Big Wheat - Richard A. Thompson This is a wonderful book. It has the evil banker, the corrupt sheriff, the camaraderie of outcasts, a manic killer, and a nice little love story and the vast plains of North Dakota and Montana. I love historical novels that portray an era with lots of detail. That this book was also a mystery was just an added bonus.

I have always loved going to annual thresher shows here in the Midwest, watching men (rarely women) lovingly fire up huge boilers on old tractors that would be used to power monster threshing machines. A substantial amount of manual labor was still required to collect the cut wheat from the reapers, haul it to the thresher, fork it on to the belts, bag up the grain, and then burn the huge piles of straw chaff.

Burning became part of an economic problem as farmers, during the boom years, abandoned livestock and other crops for King Wheat. As they planted fence row to fence row they had little use for wheat’s by-products and this led to fields cleared of stubble or any kind of ground cover. (I recommend the The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan for a sobering account of effects of this detrimental process.)

Charlie runs away from his alcoholic father’s farm where he has been maltreated. He becomes a “bindlestiff,” one of the men who followed the thresher machines with his belongings in a “bindle” or backpack which included a bedroll and whatever other meager belongings the migrant worker might have. On his way to locate the threshers (usually just by walking toward the smoke from straw fires in the distance), he passes a strange sight, an odd looking man pitching straw from a pile on to the ground. Thinking nothing of it, he continues on. The reader knows he has witnessed the burial of Mabel, another of a serial killer’s victims.

During a spectacular contest that pitted “a Garr-Scott 18-50 double-simple steam engine pulling a six-bottom John Deere plow against a Reeves undermounted complex 15-45 (said to be highly underrated) pulling an eight-bottom plow of Reeves manufacture, made for the specific tractor,” --I love that kind of detail-- Mabel’s body is disinterred (the new plows cut deeper than the older ones.) The coincidence of Charlie running away and Mabel’s death are too much for Tom Hollander, the local sheriff, who sets out to find him by following the thresher crews as they move across the plains of Wyoming and Montana. Charlie is taken in by Avery, an itinerant machinist who leads a group called the Ark, which follows the crews fixing machines and providing sanctuary for social outcasts. Charlie discovers he has a true talent for braising, fixing, and running the huge machines.

Meanwhile, the Windmill Man, meanders throughout the area,indiscriminately killing and assuming identities, a veritable psychopath, assuming he is is doing God’s work. ”The search and the season wore on. People worked, made money, ate bountiful meals, nursed aching muscles, made babies, incurred horrible injuries, went to church, loved the land sowed, reaped, and harvested. And here and there, one at a time, a few people disappeared.

I loved passages like the following that displayed an intimate knowledge (or lots of research) into the idiosyncrasies of individual brands of machines that make me long for the thresher shows every year where old men will talk lovingly of these huge monster smoke-belching machines. “The Gaar is know for getting very last kernel out of the wheat. That’s why they have the rooster for their label You know, no dropped kernels left for the hungry bird? But that also means it’s sort of like a cow. Every now and then, you have to stop and just let it chew.”

An excellent combination of history, sociology, and mystery. I received this book as an advanced reader copy. That it was was free affected my opinion not a whit.