Review by Jane Ward
In Barnflower: A Rhode Island Farm Memoir, award-winning short story writer and poet Carla Panciera presents a deeply moving collection of nineteen standalone stories that, read as a whole, pay tribute to the years she spent with her father, Aldo, working his family’s dairy farm in Westerly, Rhode Island. These tales of the farm and its historied beginnings from three Holsteins and a legendary bull named Osborndale Ivanhoe feel intimate, almost conversational. As Panciera writes in the introduction to the collection:
For three decades, I returned to a place that exists only in memory. As
closely as I could, I tried to recreate that place and time, if not exactly
as it had been, then at least in a way which readers might experience
our life there.
The farm she wants us to know is a place of stark contrasts, a place where a young girl might fall in love with a special cow only to lose it to illness or accident. She communicates all experiences of life on the farm without sentimentality, using spare, precise prose.
Though cows normally stood immediately after delivery and licked
their calves, Shelly stayed down. She didn’t drink the warm water my
sister set before her.
Patty said she had a test to study for and left. My father stood up,
put his hands on his hips and looked at me.
“Sorry about that honey,’ he said. ‘Big calf for her to do on her own.’”
Intertwined with the difficult work are the farm’s people, either suited to the life by character or inexorably shaped by it. At almost 50, the taciturn bachelor Aldo married Mary, a divorced woman with four children. A year or so later, they had their only child together, Carla. Growing up, Carla struggles to navigate the world outside of family and farming, agonizing over everything from trying to make friends to wondering how to choose between her love for the farm life and the urge that prompts her to explore the wider world.
Her parents struggle as well. Aldo is a loyal and hardworking provider who rarely expresses emotions or thanks. His gruff expectations that others will simply work hard without complaint pose a challenge for Mary, who craves more talking, a more social existence. Her contributions to making life run smoothly often go unappreciated, a source of real strain between them. When Mary makes a quick decision to leave Aldo for a brief time, she shares with Carla that “these wounds don’t heal…They pile up with all the other things that happen in a marriage.” The marriage remains difficult, a relationship that Carla finds herself trying to both manage and understand as years pass.
The love between a daughter and her father is straightforward, however; it is a bond created by blood and deepened through the shared love of their work. As Barnflower opens, an older Carla finds herself agreeing to accompany her father to one last farm dispersal sale in Toronto. His request surprises her. He has retired from decades of raising dairy cattle and farming 100 acres of grazing land—a thorough retirement, so everyone thought, brought on by declining health. But the sale proves too much of a siren’s call for a restless man accustomed to hard work, arousing in him the desire to return one last time to a world he has left behind.
While the beginning of the trip tantalizes with the question of whether or not there will be one more cow in the Panciera future, the trip’s conclusion at the end of the book returns us to the idea of legacy and how one comes to terms with all the changes that lie ahead. An encounter with an insurance salesman leaves Carla with no doubt about the difference between a having a job and creating a life of purpose and meaning.
Set up your tent anywhere, Mr. Salesman, sell something all your life…and
you won’t do what this man has done…people had come to see what my
father had produced and few animals on this farm today would have been in
existence if he had not done what he’d done with his life’s work.
Barnflower is both a coming-of-age story and an unflinching examination of how a life can come to an end but also live on. At its simplest, it stands as a love letter to a father and a moment in time that will never be forgotten because now the stories have been told.
Barnflower: A Rhode Island Farm Memoir
by Carla Panciera
Loom Press, April 2023)
Jane Alessandrini Ward is the author of In the Aftermath (She Writes Press, 2021), The Mosaic Artist (2011) and Hunger (Forge, 2001). She has been a contributing writer for an online regional and seasonal food magazine and a blogger and occasional host of cooking videos for an internet recipe resource. Jane lives in Massachusetts. To learn more, visit janeaward.com.