The Clay Eaters
Big Pasture Chaps, 2016
In America, we may have forgotten what it’s like to have the land itself treat us meanly, the wind and dust and lack of rain seemingly conspiring to drive us, our family, and the rest of our species into oblivion. Bayard Godsave’s The Clay Eaters gives us a glimpse into the terrible ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl—the incomprehensible medley of extreme drought and bad farming practices that plagued the middle of the country in the 1930s. We’ve all seen the pictures. Houses halfway buried in sand, fields barren, families running from the wind, shielding their eyes and holding their hats. This is the setting for much of the story, although you wouldn’t always know it. Instead Godsave takes us indoors and inside the heads of a struggling farming family in Oklahoma.
The Clay Eaters is quiet—very quiet—and that is one of its strengths. The story is divided into six slim sections that follow this family as they search for work and strive to have dignified lives. Not much “happens,” but much pain lies just beneath the surface of the words. Think of this story in the tradition of Steinbeck: working people trying and often failing to survive.
The father, Clinton Silk, is afflicted from a “shock” from earlier in his life, and we don’t ever learn exactly what that means. That, too, is consistent with expectations of men of the period to keep their problems inside. Perhaps Silk had seen war or suffered a close death. All Godsave reveals is that sometimes Silk can’t help but run off to the panhandle to drink to get his “head right,” leaving his wife, Moma, and two children behind, until he comes back home.
Much of this novella is about how those two children grow up. The precocious Abbie and her slightly younger brother, Leslie, seem to want something more for themselves than the lot they were given. Perhaps that’s why they cling to little things that give their lives meaning. Leslie keeps an arrowhead, an old spark plug, and an owl pellet like they’re precious jewels, but Abbie’s treasures are more internal. She uses her intelligence and her burgeoning sexuality like a passport to another life—a better life—which, again, we never exactly see, but it has to do with a steady job teaching, which Godsave alludes will likely drive a wedge between Abbie and her family.
When Abbie is forced to go to school as a little girl, it doesn’t sit well with Leslie: “He felt sad about how a person could be beat,” Godsave tells us, “but he could only ever give a part of himself over to that sadness.” ‘Being beat’ is plugging into a system Leslie doesn’t understand. His attitude, like his father’s, is consistent with the expectations of his gender at the time: he can’t give himself over to his sadness. Moma, on the other hand, is a stoic pillar of reliability whose strength is taken for granted; however, after watching his sister go off to school, Leslie celebrates that he will have his mother all to himself. They collect Russian thistle for pickling, they take care of the goats and chickens, and Leslie relishes their bond. “He was happy,” we learn. But that happiness doesn’t last as he understands how fleeting happiness can be. “The only thing bigger than the joy,” thinks Leslie, “was the knowledge it would one day be taken away.”
Jason Christian was born and raised in Oklahoma. His fiction and essays have appeared in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University and Assistant Fiction Editor at New Delta Review. He lives with his dog Seymour in Baton Rouge.