James Galvin is a poet as well as a writer of fiction. He wrote The Meadow in 1992. It’s about people who live on or near a meadow in Wyoming that is high up in the mountains. Galvin traces the history of these few families over a few generations, up to the present time. Although The Meadow is a work of fiction, Galvin grew up in northern Colorado and is familiar with these kinds of people. He is the mostly unseen narrator, who slips into the story only occasionally and gives very little background about himself, although we figure out that he is a neighbor of these families, and so knows them well.
The characters work the land, fight the elements, raise animals and build the houses and barns they need, staking out their identity in the wilderness. And wilderness it is…filled with bears and wolves and snow that practically swallows them up every winter. The book is a celebration of craftsmanship; of our ability to work with materials and energy and have the patience to make things that are as precise as any machine can turn out. The main character, Lyle Van Waning, ends up living there for over fifty years. Others in his family have died through war, madness, and natural causes. You have to feel respect for Lyle, since he has weathered the time and seasons, and has gained a harmony with his tools and how he works.
Yet the ingenuity and beauty of their workmanship, in the end, is an occasion of wonderment at the futility of it all in the face of time. Lyle, at his life’s end, is bemused by all this work he did, and how he’s left with so little. His mom and siblings gone, and his health too, so that he can’t even walk out to the fences he built. If you have lived in the country, you will recognize the slow wit and quiet humor that people cultivate who live a distance apart, with hills and ice, mud, and other challenges that they live with, occupying most of their time.
Galvin wants to say something about the earth’s permanence, and how transitory all our work and our passions are in the end, except for the effect we have on each other. In this way, Galvin’s quiet witness is what matters in The Meadow – someone to show us how they lived and what they created.