion and didn't want to deny her.

As the minutes ticked by, Alfred fidgeted. He felt like an alien presence in the room. Sitting still was unnatural for him. He was a man of action. The only time he was still was when he slept. He tried in vain to keep from jiggling his leg. He thought what a curious act it was to sit in silence. At one's own wedding, no less. He thought of all the things he could be accomplishing. On the ranch, there was more work than one man could possibly do. He was always pushing forward, never relaxed. No matter how much he did, it was never enough.

As the silence progressed, the muscles in his neck lengthened out, his breathing became steady and regular, and his shoulders dropped. At some point, without realizing it, he let the outside world loose and went inside himself to a place where he existed in a timeless state of grace. He had experienced similar moments at the piano as he marshalled all his faculties to interpret the music. When he funneled his thoughts and feelings into an intense concentration, the exterior world fell away and he reached a realm of pure communion where he and the music became one. It seemed to him that creativity, like worship, was a form of concentrated focus.

When an academic-looking snowy-haired man in wire-rim glasses stood up and started to speak, Alfred was startled out of the deep place where he had come to rest, and was surprised to find himself at his own wedding.

The man spoke of the patience to endure the weaknesses and human failings of the other person. Alfred thought this a dispiriting thought to introduce at a wedding. Once again he was reminded what a foreign setting this was. Sitting by his new wife, surrounded by this queer fellowship, he felt embraced but out of place. His life had taken an inconvertible turn, and wherever it would lead, it would lead them together.

Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Wright

Reading Group Guide

A Touchstone Reading Group Guide
Plain Language: Discussion Points
1. What does the title, Plain Language, refer to? Which characters speak in "plain language," and why? Besides an actual speaking style, what is the language of the plains that Wright refers to? Discuss whose story this is, and how you arrived at your answer.
2. At the beginning of Chapter 1, Alfred knows that, "had he been more prudent, he would have waited to see if he could make a success of ranching before bringing Virginia out." Share whether or not you think he could have made it through the first year without Virginia, and why. What did she contribute?
3. Describe Alfred's relationship with his father. What was Alfred's relationship with his brother? Why didn't Alfred's father ask him to stay at the family ranch? In Chapter 4, what did Alfred's mother mean that "by holding on, you'll do yourself more harm" by remaining angry with his brother?
4. Explore whether or not you were surprised at Alfred's reticence about asking his father for help, and why. In Chapter 17, Alfred finally admits to himself that he had carried a lifelong grudge against his father. How did this affect his life? What is the significance of Alfred's going to his father and asking for help. What enabled him to do so? What did it cost him, and what did he gain?
5. How unusual was it for a woman to go to college and graduate school in the 1920s? What does Virginia's education tell the reader about her? What do her accomplishments tell us about Alfred?
6. Discuss the living conditions on the plains. How would you deal with them? How difficult would it be to live without an abundance of water? How did the water situation, and chronic dust, affect Alfred and Virginia's ranch and their lives in general?
7. What does the author reveal to the reader with some of the character names in Plain Language, especially those of Shrine and Virginia? What is the symbolism of Shrine's accident and ensuing injury?
8. In Chapter 6, Alfred asks himself whether he "dragged Virginia into his private need to prove himself to his father." Share whether or not you agree, and why.
9. Why does Virginia think she could handle having Jonathan live with her and Alfred? What makes Jonathan and Ida fit together as a couple?
10. What is the roll of religion in Virginia's life? Discuss her musing that "the trouble with Quakerism was that it didn't tell you what to do, other than follow your conscience." How does this differ from other religions?
11. How does pregnancy affect Virginia? How does it affect Alfred? How does the author reveal Virginia's state of mind about it (Chapter 12)? How does Virginia's outlook change because of her pregnancy? Discuss how "the life growing inside her made her see dangers where, before, she had seen none." Is this a common change wrought by pregnancy?
12. In Chapter 13, what did Virginia think she could accomplish by going to see Dalton on her own? When he breaks down in front of her, does Dalton's personality soften or harden? Discuss what happens just after he breaks down, and why.
13. Why did Virginia feel she had to tell her husband about her past relationship with a married man? What did she expect to hear? What actually happened between Alfred and her after she confessed?
14. What is Ida's role in the story? What about in Virginia's life? How does Jonathan and Ida's baby save Virginia's life (Chapter 17)? How did calving affect Virginia? Trace the other steps that Virginia took to eventually love working outdoors, developing "a kinship with the land."
15. How does Wright reveal the isolation of ranch life in Plain Language? Were you aware that families mingled so little?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Barbara Wright, a novelist and screenwriter,
lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (November 1, 2007)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416583066

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Raves and Reviews

Ursula Hegi author of Stones from the River An exceptional novel about the power of memory and desire.

Robert Morgan Gap Creek and This Rock Barbara Wright's novel is vivid, intense, memorable, told with Quaker plainness and depth, a story of courage, passion for the land, fierce loyalties and growth, enduring. It is an authentic addition to the literature, the poetry, of our West.

Art Corriveau author of Housewrights The West brought hauntingly to life. This human-scale love story of an unlikely family's struggle with love, loyalty, and loss seems all the more epic when set against the immense backdrop of Colorado prairie and sky.

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