Review: Bottomland by Michelle Hoover

Set in Western Iowa at the end of World War I, Michelle Hoover’s second novel, Bottomland, is the story of one farming family struggling to come to grips with a horrible fate. When two of their teenage daughters go missing, they wonder: Did the girls run away? Or was their foul play involved?

Told over a period of several generations and from multiple perspectives, Bottomland is part thriller, part family drama. Hoover’s work showcases how the actions and secrets kept by one generation can have lasting effects on the family’s identity — sometimes for years to come.

The novel begins from Nan’s perspective, the oldest of six children born to German immigrant parents. When her sisters go missing, the family is hesitant to ask for help: anti-German sentiment ran high after the war, and Nan and her siblings worry that their neighbors have turned their xenophobic rhetoric into action.

Having established the scene, Hoover shifts the narrative to the family patriarch and his story of emigrating from Germany, meeting his wife, and the trials they faced settling their 150-acre Iowa farm.

Hoover will shift the narrative four more times before the novel’s conclusion, revealing the perspective of other siblings, including the two missing girls. And while the varying perspective provides some welcome insight into the family’s history, Hoover does not do enough to distinguish the voices of her characters. Telling a novel from six perspectives is a bold choice; telling it from six first-person perspectives is potentially hazardous — and it was here.

Bottomland is a story that, had it been told straight and from multiple third-person narrators, could have been a powerful, quiet novel. As it stands, Hoover’s second novel comes off more as a chatty Willa Cather mystery: a fast, entertaining read, but nothing to write home about.