Laird Hunt has a reputation for sensitively chronicling women’s lives, as in Neverhome, his Civil War tale of an Indiana woman who becomes a Union soldier. He returns to the Indiana setting in his delicate new novel, Zorrie, a powerful portrait of longing and community in the American Midwest.
Zorrie Underwood is born in the early 20th century. After her parents die of diphtheria, she is raised by a stern aunt who tells her “people [are] born dreaming of devils and dark roses and should beware” and slaps Zorrie if she wakes up crying.
These experiences would cow a less hearty soul, but not Zorrie, who can beat almost every boy in school at arm-wrestling. When she is 21, her aunt dies and leaves her with nothing, so Zorrie sets out on her own. The most consequential of her early jobs is at the Radium Dial Company, where she decorates clock faces with paint containing a translucent powder that glows. Along with her colleagues, she is unaware of its toxic effects.
Soon she gets a job splitting and stacking wood for elderly couple Gus and Bessie. She marries their son, Harold, “the best-looking fellow Zorrie would ever see.” Hunt movingly documents their life on the farm, from picnics and watermelon seed-spitting contests to Zorrie’s continuation of her work during a pregnancy that ends in a miscarriage. Hunt chronicles the events of Zorrie’s life with swiftness and precision, including Harold’s death during World War II and, most enigmatically, Zorrie’s acquaintance with Noah Summers, whose wife is confined to a state hospital for setting their house on fire. Hunt tells their stories with a quiet sensitivity rarely seen in modern American fiction.
Late in the novel, when thinking of her neighbors and the world at large, Zorrie realizes “it was silence and not grief that connected them, that would keep them forever connected, the living and the dead.” Despite occasional dry passages, Zorrie is a poetic reminder of the importance of being a happy presence in other people’s memories.