A 1950s cattle ranch and roiling politics – Washington Times



By April Smith

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 368 pages

April Smith’s “Home Sweet Home” is based on a true story of an East Coast family that moved to the West to become cattle ranchers in the 1950s. This was during the Cold War and the family’s liberal views didn’t endear them to the locals. They became victims of a smear campaign that cost the father his political career. Unlike many other besmirched politicians of varying beliefs, he did not go away and hide his sorrows or start a new career. He sued his attackers, and amazingly he won. Less hearteningly, that was not the end of the story.

April Smith notes this background as inspiration, but has not attempted to either document or recount it exactly because, as she explains, “I needed to go deeper, behind the headlines, to create a fictional world in which I could dramatize my own understanding of these extraordinary human events.”

She has given her story depth and structure by telling part of it from the point of view of Jo Kusek, the daughter of the family, who is called to a hospital where younger family members are being treated for injuries in 1985. The earlier part is told from a narratorial spot on the shoulder of Betsy, her mother.

Betsy met her lawyer husband Cal, a World War II hero, in New York in the 1940s. She had a difficult home life, and when she went to work in a department store she was caught up in union actions, and even briefly joined the Communist party and worked in its soup kitchens. After she and Cal marry, they head off to South Dakota inspired by thoughts of a healthful purposeful life. They want to ranch cattle while Cal continues lawyering, hoping eventually to get into Democratic politics. They get help from Scotty Roy, one of Cal’s crew when he was a pilot during the invasion of Sicily, and Scotty’s father, Dutch. He’s a seasoned rancher, disgruntled by Scotty’s preference for bull-riding over farming and ready to adopt the more industrious Cal as a second son.

Things start out tough yet hopeful as the Kuseks learn about ranching and life in South Dakota. But the relationship with the Roy family sours somewhat, and the Kuseks buy a more distant ranch. Cal prospers and gets into the state legislature. Betsy becomes a well-liked ranch wife and visiting nurse. Jo is one of the most popular girls in school. Her brother Lance learns bull-riding from Scotty. The all love their lives on the prairie. Still, their political views are shared by few others, and when Cal runs for a Senate seat, Betsy’s brief role with the Communist soup kitchen is twisted into defamation of both her and Cal as Russian spies.

April Smith tells the stories of their lives from New York in the 1940s, to South Dakota in the ‘50s and Kennedy years, with jumps to the 1980s and early ‘90s. She handles this mass of material deftly, weaving together a tale of the Cold War in America, an evocation of the tough but invigorating and sociable life on the prairie, and a depiction of the ways in which personality, experience, and culture mesh into a matrix underpinning belief and behavior. She is an astute sociological observer, showing how the harsh climate of South Dakota, the hard work on the ranches, and the distances between them and the small towns foster neighborly behavior that goes way beyond the occasional potluck to serious back-breaking help or swift closing of ranks in times of trouble.

She is also adept at sketching character, especially of the ranchers who stand to lose all if the weather or an epidemic kills their cattle. They have to be as independent as possible, and that independence takes them to generalized dislike of government despite their fervent patriotism. This combination of feeling leads them to some obscure places politically; April Smith follows them there and shows her readers how they reached it. She also has a deft hand at describing local people such as Verna, the woman banker who is the local Democratic leader, Scotty and his passion for bulls, Jolene, the nasty piece of work who runs the local market, and Thaddeus Haynes, a demagogue who turns up everywhere with a box of doughnuts.

Jo, both as an adult and as a child, is another insightful portrait and so is her little brother Lance. Cal and Betsy are less successful characters because they are less nuanced. Both are rather static: Cal the war hero and committed lawyer; Betsy the conventional devoted and energetic wife and mother, differentiated only by her early background. Nonetheless, “Home Sweet Home” is a gripping novel, always interesting historically, and not without relevance to today’s events.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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