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All in the (extended) family

FICTION A weather-worn ranchwoman in Nebraska takes in her pierced and pregnant granddaughter and family history takes new and unexpected turns.
Secrets and sorrows line the lives of the fractured, humble extended family profiled in "The Floor of the Sky," Minnesota writer Pamela Carter Joern's debut novel. Its events unfold over a hot, windy summer on a remote ranch in western Nebraska's Sandhills after Toby, a weather-worn widow, takes in her pierced and pregnant teenage granddaughter, Lila.

Self-centered and defiant in the wake of her neglectful parents' divorce, Lila gets on everyone's nerves, especially those of Toby's sour sister, Gertie, who specializes in mumbled, barely audible condemnations. Partly because she's too weary and preoccupied to do much more, Toby gives Lila space and respect. Over time, Lila starts to relax and reciprocate.

Toby and Lila are wounded, proud women with secrets of the heart that creep out slowly as the summer days unfold.

A number of other well-drawn characters weave in and out. They include George, a stalwart old ranch hand who watches over the land and over Toby and Gertie's crippled brother, John, and Clay, a virile, good-hearted cousin who toils on a farm nearby when he's not misbehaving with a married woman or drug-dealing pal.

Events play out in the shadow of a foreclosure threat hanging over Toby's ranchland and the worsening Alzheimer's disease afflicting Gertie's husband, Howard.

What happens to and among these people is not exactly what you might expect after reading these thumbnail descriptions -- and that's a good thing. "The Floor of the Sky" honors the pleasures and pitfalls of family without a shred of sentimentality. Like life, the story has unexpected twists. Just when you think you know what's coming, something else entirely happens, making perfect sense in retrospect.

Western Nebraska's remote, subtly beautiful Sandhills provide the lovingly described backdrop. The book's title is a reference to a line in "Death Comes for the Archbishop," by Willa Cather: "Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky."

Joern, a Minneapolis author and playwright whose story "Confessions" won Minnesota Monthly's Tamarack Award in 2001, is a fine writer incapable of excess or artifice. Written in present tense, the book has an unintentionally cinematic quality. Its dialogue is varied and authentic.

"The Floor of the Sky" is part of the University of Nebraska's "Flyover Fiction" series, which features fledgling Midwestern writers. A tip of the feed cap to that series' overseer, Ron Hansen, for uncovering a quiet little gem in Joern's debut.

Pamela Miller, the Star Tribune's Faith & Values reporter, is at 612-673-4290 or pmiller@startribune.com.

Pamela Miller pmiller@startribune.com

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