There is something for everyone in this very special collection of moving stories about the farming life, and the human experience.
Michael Cotter, born in 1931 on Minnesota land his family had farmed since the 1870s, was scolded from an early age: “Cut out those damn stories and get some work done around here!” As a hardworking livestock farmer, his natural inclination toward storytelling had to be suppressed. He was nearly fifty when he attended a workshop that reactivated his artistic side and began his storytelling career. The Killdeer and Other Stories from the Farming Life compiles his stories, full of simple humor and pathos of his life experiences and storytelling prowess.
Cotter’s stories are pulled from his lifetime of farming and illustrate transitions, for example, from oxen and horse power to massive combines replete with global positioning systems. His time line begins when “there were very few doctors, and even fewer lawyers … people had home-cures and settled their own disputes.” This historical scale, and Cotter’s long life, give his collection a sweeping scope. He passes on stories told by migrant farm workers on his father’s farm in the 1930s; his own experiences making his way as a young man trading cattle in the stockyards of St. Paul; and memories of being a son and a father.
In “The Story of Rose,” Cotter sees the end of his youngest child’s first love, with a neighbor’s big black dog. “Graduation Story” is the powerful telling of an honor received—“I don’t know how it is where you live, but where I live—farmers are not asked to be graduation speakers”—and the story Cotter tells to a local graduating class. The title story, “The Killdeer,” stars a gutsy little bird that takes on an immense tractor and wins; it is touching and unpretentious, tempts David-and-Goliath comparisons, and could be understood to comment on the relationship of industry to the natural world. In fact, it is this duality that marks this story collection and makes it memorable. Simple and humble, Cotter’s tales are simultaneously universal, poignant, and enormously significant.
Cotter’s writing is unassuming and conversational in style. Each entry is brief and unembellished, often brimming with humor and good cheer, occasionally sobering in the lessons offered. The collection is wisely organized, funny pieces interspersed with serious ones, as when Cotter travels to New Jersey to help people with terminal illnesses tell their own stories. His characters are briefly sketched but fully evoked—for example, in his father’s case, through the use of laconic, gruff dialogue. A photo inset further familiarizes the reader with Cotter, his family, and farmland.
The Killdeer and Other Stories from the Farming Life is deceptively modest. Short, easy-to-read stories plainly told will surely appeal to many. Old-timers familiar with Cotter’s experiences will appreciate his honoring of simpler times; his thoughtful consideration of “people of the earth” will resonate with seekers of social and ecological justice. Less experienced readers will find the format accessible and the subject matter entertaining. There is something for everyone in this very special collection of moving stories about the farming life, and the human experience.
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