High in the Austrian alps, ringed by the Three Sisters and the majestic Praying Hands, lies the tiny village of Rosenau, a scattering of dairy farms so isolated that the arrival of a postcard from the outside world is an event to set everyone talking. Against this simple backdrop, Rosina Lippi unfolds the grand passions that animate the human heart.
The novel opens in 1909 with Anna of Bengat homestead and her love for rough, beautiful Peter, her husband, and for their children, and for her dead sister's boys, feebleminded Stante and crippled Michel. As the years pass, the story unfolds through the eyes of the women of Anna's family and the interconnected families of Bent Elbow homestead and the Wainwright's clan: Bent Elbow's Johanna, finding sudden, late love in the summer of 1916 with the Italian deserter Francesco; Isabella, Peter's mother, who cannot bring herself to look at his ravaged face when he comes home from the Great War; Wainwright's Katharina, half- sister to Stante and Michel, carelessly betraying them to the Nazis for a ride in a Daimler; Anna's Olga, who grows up to marry Goat-Cheese Willi's Klaus and lose him and her four brothers in the maw of the Second World War.
As we read, each chapter adds layers of meaning from a different character's point of view, and the life of Rosenau gathers force and complexity, like a living thing. We don't notice while we're watching, but when the tale is done we're stunned by the fullness and beauty of a world as remote as another planet, as near as our own longings and loves.
Winner PEN/Hemingway Award, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award.
Shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Orange Prize.
It is the third year of the Great War, and sixteen men and boys born in this village have fallen. Because their earthly remains are absent from the graveyard, Isabella of Bengat homestead keeps count of them in her head. It is not hard to do. In spite of her seventy years, Isabella can name every one of the three hundred sixty-three people who call Rosenau home. She can name their parents, their godparents, and their grandparents, with first names, family names, and clan names. She could tell some secrets, but she doesn't. Isabella has felt the bite of old age for some time now, but this war is worse. Day by day she feels its weight wearing her own secrets thin, transparent. Wringing them dry.READ MORE
Three soldiers have come home from the battlefields for good, drifting in like ghosts set on retribution. Every Sunday, this Sunday, they put themselves on display at church. Fellele's Jodok coughs through the mass, his lungs giving way bit by bit like rotted cheesecloth. His brother Michel--born on the same day as her own son, forty-two years ago, the two of them the oldest to be sent away to fight--is all but deaf. He shows no other outward sign of injury, but his eyes have something small and sour about them; they put Isabella in mind of blighted apples. Cobbler's Manuel has lost the use of his right arm. After mass Isabella hears Manuel tell a neighbor that on his farmstead he is as useful as the tits on a boar. His tone, jovial and desperate, makes Isabella shudder.
There are three men still gone, one fighting in the South Tirol. Two others, including Isabella's Peter, are in Galicia. They have had no news of Peter in four months. Now the whole household-- Isabella, Alois, and their widowed daughter, Barbara, as well as Peter's wife and four children--lives with an ear turned toward the road. They wait for the sound of his step, or for word that he has fallen. The weight of this, all of them leaning toward the road, seems to have tipped the family out of balance and set them spinning haphazardly. They are moons of a missing planet.
At Sunday dinner Alois talks about the latest requisition order from the war office: the military now wants all the wool, even from the sheep less than two years old. When dinner is over, Isabella goes out into the Schopf. It is unseasonably warm for early March. Isabella knows without looking that the crocuses have poked up their noses; she knows too that winter is not done.
A cool fear begins to breathe on the back of Isabella's neck as she takes in the sound of hoofbeats on the dirt road. The skin rises on her arms; she can feel each hair stand up as the courier--who has ridden here four twisty uphill kilometers on a Sunday afternoon--rounds the corner. Olga, Peter's daughter, rushes up, breathless, and snatches the telegram away from the courier; she holds it face up: it is not edged in black. Then, still breathing hard, she hands it to her mother, who sits down heavily, and with pale rough hands opens the envelope to read that Peter is alive, that he has lost a leg, an unspecified number of fingers, and an eye, and that he is recovered enough now to be fetched home.
Once he arrives, Isabella spends as much time as she can spare at the window watching Peter, who spends his days whittling in the Schopf with the shutters propped up to let in the light. She tells herself that he doesn't know about this habit of hers.
Peter sits with the damaged side of his face bared to the mild winter sun. Like a blessing, the sunlight strokes what his mother cannot bring herself to look at: it moves tenderly over the mass of scar tissue that ripples from his hairline down the left side of his face to puddle on what was once a smooth cheek, a well- formed ear, a clean jaw. It soaks deep into the patch that hides the empty eye socket.
Isabella watches Peter as he turns his one eye and his mind, still whole and sharp, to the piece of wood wedged against his right thigh. Beneath his blade a world has come to life. A meadow of flowers twists and twirls around the long, tapered shaft of wood. Half hidden in a mass of blossoms, a stage raises his head. There are birds, squirrels, ibexes, and he is working now on a small group of marmots.
Quietly, the youngest of his boys slips into the Schopf to sit with his father. Peter makes no move to discourage him, but he pulls his cap down low over the left side of his face. Shavings still fall in fragile tendrils from the point of his knife. Isabella listens as Peter and Leo talk. Leo is seven, and so in love with his father that his ruined face is no penance at all. They talk about the marmots, who live in the highest ranges and cut grass and spread it to dry on rocks in the sun, using the sweet hay to build nests in their burrows. Leo imitates the high warning whistle the marmots make to their young, and Peter laughs out loud; Isabella feels her insides clutching. She chides herself for her weakness, for her jealousy of a seven-year-old child.
When Peter puts aside his knife, Isabella turns away quickly. She will not watch her son take up his wooden prosthesis, now covered to the hinged knee with flowers and vines and animals, and strap it to the stump where his left leg used to be.
All Rights Reserved.COLLAPSE
By the time you finish the first of these linked stories, you can hardly bear to have it end.
Melanie Duncan on Booklist wrote:
The setting for this poignant novel is Rosenau, an isolated Austrian Village, and the story encompasses generations of villagers and their intimate lives. The magic of the novel lies in the author's ability to make the faraway seem familiar, even when it is tragic or brutal. Structured as short stories told from the viewpoints of different members of the village, the novel follows their intertwined lives from 1909 through 1977, layering story upon story to develop the village and the characters.
Lippi's characters are nothing short of wonderful. There is, for example, Johanna, whose heart is torn between her love for Francesco--a soldier hiding in the Austrian Alps--and her sister Angelika, who hides her dependence upon Johanna behind not-so-subtle reminders of familial duty. And there is Katharina, whose impulsiveness causes her to betray her two half-brothers for a ride in a Nazi motorcar, and Stante, who proves his worth not only in the Wainwright's workshop but also by his courage withstanding the Nazis. The character portrayals are based upon Lippi's own experiences living in Austria for four years. You'll hate for these stories to end.
on Publishers Weekly:
In a series of interconnected vignettes spanning 1909^-77, Lippi breathes life into the village of Rosenau, an isolated dairy-farming community nestled in the Austrian Alps. Each chapter focuses on a segment of different women's lives, mainly: Anna, a young wife living in a household run by her mother-in-law, who receives a postcard from an outside man and sets the whole village talking; Johanna, a spinster living with her sister's family, who falls in love with an Italian deserter in her beloved alpine meadow and lives with the secret for the next 50 years; Angelika, Johanna's sister, who measures her own worth by the quality of the cheese she makes for her husband; and Katharina, who desperately wants to ride in one of the new automobiles of the Nazi soldiers. The simple lifestyle and Lippi's eloquent descriptions bring to life a world alien to the modern one yet brimming with emotions and events of universal understanding, evoking children's author Kate Seredy's Good Master and Singing Tree. An outstanding read.
Brigitte Frase on The New York Times wrote:
"Each of the 12 keenly observed, interconnected stories in this absorbing debut collection focuses on an epochal moment in the life of one of three generations of women in the tiny Austrian town of Rosenau and the surrounding homesteads. Although Rosenau is bounded on all sides by the Alps, there is a slow influx of events from the outside world. When the book opens in 1909, a postcard arrives at the general store, and the effects of this brief misaddressed note ripple the surface of the isolated hamlet. Later, many men fail to return from the front during WWI; meanwhile, their families live in suspended fear about their fate. In a moving and poignant tale, an Italian deserter seeks protection and comforts a lonely woman who has never had a lover. During the next war, a German soldier arrives in a gleaming Daimler and carries off the town's two "feeble" boys to their doom. Each of these events upsets the town's equilibrium. But by the time the book closes in 1977, the effects of these foreign intrusions have been absorbed in the continuing cycles of birth, marriage, death and the changing seasons. Having herself lived for some years in the Bregenz Forest area of western Austria, Lippi conveys a haunting sense of place and a pervasive social code. Clan charts and a glossary explain the archaic language and distinctive conventions of the region, but it is the cumulative effect of the stories themselves that envelops the reader in a time and place that is at once strange and universal. "
Dylan Evans on Orange Prize wrote:
This is a novel of great depth, compassion and tenderness. Taking us through five generations and two world wars, Rosina Lippi has written a historical saga in a minor key; ''Homestead'' doesn't sweep over cultural changes and ruptures but settles in domestically, with the mothers, wives and daughters of the isolated Alpine cowherds and cheese makers in the Bregenz forest of Austria's westernmost province, bordering on Switzerland and Germany.
Lippi's novel brings back real news: the customs, work and daily life of a peasant class that's almost unknown in this country and is going quietly extinct. Lippi enables us to empathize and understand but doesn't try to delude us into believing we can identify without some effort with women who daily wear black dresses with blue-flowered aprons, who wield scythes and seasonally move their households and cows to summer shelters in the high Alpine meadows.
Each chapter is the story of a different woman in three clans that live and work near one another, intermarry, feud and (sometimes) reconcile. We begin in 1909 with Anna Sutterlty, nee Fink, who tries to answer a misdirected postcard from a glamorous hotel, wielding the unfamiliar pen and the rusty ''book'' German of her school days.
Anna's identity, like everybody's in the region, isn't contained in a personal name but in a geographical and genealogical map of affiliations. She is Anna from the Bengat farm, and called Bengat's Anna to distinguish her from other Annas. Her daughter Olga marries Klaus Natter, the son of a dairyman named Willi. People refer to her as goat-cheese Willi's Olga, or Dairy Olga for short. Lippi has appended three genealogical charts. You'll find yourself studying them with increasing fascination and worry. Why is there no date of death for Klaus? And how did Wainwright's Katharina come to have a daughter in 1947 with a Moroccan named Ahmed?
The women work hard alongside the men in field and barn, but they're neither victims nor drudges. They steal time to play with their children, and know affection and occasional lust in bed. Some reach beyond the safety of their bounded world. In 1917, Bent Elbow Johanna (a spinster whose niece marries one of Anna's boys) finds an Italian Army deserter in her Alpine hut and takes her one dive into passion, with consequences that will unfold in later chapters, and in other lives. In 1938, itching for adventure, Katharina eagerly accepts a ride with the Nazi officer who has come to pick up her twin nephews, one deformed, one feeble-minded. Casually she gets into the car with them, trying not to notice their terror.
The two wars exact terrible sacrifices. Alois's Peter, a boy so beautiful he took his mother's breath away, returns from the Great War minus a leg and with only half a face. As if that weren't enough, Peter and Anna lose all four of their sons in the second war; only the restless ghost of the youngest, Jakob, returns now and then, unwilling to accept his death on foreign soil. In 1946, Olga writes to her Klaus, who is a prisoner in Odessa. She will never know if her letters reached him.
The old farm rhythms and relations are damaged for good. The region becomes porous to the modern world. Roads and large markets arrive; the daughters leave home. But in 1959, Bent Elbow's Martha, a schoolteacher, watches the sexton dig her mother's grave and takes some comfort from the thought that ''those bones and scraps of clothing had been jumbled through and through by each new burial; every time one of their own came to join them, the dead jostled together not just to make room but to change their view, like children scurrying for good seats at the table.''
''Homestead,'' which won this year's PEN/Hemingway Award, is strongly reminiscent of John Berger's ''Into Their Labours,'' a trilogy of stories and novels about the disappearing culture of the French Alpine peasants he lives among. First published last year by Delphinum Books, ''Homestead'' went largely unnoticed. May this new edition find the many readers it deserves.
Carolyn See on The Washington Post wrote:
One is reminded of Garcia-Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, where the names also recur from one generation to the next, and whose style is similarly simple yet profound, honest and yet soothing.
Ellen Clegg on The Boston Globe wrote:
Homestead is beautifully and carefully written. It can be compared to Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. I also found myself thinking about From Here to Eternity, so rich is Homestead in evocative detail of a lost, unique world.
Fitting pieces of matriarchal puzzle
Perched high in the Austrian Alps, the village of Rosenau is hemmed in by rock and blinkered by convention and history. In 1909, a postcard wafts in like an arrow from the world outside and sets off a flurry of events: A response is drafted, a ''creaky gate'' swings open, and stories,
reveries, and recriminations begin to flow through.
As Anna composes her reply, she becomes more narrator than subject, able to look at her life full on. ''She forgot she was writing to a stranger,
a man she had never seen: she imagined him love-struck, lonely, wearing a white linen suit and silk hat and smoking a carved pipe under the striped awning of the White Horse Hotel. Slowly this image faded away into the paper under her hands until she could see much less of him than she could of herself, as a young girl, a bride, a mother, an aunt.''
More intrusions will upend village life, of course. The Great War, with
its dead and wounded; a Nazi in a motorcar and a betrayal; ghostly
visits and a gondola ascending the high Alps. Like Anna laboring over
her postcard, novelist Rosina Lippi hovers over her archetype of a
village, imagining the lives of 12 women, from Anna of Bengat Homestead
(1909) to Laura of Bent Elbow Homestead (1977).
Lippi... lived for four years in Vorarlberg, a province in western
Austria. There to study the dialect, she also soaked up stories from
women in villages with names like Andelsbuch, Egg, and Grohldorf.
Although ''Homestead'' is fictional, the stories convey the interwoven
drama and the constrained circumstances of farm life.
Lippi has a knack for startling wordplay and sensuous imagery. Writing
of the alpine seasons, she notes, ''Now, in April, the winter has raised
its voice again.'' When Isabella sees her granddaughter napping in a
pear tree, Lippi writes, ''she is half asleep, head thrown back against
the trunk, her neck arched at an angle that reminds Isabella of a fish
leaping joyously in midstream.''
This story ran on page C08 of the Boston Globe on 03/09/98.