From across the meadow her father
called into the darkening air Esther
She wanted to yell out, to tell someone,
but a quiet covered her mouth and kept her
still. As the last slender spine of daylight
stabbed through her hiding place, she
began to make her way home. The sky
bled black with crows, hundreds of them,
an argosy of wings banking the horizon.
Mother clamped the meat grinder, her
one-armed household god, to the table’s edge—
hash for supper, sweet corn put up
last summer, lustered from the field.
wind wrestled the honey locust.
When morning came the horse
ran loose in the peach orchard.
Esther is my fourth book, yet it feels in many ways like my first. It’s a story told in verse—fusing the poet's voice with the novelist's narrative craft. An ancient process, the verse novel has evolved into a contemporary hybrid form. The process can also be termed an epic poem, but that brings to mind The Iliad and Beowolf, and feels therefore too proscribed. And I think it’s something about the notion of story that makes this book seem so different, because, in spite of the many narratives and narrative poems I’ve written, this is my first novel.
Esther begins in the early 20th century on the American prairie, and follows the journey into adulthood of a young girl who, in order to endure the dangers of family, escapes early on into the mysterious world of words. And in the broader sense, human time set against geological time serves to frame Esther’s extraordinary experience—stark human reality recast against Steinbeck’s sentient earth, where wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn. Esther explores memory, loss, and redemption, and how language, incremental and pure, can hold the key to the truths that help us live.
Some say that redemption has lost its luster as a theme. I disagree. Nothing could be more crucial in this challenging and perilous time.
PRAISE FOR ESTHER
Family is destiny in Pam Bernard’s brilliantly accomplished verse novel. Westward settlement in the early years of the twentieth century, rendered in lush and startling detail, is yoked to the brokenness at the core of Esther’s family. In verse as finely attuned to the measure of the line as it is to layers of meaning, Bernard makes manifest a time, a place, and a woman, and sheds new light on the darkness that gets handed down from one generation to the next. Esther is a wrenching and exhilarating experience: no reader will remain unchanged.
—Jennifer Barber, author of Given Away, Kore Press
In the early 1900’s, traveling from Kansas to California, across prairie and plains, desert and mountains, Esther’s journey is an odyssey of the spirit, a journey toward self-knowledge and survival. In this brilliant novel in verse, Pam Bernard perfectly blends poetic language, imagination, and research to create a work of stunning achievement, where each character is drawn spare and sharp, each event becomes metaphor. Yet the landscape is perhaps the strongest character of all—save Esther herself, whose strength in the face of abuse, grief, and loneliness will leave an indelible mark on your own spirit.
—Patricia Fargnoli, author of Winter, Hobblebush Books
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A Novel in Verse by
Fusing a poet’s voice with a novelist’s narrative craft, Pam Bernard’s ESTHER (CavanKerry Press; April 2015; $18.00, paperback), is an affecting novel-in-verse that tells the harrowing and transcendent story of a young woman’s struggle against violence and loneliness. Set before a vividly-drawn backdrop that sweeps across the American landscape and recreates a particularly vibrant time in our history, this daringly original work—from an acclaimed poet whose work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Spoon River Review, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, and many other journals—is about family, place, incest, love, hate, survival, and salvation.
“Rather than rely primarily on plot to tell this story, I have developed characters who embody the failings as well as the beauty of the human spirit,” explains Bernard. “ESTHER begins in the early 20th century on the American prairie, and follows the journey into adulthood of a young girl who, in order to endure the dangers of family, escapes early on into the mysterious world of words. And in the broader sense, human time set against geological time serves to frame Esther’s extraordinary experience—stark human reality recast against Steinbeck’s sentient earth, where wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.”
Esther is raised on a farm in Kansas, the eldest child of a troubled marriage. When she is still a child, her angry father, Aaron, begins to molest her as her helpless mother, Bessie, turns a blind eye. The country girl accepts her hardscrabble existence, getting lost in her own head, taking refuge in the natural world that dictates the rhythm of life, as well as the pages of the encyclopedia. Her life is sequestered. Then, Aaron announces that he has accepted a temporary job at a logging camp in Colorado. He will take only one member of the family with him: Esther.
As they travel by train across the Prairie, Esther discovers a wondrous landscape. And in the mountains, so discovers something new—love—in the guise of Raymond, a shattered WWI veteran who is haunted by his experiences as Esther is, in her way, by her own. Together, they vow to escape Aaron’s grasp, and when they dare to take flight, unimaginable events unfold. En route to California, Esther disappears into the desert for two days to expunge her body of the vestiges of Aaron’s sins, finding a mystical form of healing along with a devastating sense of loss. In Los Angeles, bustling with nascent possibilities, Esther and Raymond begin to mend, but the fates prove unforgiving. Only by confronting the past will Esther find comfort in the future.
Exquisitely wrought and profoundly moving, ESTHER is a singular book-length poem about memory, loss, and redemption, and how language, incremental and pure, can hold the key to the truths that help us live.