Sweet Land Stories

Sweet Land Stories

by E. L. Doctorow


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One of America’s premier writers, the bestselling author of Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel, and World’s Fair turns his astonishing narrative powers to the short story in five dazzling explorations of who we are as a people and how we live.

Ranging over the American continent from Alaska to Washington, D.C., these superb short works are crafted with all the weight and resonance of the novels for which E. L. Doctorow is famous. You will find yourself set down in a mysterious redbrick townhouse in rural Illinois (“A House on the Plains”), working things out with a baby-kidnapping couple in California (“Baby Wilson”), living on a religious-cult commune in Kansas (“Walter John Harmon”), and sharing the heartrending cross-country journey of a young woman navigating her way through three bad marriages to a kind of bruised but resolute independence (“Jolene: A Life”). And in the stunning “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden,” you will witness a special agent of the FBI finding himself at a personal crossroads while investigating a grave breach of White House security.

Two of these stories have already won awards as the best fiction of the year published in American periodicals, and two have been chosen for annual best-story anthologies.

Composed in a variety of moods and voices, these remarkable portrayals of the American spiritual landscape show a modern master at the height of his powers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812971774
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/10/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 963,919
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

E. L. Doctorow’s works of fiction include Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks, City of God, The March, Homer & Langley, and Andrew’s Brain. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, honoring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction, and in 2012 he won the PEN/ Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career places him in the highest rank of American literature.” In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction. In 2014 he was honored with the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.


Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York

Date of Birth:

January 6, 1931

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53

Read an Excerpt

Sweet Land Stories

By E. L. Doctorow

Random House

Copyright (C) 2004 by E. L. Doctorow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400062047

Chapter One

A House on The Plains

Mama said I was thenceforth to be her nephew, and to call her Aunt Dora. She said our fortune depended on her not having a son as old as eighteen who looked more like twenty. Say Aunt Dora, she said. I said it. She was not satisfied. She made me say it several times. She said I must say it believing she had taken me in since the death of her widowed brother, Horace. I said, I didn’t know you had a brother named Horace. Of course I don’t, she said with an amused glance at me. But it must be a good story if I could fool his son with it.

I was not offended as I watched her primp in the mirror, touching her hair as women do, although you can never see what afterwards is different.

With the life insurance, she had bought us a farm fifty miles west of the city line. Who would be there to care if I was her flesh and blood son or not? But she had her plans and was looking ahead. I had no plans. I had never had plans—just the inkling of something, sometimes, I didn’t know what. I hunched over and went down the stairs with the second trunk wrapped to my back with a rope. Outside, at the foot of the stoop, the children were waiting with their scraped knees and socks around their ankles. They sang their own dirty words to a nursery rhyme. I shooed them away and they scattered off for a minute hooting and hollering and then of course came back again as I went up the stairs for the rest of the things.

Mama was standing at the empty bay window. While there is your court of inquest on the one hand, she said, on the other is your court of neighbors. Out in the country, she said, there will be no one to jump to conclusions. You can leave the door open, and the window shades up. Everything is clean and pure under the sun.

Well, I could understand that, but Chicago to my mind was the only place to be, with its grand hotels and its restaurants and paved avenues of trees and mansions. Of course not all Chicago was like that. Our third floor windows didn’t look out on much besides the row of boardinghouses across the street. And it is true that in the summer people of refinement could be overcome with the smell of the stockyards, although it didn’t bother me. Winter was another complaint that wasn’t mine. I never minded the cold. The wind in winter blowing off the lake went whipping the ladies’ skirts like a demon dancing around their ankles. And winter or summer you could always ride the electric streetcars if you had nothing else to do. I above all liked the city because it was filled with people all a-bustle, and the clatter of hooves and carriages, and with delivery wagons and drays and the peddlers and the boom and clank of the freight trains. And when those black clouds came sailing in from the west, pouring thunderstorms upon us so that you couldn’t hear the cries or curses of humankind, I liked that best of all. Chicago could stand up under the worst God had to offer. I understood why it was built— a place for trade, of course, with railroads and ships and so on, but mostly to give all of us a magnitude of defiance that is not provided by one house on the plains. And the plains is where those storms come from.

Besides, I would miss my friend Winifred Czerwinska, who stood now on her landing as I was going downstairs with the suitcases. Come in a minute, she said, I want to give you something. I went in and she closed the door behind me. You can put those down, she said of the suitcases.

My heart always beat faster in Winifred’s presence. I could feel it and she knew it too and it made her happy. She put her hand on my chest now and she stood on tiptoes to kiss me with her hand under my shirt feeling my heart pump.

Look at him, all turned out in a coat and tie. Oh, she said, with her eyes tearing up, what am I going to do without my Earle? But she was smiling.

Winifred was not a Mama type of woman. She was a slight, skinny thing, and when she went down the stairs it was like a bird hopping. She wore no powder or perfumery except by accident the confectionary sugar which she brought home on her from the bakery where she worked behind the counter. She had sweet, cool lips but one eyelid didn’t come up all the way over the blue, which made her not as pretty as she might otherwise be. And of course she had no titties to speak of.

You can write me a letter or two and I will write back, I said.

What will you say in your letter?

I will think of something, I said.

She pulled me into the kitchen, where she spread her feet and put her forearms flat on a chair so that I could raise her frock and fuck into her in the way she preferred. It didn’t take that long, but even so, while Winifred wiggled and made her little cat sounds I could hear Mama calling from upstairs as to where I had gotten.

We had ordered a carriage to take us and the luggage at the same time rather than sending it off by the less expensive Railway Express and taking a horsecar to the station. That was not my idea, but exactly the amounts that were left after Mama bought the house only she knew. She came down the steps under her broad-brim hat and widow’s veil and held her skirts at her shoe tops as the driver helped her into the carriage.

We were making a grand exit in full daylight. This was pure Mama as she lifted her veil and glanced with contempt at the neighbors looking out from their windows. As for the nasty children, they had gone quite quiet at our display of elegance. I swung up beside her and closed the door and at her instruction threw a handful of pennies on the sidewalk, and I watched the children push and shove one another and dive to their knees as we drove off.

When we had turned the corner, Mama opened the hatbox I had put on the seat. She removed her black hat and replaced it with a blue number trimmed in fake flowers. Over her mourning dress she draped a glittery shawl in striped colors like the rainbow. There, she said. I feel so much better now. Are you all right, Earle?

Yes, Mama, I said.

Aunt Dora.

Yes, Aunt Dora.

I wish you had a better mind, Earle. You could have paid more attention to the Doctor when he was alive. We had our disagreements, but he was smart for a man.

The train stop of La Ville was a concrete platform and a lean-to for a waiting room and no ticket-agent window. When you got off, you were looking down an alley to a glimpse of their Main Street. Main Street had a feed store, a post office, a white wooden church, a granite stone bank, a haberdasher, a town square with a four-story hotel, and in the middle of the square on the grass the statue of a Union soldier. It could all be counted because there was just one of everything. A man with a dray was willing to take us. He drove past a few other streets where first there were some homes of substance and another church or two but then, as you moved further out from the town center, worn looking one-story shingle houses with dark little porches and garden plots and clotheslines out back with only alleys separating them. I couldn’t see how, but Mama said there was a population of over three thousand living here. And then after a couple of miles through farmland, with a silo here and there off a straight road leading due west through fields of corn, there swung into view what I had not expected, a three-story house of red brick with a flat roof and stone steps up to the front door like something just lifted out of a street of row houses in Chicago. I couldn’t believe anyone had built such a thing for a farmhouse. The sun flared in the windowpanes and I had to shade my eyes to make sure I was seeing what I saw. But that was it in truth, our new home.

Not that I had the time to reflect, not with Mama settling in. We went to work. The house was cobwebbed and dusty and it was rank with the droppings of animal life. Blackbirds were roosting in the top floor, where I was to live. Much needed to be done, but before long she had it all organized and a parade of wagons was coming from town with the furniture she’d Expressed and no shortage of men willing to hire on for a day with hopes for more from this grand good-looking lady with the rings on several fingers. And so the fence went up for the chicken yard, and the weed fields beyond were being plowed under and the watering hole for stock was dredged and a new privy was dug, and I thought for some days Mama was the biggest employer of La Ville, Illinois.

But who would haul the well water and wash the clothes and bake the bread? A farm was a different life, and days went by when I slept under the roof of the third floor and felt the heat of the day still on my pallet as I looked through the little window at the remoteness of the stars and I felt unprotected as I never had in the civilization we had retreated from. Yes, I thought, we had moved backward from the world’s progress, and for the first time I wondered about Mama’s judgment. In all our travels from state to state and with all the various obstacles to her ambition, I had never thought to question it. But no more than this house was a farmer’s house was she a farmer, and neither was I.

One evening we stood on the front steps watching the sun go down behind the low hills miles away.

Aunt Dora, I said, what are we up to here?

I know, Earle. But some things take time.

She saw me looking at her hands, how red they had gotten.

I am bringing an immigrant woman down from Wisconsin. She will sleep in that room behind the kitchen. She’s to be here in a week or so.

Why? I said. There’s women in La Ville, the wives of all these locals come out here for a day’s work who could surely use the money.

I will not have some woman in the house who will only take back to town what she sees and hears. Use what sense God gave you, Earle.

I am trying, Mama.

Aunt Dora, goddamnit.

Aunt Dora.

Yes, she said. Especially here in the middle of nowhere and with nobody else in sight.

She had tied her thick hair behind her neck against the heat and she went about now loose in a smock without her usual women’s underpinnings.

But doesn’t the air smell sweet, she said. I’m going to have a screen porch built and fit it out with a settee and some rockers so we can watch the grand show of nature in comfort.

She ruffled my hair. And you don’t have to pout, she said. You may not appreciate it here this moment with the air so peaceful and the birds singing and nothing much going on in any direction you can see. But we’re still in business, Earle. You can trust me on that.

And so I was assured.

By and by we acquired an old-fashioned horse and buggy to take us to La Ville and back when Aunt Dora had to go to the bank or the post office or provisions were needed. I was the driver and horse groom. He—the horse—and I did not get along. I wouldn’t give him a name. He was ugly, with a sway back and legs that trotted out splayed. I had butchered and trimmed better looking plugs than this in Chicago. Once, in the barn, when I was putting him up for the night, he took a chomp in the air just off my shoulder.

Another problem was Bent, the handyman Mama had hired for the steady work. No sooner did she begin taking him upstairs of an afternoon than he was strutting around like he owned the place. This was a problem as I saw it. Sure enough, one day he told me to do something. It was one of his own chores. I thought you was the hired one, I said to him. He was ugly, like a relation of the horse—he was shorter than you thought he ought to be with his long arms and big gnarled hands hanging from them.

Get on with it, I said.

Leering, he grabbed me by the shoulder and put his mouth up to my ear. I seen it all, he said. Oh yes. I seen everything a man could wish to see.

At this I found myself constructing a fate for Bent the handyman. But he was so drunkly stupid I knew Mama must have her own plan for him or else why would she play up to someone of this ilk, and so I held my ideas in abeyance.

In fact I was by now thinking I could wrest some hope from the wide loneliness of this farm with views of the plains as far as you could see. What had come to mind? A sense of expectancy that I recognized from times past. Yes. I had sensed that whatever was going to happen had begun. There was not only the handyman. There were the orphan children. She had contracted for three from the do-good agency in New York that took orphans off the streets and washed and dressed them and put them on the train to their foster homes in the midland. Ours were comely enough children, though pale, two boys and a girl with papers that gave their ages, six, six, and eight, and as I trotted them to the farm they sat up behind me staring at the countryside without a word. And so now they were installed in the back bedroom on the second floor, and they were not like the miserable street rats from our neighborhood in the city. These were quiet children except for the weeping they were sometimes given to at night, and by and large they did as they were told. Mama had some real feeling for them—Joseph and Calvin and the girl, Sophie, in particular. There were no conditions as to what faith they were to be brought up in nor did we have any in mind. But on Sundays, Mama took to showing them off to the Methodist church in La Ville in the new clothes she had bought for them. It gave her pleasure, and was besides a presentation of her own pride of position in life. Because it turned out, as I was learning, that even in the farthest reaches of the countryside, you lived in society.

And in this great scheme of things my Aunt Dora required little Joseph, Calvin, and Sophie to think of her as their mama. Say Mama, she said to them. And they said it.

Well, so here was this household of us, ready made, as something bought from a department store. Fannie was the imported cook and housekeeper, who by Mama’s design spoke no English but understood well enough what had to be done. She was heavyset, like Mama, with the strength to work hard. And besides Bent, who skulked about by the barns and fences in the sly pretense of work, there was a real farmer out beyond, who was sharecropping the acreage in corn. And two mornings a week a retired county teacher woman came by to tutor the children in reading and arithmetic.

Mama said one evening: We are an honest to goodness enterprise here, a functioning family better off than most in these parts, but we are running at a deficit, and if we don’t have something in hand before winter the only resources will be the insurance I took out on the little ones.

She lit the kerosene lamp on the desk in the parlor and wrote out a Personal and read it to me: “Widow offering partnership in prime farmland to dependable man. A modest investment is required.&


Excerpted from Sweet Land Stories by E. L. Doctorow Excerpted by permission.
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Sweet Land Stories 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
jennyo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've long been a fan of Doctorow's. I remember reading Ragtime almost 25 years ago when the movie came out (wow, was I really that young when I read it?!?). So, it was a treat to read this new collection of his short stories. It's a slim volume, only five stories. But of the five, two have already won awards for best short fiction and two have been included in best of anthologies (according to the blurb on the cover). This doesn't surprise me as they're uniformly well written with well drawn characters--one of the things I think is hardest to accomplish in the short story format--realistic dialogue, and heavy themes. They're not light, easy reads. Bad, bad things happen, there are evil people in the stories, and there are people who simply suffer the evil done to them and persevere.Of the stories, I think "Jolene: A Life" and "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden" will stay with me the longest. The first because it's the story of a young woman who suffers much and still retains a glimmer of hope in her life, and the second because it says so much about the abuse of power in the highest political circles.If you're already a fan of either Doctorow or the short story format, I strongly recommend this book. If you've never read Doctorow, this would be a good place to start. My favorite of his books is World's Fair, and this one hasn't usurped its place in my affections, but it is a great example of his work.
campingmomma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Collection of short stories; A House on the Plains was the first story and was one of those short stories that you want to be a whole book so that it will keep going. The story of Mama and Earle travelling from Chicago to La Ville after the death of Mama's husband to "start anew" in different city is not the story you expect. And even once you figure out what is going on the ending still throws you for a loop which is why I wanted the story to continue. Having finished the second story: Baby Wilson I was going to say I thought it started off fairly slow, but perhaps that was just b/c I had wanted the previous story to continue. My favorite part of this story was the ending, and not b/c I wanted it to, rather because unlike many short stories this one continues on after the "main" story to let you know what happened afterward to the main characters. Though Jolene: a Life was an engaging story, I found it far fetched and therefore did not find it to be one of the most memorable stories in the collections as some readers have. She meets a new man around every corner who sexually, physically and/or emotionally abuses her. No one is as unlucky as Jolene. I just didn't buy it. Walter John Harmon was the surprise story for me. I did not think I would find a story about a cult so intriguing...to quote: "It is in the nature of a miracle that Walter John Harmon has in his effortless way drawn so many of us to his prophecy. And that wee have given everything we possess--not to him, to the Demand that comes through him. We are not idiots. We are not cult victims." But again I was thrown for a loop at the ending and was glad I stuck this story out. Mr. Doctorow's writing is so detailed, especially in a story like this, I feel as though I am part of it and that is why I enjoyed this book. Lastly, Child, Dead, In the Rose Garden was the perfect way to end this collection of short stories. It was exactly as the tite states, a story of a child found dead in the Rose Garden of the White House. The story focus' primarily on the lead FBI investigator Molloy and his actions and reactions when the incident is swept under the rug b/c it involves a personal friend of the president. I'm really looking forward to selecting one of the author books after finding his short stories so compelling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
SWEET LAND STORIES is another superlative venture for E.L. Doctorow, one of the very finest writers in the country. Though known best for his larger tomes that mingle history and fiction as well as anyone has ever done, this small book of five stories reveals a master in creating characters and stories in a few pages that become indelible in the reader's mind. In his hands the most apparently simple settings become backdrops for complex, extensive tapestries that reveal how the 'little man/woman' can be pitched and tossed into the most bizarre tangle of events and yet somehow survive. In a time when many of us worry about the spiritual vacuum of life in the 21st Century, when the individual seems buried in the media pile of homogenation, look to Doctorow's fertile mind to remember and perhaps redefine the role of the Everyman. These stories are varied and extraordinarily well written: 'A House on the Plains' seems to be a tale of survival found in fleeing an urban center to a new life for a family on the plains, only to become a wholly different surprising macabre tale in the end: 'Baby Wilson' focuses on a couple who walk out a hospital with someone else's baby, flee, and watch their lives mutate; 'Walter John Harmon' concerns a community of brainwashed folk under the influence of a Spiritual Leader and the consequences of manipulation in the religion realm; 'Jolene: A Life' follows the course of an abused orphan through the country as she moves from one bad husband to the next - holding our hearts in her hand; 'Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden' is Doctorow's indictment of the credibility gap in the White House management of Intelligence sharing - a different and terrifying aside on terrorism so much in focus today. Doctorow tells these stories with elegant prose, terse and delicate economy, and once again proves he can spin a yarn better than most writers active today. A Brilliant Collection!