Bruce Holbert’s second novel, “The Hour of Lead,” opens with an epic snow storm. And into it walks a father, Ed Lawson, looking for his twin sons, Luke and Matt, who are on their way home from school.
The year is 1918, and this epic storm caused much damage in Lincoln County but took only two lives, the elder Lawson and one of the twins, Luke.
While the physical damage cause by the storm was soon repaired, the emotional damage it wrought upon Matt and his mother was much more long lasting. Mrs. Lawson mourned the loss of her husband and her favorite son (although she was loathe to admit it), and withdrew from the world. Matt would be scarred permanently by the storm and its aftermath. As a boy for whom the word “dogged” seemed tailor made, threw himself into work. Never a deep thinker – Luke was the brighter, more outgoing of the pair – he fills his inner world with the task at hand.
He even takes to courting Wendy, the local grocer’s daughter, with a doggedness that doesn’t just border on obsessive, it dives in head first. That she is equally as stubborn makes them, eventually, an ideal match.
Matt, after a terrible misunderstanding with Wendy, flees from home, and begins a decades-long journey through Eastern Washington as it transitions from a land of hardscrabble ranchers to one fueled and irrigated by the mighty Grand Coulee Dam. He lived by his sheer brawn and brought determination to any job he took. “Once hired,” Holbert writes, “he took any assignment like work was a woman he’d loved and lost and found again. He recognized how best to order a chore, no matter the complexity, and turned iron in the application. Before the lunch whistle, any foremen with sense saw him as a bargain.”
Eventually, he lands on the Palouse, on the farm of Roland Jarms and his son. They settle into a makeshift family. But when the peace he finds there is shattered, Matt realizes there is one place for him: home.
Holbert, a Mt. Spokane High School teacher and graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writing Workshop, creates a Western landscape that is as tough and stubborn as its characters. He often draws comparison to Cormac McCarthy, and it’s easy to see why. His stark yet beautiful landscapes are populated with strong, often damaged characters. This compelling story offers a fair share of shocking twists and more than a small dose of violence. But Holbert’s writing brings a lyrical sense to even the most gruesome scenes as he traces the history of the Grand Coulee country through the first half of the 20th century. It’s a severe and gorgeous place to visit, and Holbert makes for a fine tour guide.