Before the return of Rebekah Rainsford, Jack Selvedge’s world is as small as it is consistent. Jack has known little of the world but the hard hours and hopeless returns of his life as a dairy farmer on his grandfather’s farm; a craft that is dying along with Juniper Scrag, his time-forgotten hometown in the shadows of the Salt Lakes. Jack is a man of the land, dedicated to his dreams of inheriting the farm and carrying on his grandfather’s legacy of labor and sacrifice.
This theme of life and land presents itself throughout Braden Hepner’s debut novel. As time passes and generations turn over, the land that makes up the small, aging town of Juniper Scrag proves itself to be as present a character in the narrative as Blair Selvedge: Jack’s work-wrought grandfather. While life in Juniper Scrag has held steady in its decay, the effect of time begins to unravel, taking its toll on the land and its citizens.
After the return of Rebekah Rainsford, Jack’s life becomes a whirlwind of desire and decay. His growing lust for the girl of his dreams and his anticipated inheritance fuel him, but as the two become equally unobtainable, his world spirals. His closest friends become torn by their vices, and as Rebekah’s dark past becomes present, the indifferent landscape of Juniper Scrag becomes a backdrop for betrayal and a winding chain of deaths.
As Jack struggles to interpret his changing destiny, the world around him begins to change. Juniper Scrag’s businesses begin to close and residents become scarcer as new industries and developments begin to inherit the barren land. Jack’s future and Rebekah’s past begin to intersect in a tapestry that is as unforgiving and complex as the land he has been raised on.
Hepner’s characters carry with them a millennia of hard-earned wisdom from life on a brutal land. Jack’s closest friend, Heber Rafuse, a man who claimed to have lived his life like he was going to die at age 30, now dispenses sage advice and insight amidst sins. Seth, another friend of Jack’s, piles on vices amidst an eager desire to leave town, as if embracing self-destruction was the rite of passage needed to move on.
In correlation to the upheaval of Jack’s life, the land changes as well. For the first time, wild wolves patrol the heavily contested outer land of the dairy farm. The farm’s cows become restless and difficult to manage, escaping through fences and birthing stillborn cattle. Through it all, the friends take up an interest in bull-riding, driven by a desire to tame the wild nature of the land, as well as their own hearts.
Jack Selvedge’s desire to claim his grandfather’s land is just as significant and challenging as his lust for Rebekah. And as the town and its encompassing residents change and transform, so does the land – culminating in a compelling offering of give-and-take to the story’s protagonist.
Pale Harvest offers complexity amidst a unique and somewhat daunting narrative. Readers will have to take notice of Hepner’s somewhat difficult to follow dialogue style, which intersects narration and conversation in lieu of quotation marks. The novel offers contemplation on what it means to live in a tumultuous old world as the new world grows closer. Its narrative style can be difficult to navigate at times, and at times it offers as little satisfaction as the harsh land its set on. However, Pale Harvest’s abnormalities allow it to stand out as a deeply dysfunctional and introspective of its own, which intertwines well with its themes of time, labor, and tragedy.