Few stories can possibly be as timely as this one. Broken Ground shows us President Herbert Hoover’s Repatriation Act put into action, a law which involved the forced deportation of Mexican migrant workers. It’s a frightening look at the effect government policies can have on real people and how even with the best intentions we often get things wrong.
We meet Ruth Warren on the day her life is completely going to change, though she doesn’t know it. Newly married and deeply in love, she is snuggled into bed with her husband when he gets up to go to work. She tries to lure him back to her but jobs are few in the Depression and he is determined to do nothing that might lose him his. She fixes breakfast, they kiss goodbye and he is blown to bits that afternoon in an oil rig accident. She buries him and returns home in a daze, with her judgmental, domineering father and placid mother. It looks as though, at just twenty-one, her life has ended, but the sweet local librarian who has always been her friend has a surprise for her – Ruth has won a college scholarship and if she accepts it will head to California that fall.
Ruth does accept although she doesn’t fit easily into college life. At least not at first. Then she gains a coveted spot as aide to a charismatic professor and finds her hours full and meaningful. Her roommate warns her that the professor has a dangerous reputation but Ruth finds him nothing but charming and hardworking. She is exhausted from keeping up with him but exhilarated by all she is learning. She is almost sad when Christmas break comes and she must leave school to visit with some old family friends. While there she meets another charismatic man, Thomas Everly, whose own life experiences have compelled him to work for social justice. His current assignment is at a camp for Mexican migrant farmworkers, a group of people he cares for passionately. When Ruth leaves, she tucks his address into her pocketbook. Her love and grief for her husband are still fresh and she is not sure she wants to move forward into a relationship, but she certainly welcomes having a real friend.
Turns out she can use one. An unfortunate incident finds Ruth unjustly expelled from school, shaken from a concussion and unsure where to go. She decides to visit Thomas and here sees first hand his battle for justice for a beleaguered people. Stunned at how American citizens can be deported for just having the wrong skin color, Ruth soon finds herself learning Spanish and getting caught up in the affairs of the wonderful characters she meets at the camp. But this is an unstable time in California and the very friends she is coming to love may soon be pulled away from her by government officials.
The only flaw with this book is that it is far too short to truly tell the tale it wants to impart to us. We spend too little time with Ruth and Thomas at the camp, which is such a shame because they are a mesmerizing couple in a fascinating place. Too much of the story is spent watching Ruth get where she needs to be and yet that isn’t exactly true. We need Ruth’s backstory to understand the decisions she makes. But giving us that tale means we have don’t have enough pages at the end to deal with the issues and characters that really matter.
The brevity of the romance and abruptness of the ending aside, this is a riveting, lyrical tale which examines life through the eyes of a fascinating woman. Ruth is young and idealistic but she is also part of a time and class in which people grew up hard and fast. Her growth as she learns about the prejudice others face and the injustice done to women in a male dominated world is fantastic. I really loved that Ruth didn’t always just know these things were wrong, she didn’t even know many of these prejudices existed. It is as she is exposed to life and the discrimination many people face that she develops a passion for righting wrongs. Because we watch the journey, it is easy to genuinely believe in her compassion.
I also love that the author made most issues two sided. The government men were not just heartless racists and the people supporting the Repatriation Act were not mindless bigots, but were often folks suffering from unemployment and hunger. That said, the tale is relentless in showing us the injustice of what happened. Families are ripped apart before our eyes and legal citizens are deported to a land to which they have no ties. Much of what happened is both dangerous and horrifying. Given the role immigration has played in this most recent American election, Ms. Schreck seems almost prophetic in her choice of subject matter.
Another enjoyable factor of this story is how faith is presented. Ruth is a firm believer in God but unlike in many inspirational novels, her faith is presented less as a sermon for the reader and more as a natural part of her. It fits nicely with her quick intelligence and compassionate nature.
We get to know Thomas a little bit less than we do Ruth. Part of this is because some of his formation is covered in the short prequel story, Good Harvest.. The tale is worth reading because it shows Thomas’s gradual transformation from someone who shares the standard bigotry of the people around him to someone who responds with care and concern when he sees the cruelty of what is happening to his friends and neighbors. That isn’t necessary to see why he makes a good match for Ruth, though again, I wish we had spent a bit more time on their love story.
Ultimately, this is a wonderful historical novel told through the eyes of an intriguing young woman. I found it fascinating simply because of how the present echoes the past. The excellent writing and interesting characters are a definite plus and I would recommend Broken Ground to those who enjoy American history and don’t mind a little grit in their novels.