In my debut novel, The Northeast Quarter (Wheatmark, November 15, 2016) I tell the story of Ann Hardy, 10 years old at the beginning of the book, who overcomes 12 years of betrayal, banishment, even physical violence, to mature into a smart young female lawyer, who struggles to retain rights to her family’s richest piece of land, “The Northeast Quarter.” The story is loosely based on gossip I heard as a child between his mother and her cousins about family property in rural Iowa.
When I began The Northeast Quarter, my goal at the time was to write a play which resembled an Edna Ferber-type novel and set it in Iowa. I had always liked Ferber’s novels for their sweep and their emphasis on family interactions. I had also noticed that perhaps time had passed for Edna Ferber – certainly not for me at least. But when I was watching Jeopardy and the question “Who was the author of Giant?” could not be answered by any of the contestants, I felt a twinge of sadness. Nevertheless, I decided to persevere and write my play.
The first thing I noticed was that the stage was too confining for the scope of my story. Ferber deals with big subjects (statehood for large states like Texas or Alaska) and big families. The narratives are usually spread out over 10 or 20 years. My experience had been with off-Broadway plays and there was no way that a small theatre group could cope with the casting and budget of an epic sized story. My tribute to a type of novel writing would have to become a novel itself. I should have seen this coming, but it was the beginning of an amazing and worthwhile adventure.
The next consideration was the time the story takes place. I chose the era in which my parents grew up — that is the years between 1918 and 1929, when the US began to slide from a post-war boom into The Great Depression. The time interested me because it resembled the financial crisis we had just experienced in 2008. Of course, in 2008 we had averted a depression, but back in 1929 the country tumbled into a catastrophe from which it took years to recover. The banks, although smaller, were engaged in the same sort of predatory lending we saw in 2008 and we see today. The farmers had to contend with crop failure and high interest rates. The similarities were uncanny.
I decided to turn the Ferber narrative on its ear. A Ferber novel usually begins in the following manner: A trapper is wandering in the woods and discovers a gold nugget. At the end of the book, he is a grandfather and the newly elected state senator of the territory in which he found the nugget. Because of the decline in the economy in the years between 1918 and 1929, I chose to begin with the empire and chart the collapse. I would end with the few survivors struggling to start over.
The next and biggest consideration was to find a storyline and inciting incident strong enough to carry the narrative through 10 years and three generations. It didn’t take long to find something — a promise I had made to my mother.
The Promise: My mother lived in a small town in Iowa and saw The Great Depression’s damage up close. She saw the quiet horror and unhappiness it wrought among her family’s friends and neighbors. She witnessed the destruction of her own family’s farms which had been in their possession since after The Civil War; she began to have concerns about what she could do to protect her family if the country ever experienced a second depression. These were tumultuous times: In the early ’30s Huey Long was rising to power in Louisiana. Hitler was starting to make ripples in Germany; Mother began to envision the possibility of an out-of-control government in our own country. She was concerned that should there ever be a second Great Depression, that this government might issue an edict that no U.S. citizen could own land anywhere unless he lived on it. She focused on a remaining chunk of property which I’ll call Section Ten.
Throughout my childhood and into my adulthood, my mother would ask me every now and then to promise that I would never sell Section Ten. She would ask and I would promise. Her last request was on her death bed in 2006, the day before she died. In her mind if there was ever another economic collapse and I was financially ruined, I would have a place to go. I could move to Iowa and live on the farmland until the crisis had passed.
It was not until I began writing the novel that I realized the impact of this promise and how much it meant to her. I kept the promise. I still own Section Ten. And in return for that, I was given the plot for my first novel: At a July 4 celebration, Colonel Wallace Carson, head of a vast agricultural empire, asks his granddaughter Ann to promise she will safeguard The Northeast Quarter, the most valuable acreage in the estate. Ann promises she will. When The Colonel dies suddenly, every crook and conniver in the country converges on the property. Ann’s family is ill-equipped to handle the situation. The Northeast Quarter tells of Ann’s struggle to her promise despite numerous obstacles.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stuart M. Harris began writing for the theater professionally in 1991 when he was invited by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York to attend a summer conference. The experience led the native Californian to move to New York to become a playwright. Several of his plays have been produced Off Broadway and around the country, among them. Onna Field produced by Diverse City Theater Company and Colleen Ireland, about a 90-year-old retirement home resident and her great granddaughter, that played in New York, Spokane and other cities, including Hamilton, OH, where it won ‘Best Play’ at The Fitton Center One-Act Playwriting Contest. A follow-up to Colleen was Spindrift Way, the first of ten more plays in the series. The Northeast Quarter began as a full-length play developed by the Works in Progress Theatre Lab at Manhattan Theatre Club Studios. Harris put playwriting on hold in order to weave the story of generations of Iowan farmers into his new historical novel. He lives in Brooklyn.