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BIG WHEAT by Richard A. Thompson: Book Review

Bindlestiff.  A hobo or tramp, especially one with a bedroll. It’s in the subtitle–Big Wheat:  A Tale of Bindlestiffs and Blood–of a mystery novel by Richard A. Thompson.

Charles Krueger isn’t a bindlestiff when the novel begins. He’s a young man of 23 in 1919 North Dakota, the only surviving son on his parents’ farm.  He’s got a girlfriend, or so he thinks, but it turns out that Mabel Boysen was only using him.  She’s intent on marrying a neighboring well-to-do farmer whom she thinks may be sterile, so she’s gotten herself pregnant with Charlie’s child whom she intends to pass off as the other man’s; obviously she’s been burning the candle at both ends.

Charlie is devastated and distraught.  Out on the prairie late at night shortly after this revelation, he sees a man who looks as if he’s burying something.  As Charlie gets closer the man runs, or rather limps, quickly away.  What Charlie doesn’t know, of course, is that the man has just raped and buried Mabel.  And although the man doesn’t know who Charlie is, he’s fearful that Charlie can recognize him and determines to find him and kill him.

The man with the limp calls himself The Windmill Man. He’s a serial killer stalking the Great Plains, convinced that man is destroying the land with his farms and cities and that the only way to cleanse the land is through blood, the blood he spills each time he kills someone.  There’s so much he needs to do to atone for everyone else’s sins.

Charlie has put up with his father, a brutal alcoholic man, for years, but one day it’s simply too much.  After being threatened with yet another beating, Charlie picks up a kitchen knife and stabs it through his father’s hand, pinning the hand to the kitchen table.  Then he packs a bag and leaves.  It’s the day after Mabel is killed, and the townspeople think they ran off together.  But when the young woman’s body is discovered a few days later, their opinion changes to viewing Charlie as a murderer, and the hunt for him is on.

He doesn’t have much formal education and has never been to a city, but Charlie is a genius with machinery.  He’s picked up on the road by a man named Jim Avery who’s the leader of a group of wanderers with histories they’d rather forget–bindlestiffs, abused women, an almost-veterinarian.  Charlie joins them and soon proves his worth as a thresher and mechanic. He also begins to fall for Emily, one of the walking wounded in the Ark, as Avery calls his group.  But the Windmill Man and the sheriff from Charlie’s home county are still looking for him, and he’s not sure how long he can evade them.

There are plenty of other interesting characters in this novel.  Dishonest and corrupt sheriffs and greedy bankers are there, but so are generous farmers and mystical Indians.  The Great Plains are big enough to encompass them all.

Richard A. Thompson has written a fascinating novel about a time and a place that was unfamiliar to me. His characters are vibrant, and the prairie is alive with men and women working together to hold onto a type of life that is fast-disappearing.

You can read more about Richard A. Thompson at his web site.