Newly married to her childhood sweetheart, twenty-one-year-old Ruth Warren is settling into life in a Depression-era, East Texas oil town. She’s making a home when she learns that her young husband, Charlie, has been killed in an oil rig accident. Ruth is devastated, but then gets a chance for a fresh start: a scholarship from a college in Pasadena, CA. Ruth decides to take a risk and travel west, to pursue her one remaining dream to become a teacher.
At college Ruth tries to fit into campus life, but her grief holds her back. When she spends Christmas with some old family friends, she meets the striking and compelling Thomas Everly, whose own losses and struggles have instilled in him a commitment to social justice, and led him to work with Mexican migrant farmworkers in a camp just east of Los Angeles. With Thomas, Ruth sees another side of town, and another side of current events: the numerous forced deportations without due process of Mexicans, along with United States citizens of Mexican descent.
After Ruth is forced to leave school, she goes to visit Thomas and sees that he has cobbled together a night school for the farmworkers’ children. Ruth begins to work with the children, and establishes deep friendships with people in the camp. When the camp is raided and the workers and their families are rounded up and shipped back to Mexico, Ruth and Thomas decide to take a stand for the workers’ rights—all while promising to love and cherish one another.
I am an immigrant to the United States. I became a naturalized citizen in 2010. I say this because my experience has influenced my opinions on the subject and, particularly, on migrants across the country’s southern border. I had a feeling that Broken Ground might take me out of my comfort zone and test some of those opinions. Since I’d enjoyed Schreck’s previous novel, Sing for Me, I decided I would give this novel a go.
I’m glad that I did. Once again, Schreck has created a thought-provoking work about social differences in 20th century America. The book’s first chapter describes the stark reality of Ruth’s life living with her husband on the Texan oil fields. They are poor and have little more than a shack, but they love each other and dream of a better life. The entire narrative is written in the present tense and in the first person, which means we experience everything the same time as Ruth does. It was difficult to read this part because I knew what was coming and Ruth sounded so happy. When everything changed, we’re plunged into Ruth’s grief. Ruth’s experiences take the reader on a roller coaster ride of emotions as she journeys from Texas to California via Oklahoma and goes from being a wife to a widow to a student to an activist. There’s sadness, shock, disappointment, and anger, but there are also sweet moments of joy.
This is an aspect of American history I had previously known nothing about. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘left’ to what happened; these acts took place during both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. I was stunned by the knowledge that even American citizens were sent to a country they didn’t know if they couldn’t provide paperwork. Sometimes, it didn’t even matter if they had the correct papers. Today, it’s easy to see the attitudes of some of the characters are racist and chauvinistic but these were considered normal during the 1930s. There’s no happy ending to Broken Ground either. Actually, the ending is rather ambiguous with elements of despair and hope. But it’s an incredible novel, and one that I’m sure I’ll be thinking about long after posting this review.
Thank you to Howard Books for my complimentary copy of Broken Ground, which I received in exchange for my honest review.
Have you read Broken Ground? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.
Publisher: Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: 03 May 2016
Page Count: 336