The Desert Crop

by Catherine Cookson

Published by Bantam Press

319 pages, 1998

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An Appropriate Good-bye

It seems appropriate somehow that Catherine Cookson's final novel should be so typical of her work and so celebratory of the area she wrote so much about. Cookson fans will read it as a fitting good-bye.

The Desert Crop is the final work of this author of over 90 novels. Though that equals almost one for each of Cookson's years on the planet, her first novel wasn't published until she was 44. That book -- Kate Hannigan -- was originally published in 1950. Born June 27, 1906, she received the OBE in 1985 and was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1993. Dame Catherine died on June 11, 1998 at home near Newcastle in England.

The date of her birth is particularly remarkable to me after reading The Desert Crop. Cookson's ability to describe youthful love and youthful life was one of the things that so endeared her to her readers, and The Desert Crop offers both in abundance.

Set near Newcastle, in the northeast corner of England, The Desert Crop takes place in the late part of the last century. Hector Stewart takes a new wife just two years after his first wife dies, leaving him with two small children. He'd hoped that this marriage would bring money to his impoverished farm. Meanwhile, she had hoped she'd married into wealth. What neither of them know is that no one is being very honest and there are a pile of secrets between them.

Hector is one of the least likable characters I've encountered in fiction. He is not a monster: though if he were he would be less remarkable. There are many fictional human-shaped monsters and we know where to place them. Hector's sins lean more towards the pathetic. He drinks too much, womanizes too much, spends too much, and loves too little. There is nothing good in him, but neither is there truly evil. Just a pathetic little man drowning the failures of his life in still more failures.

As many lines as Hector is given, however, his isn't the starring role in this story. That place is given to the two children of his first marriage: Pattie and -- mostly -- Daniel who must deal with the lack of love from their father, their new "mother" Moira and the challenges of growing up in a well-born family whose fortunes are down.

Like most of Cookson's work, The Desert Crop's heroes aren't larger than life. These are -- in many regards -- ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things in ordinary ways: but doing them all 100 years ago. This is, perhaps, one of the things that has made Cookson one of the best loved writers in the English language. It's easy to identify with her characters and understand them: they aren't horribly complex. What her stories lack in complexity, however, they make up for in warmth and comfort. Reading a novel by Dame Catherine is never taxing. In fact, it's a bit like coming home. You know where to leave your shoes and where the tea is kept. Few challenges; but in a world where challenges can batter you at every angle, the lack of them isn't necessarily a bad thing.

As always, Cookson's detail of her own little corner of England just a couple of decades before her birth is flawless. She understands this area and these people well. They are, after all, her heritage and birthright. This too is appropriate: that the final novel should take place so close to where she lived, worked and died. | October 1998


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.