Pastures of Heaven is a farmland described as Heaven, but the vignettes of small-town life play out as something horrible. Some of the stories are ghastly, other downright depressing. The main character is T. B. Allen, the sole proprietor, and the instigator of much trouble for the characters in the novel. The novel is layed out as vignettes of the intersecting lives of the people of Pastures.
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In 1776, the land was discovered by the military and taken from the Spanish Indians. They dubbed the land “Pastures of Heaven” and soon the White folk moved in. The main cause of trouble is an abandoned farm, which the locals now believe are cursed or haunted because only bad luck befalls its inhabitants.
First, the Battle family moves onto the farm. The wife tries to burn it down twice, and is sent to a mental institution. The husband later dies in the field, and the now grown son takes over the property. He is scared and religious and rants all over the property. One day he meets a snake in the grass, which he claims is a serpent and tries to make it repent. It bites him and he dies.
The foreign Mustrovics take over the property and keep to themselves. T. B. Allen sticks his nose in and claims all the owners of the cursed farm are quiet. The Mustrovics seal themselves up in their kitchen and close off the rest of the house. Three days later a neighbor Pat Humbert stops by and discovers they have disappeared. The farm was paid in full and they left without a trace.
The Munroes are next to take over the cursed farm, but Mr. Munroe is determined to make it a good place. He fixes up the house and plants lots of crops. Mrs. Munroe orders lots of fancy furniture. They have a beautiful older daughter Mae, a seventeen year old playboy Jimmie, and seven year old odd child Manny. After having bad luck most his life, Mr. Munroe is happy with the new farm, but T. B. Allen shows up to squash that. “Maybe your curse and the farm's curse mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of snakes. Maybe they'll be a lot of baby curses crawling around in Pastures of Heaven.”
Edward Wicks aka The Shark, had a reputation for being a shrewd and wise businessman. He shared all his insight on investments and properties. Everyone admired how rich he was, only he wasn't. He faked his riches by bragging and kept a financial ledger with fake receipts in it. The investments were only in his head. He had a beautiful daughter, Alice, that he also hoarded like a treasure. He wouldn't let her leave or play with other kids. He was deathly afraid of her losing her purity, like it would taint her in his eyes. He made her swore that she would stay away from Jimmie Munroe with his playboy reputation. One day, Shark leaves to attend a funeral and his wife takes Alice to a school dance. Sure enough, Jimmie takes Alice outside and kisses her. Her mother takes her home immediately, but Shark finds out from T. B. Allen about the kiss when he returns home. Angry and spurned on by Allen, Shark steals a shotgun and goes after Jimmie. The police take him in and he is forced to admit that he is broke and cannot afford bail. He is humiliated and his wife holds him in a touching moment. He decides to sell the farm.
Landowner Franklin Gomez finds a strange frog-like baby named Tularecito. The boy grows up and is still strange looking and very aggressive. But he has a magical gift of art. He can draw and paint. He cannot tolerate the other kids and stays home, but is soon forced into school by the law. Tularecito acts out and fights constantly. The teacher sees his drawings and lets him draw on the board. Another kid comes to wipe his art off and he goes berserk attacking everyone including the teacher. The teacher makes his dad whip him for it. She is so spooked she quits. A new teacher, Molly, comes in and has faith in Tularecito. She tells the class stories and he particularly likes the gnomes tale. He decides to look for them and digs a hole in Munroe's farm under a tree. Munroe fills it back up and Tularecito attacks him almost killing him. He is sent to a mental institution.
Next we meet the rich Helen Van Deventer of San Francisco. She married Hubert who died 3 months later in a hunting accident. She bore a child Hilda, who is insane. She would throw fits, run away, and tell lies. Her doctor recommended she be put in an institution at 13yo, but Helen refused and instead moved them to Pastures. Mr. Munroe stopped by the house to welcome his new neighbors and found Hilda screaming at her bedroom window. Hilda claimed she was being starved and would marry Munroe and share her riches if he rescued her. Realizing she was making up stories, he goes to find her mom. The servant sends Munroe away. Later at dinner Hilda tells her mother Helen that she is eloping with a man she met, then runs to her room and smashes the window to escape. Helen follows after her with her deceased husband's hunting shotgun. The coroner later ruled Hilda's death as a suicide.
Junius Maltby is considered the laziest man in Pastures. He marries a woman with two sons, and they conceive one of their own. Living in his own fantasy world and incessantly reading books, he ignores his wife and two stepsons as they die due to illness. Junius is left with his infant son, Robbie. He grows to become just as imaginative as his poor, lazy father. Attending school, he makes friends due to his storytelling, but is later shamed by the school magistrates when they give him new clothing. It never occurred to Robbie that he was poor, and the family of two leaves Pastures for good.
Rosa and Maria Gomez are two young ladies living in poverty. One day they decide to set up a Mexican kitchen out of their home. They make some money off their tamales and enchiladas, but make even more when they start “thanking” their best guests by sharing their bed. They do not view this as a sin because they do not accept money for the sexual acts. They only sleep with the clients that buy the most food. One day the sheriff comes to close down the “whorehouse” claiming they are bad women. Poverty-stricken once again, they decide to move to San Francisco to officially become prostitutes as they see no other way to live now.
The book now reverts back to the aforementioned teacher Molly Morgan's initial arrival in Pastures. She grew up poor in Salinas because her father was a drunk that would disappear for extended periods of time and come back home to tell stories, give gifts. One day he never returned and their mother insisted he must be dead. Her mother demanded love of her children so much it drove her two brothers away into the Navy, and Molly into college. Her mother died shortly thereafter. Molly arrives in Pastures to teach and is very happy now. But one day the farmhand Billy says to her that if her father is still alive that he is a “cuss” for not ever having written his family or sending them money. The thought makes Molly ill. Then one night Bert Munroe shows up and tells a story about his farmhand – a drunk that disappears into Salinas, then returns to tell stories to his children and give gifts. Molly is frightened that this is her father and runs away before she can hear his name. She would rather think him dead than as an unloving father who abandoned his family. She leaves Pastures for good.
Pat Humbert shared a home with his old parents and one day they both die. He closes up part of the house to hide from their memories and lives a depressing life as a lonely bachelor. One day he overhears Mae, Bert Munroe's daughter, telling her mother that Pat's roses are beautiful and she bets his house is beautiful on the inside. Pat becomes obsessed with redesigning his home and ordering new furniture to impress and court Mae. For months he fixes the place up, then walks over to the Munroes to invite them. Mae's mother is happy to see Pat and announces her daughter is getting married next week. Deflated Pat retreats home and vows to never enter the parts of the house filled with all the ghosts, including the fantasy of a happy life with Mae.
A fire breaks out, and the cursed home of the Munroe's that was originally discussed in the beginning of the book is completely burned down.
Best part of story, including ending:
The novel is very dated and the stories peppered with sexism, racism, and animal cruelty. Lines like “Every man must some time or another want to hit a woman. I think I'm a mild man but I want to beat your face with my fists,” are common. There is use of the N-word. Very graphic depictions of torture, stabbings, amputations involving animals.
Best scene in story:
I loved how the vignettes tie in multiple characters from this small town, and paths cross over time. The creepy tale of Helen and the murder/suicide of her crazed daughter was haunting. The tale of Pat losing his fantasy of marrying Mae, and the tale of teacher Molly running away from the idea that her father may still be alive, were particularly depressing yet honest.
Opinion about the main character:
There are multiple characters, but T.B. Allen seemed to tie in the most even though he doesn't play a huge role. I did not care for his character because he always steps in to unwittingly cause trouble in someone else's life.