The Milkweed Ladies, the memoirs of poet Louise McNeill, is written out of deep affection for and intimate knowledge of the lives of rural people and the rhythms of the natural world. It is a personal account of the farm in southern West Virginia where her family has lived for nine generations. It also, however extends beyond life on a single farm with repeated intrusions from larger world events.
Louise McNeill has published, in addition to her several books of poetry, short stories and essays. She has been poet laureate of West Virginia since 1979, and in 1988 she was awarded the Appalachian Gold Medallion by the University of Charleston.
“In this graceful, poignant memoir, poet McNeill writes of the West Virginia land that has been in her family for nine generations.”—Publishers Weekly
The Milkweed Ladies, the memoirs of poet Louise McNeill, is written out of deep affection for and intimate knowledge of the lives of rural people and the rhythms of the natural world. It is a personal account of the farm in southern West Virginia where her family has lived for nine generations.
Born in 1911, McNeill tells the story of her own growing years on the farm through the circadian rhythms of rural life. She presents the farm itself, “its level fields, its fence row, and hilly pastures . . . some two hundred acres of trees and bluegrass, running water, and the winding, dusty paths that cattle and humans have kept open through the years.” She writes movingly of the harsh routines of the lives of her family, from spring ploughing to winter sugaring, and of the hold the farm itself has on them and the earth itself on all of us.
By the 1930s, the farm and the surrounding community had been drastically changed by the destruction left by the lumber companies, by the increased access to the outside world resulting from railway and automobile, and by war. McNeill herself left the farm in 1937 to complete her college education and to persue her literary career.
Throughout The Milkweed Ladies, McNeill juxtaposes the life of the farm with the larger world events that impinge on it. But the larger world moves closer and closer to the world of the farm as McNeill herself moves away from it. The book concludes with McNeill’s perspective on the events of August 5, 1945. As she sits in the Commodore Hotel in New York City, reading the headlines about Hiroshima, she understands that she can never see the farm in the same way again.
The Milkweed Ladies is filled with memorable characters - an herb-gathering Granny, McNeill’s sailor father, her patient, flower-loving mother, and Aunt Malindy in her “black sateen dress” who “never did a lick of work.” With her poet’s gift for detail and language, McNeill creates a world, forgotten by many of us, to some of us never known.