The Hallowell PartnershipJanuary 7, 2016
Oh, man. I love books about people doing things. I love them so much.
At the beginning of The Hallowell Partnership, Marian Hallowell is taking a leave of absence from college, recovering from an illness, when her brother Rod is offered an exciting new job. Supervising a shift on this drainage contract thing in Western Illinois is a huge chance for him — an opportunity to leave his desk and prove himself as an engineer — but he’s hesitant. He and Marian are alone in the world, and there isn’t anyone she can stay with if he goes out west. Plus, neither of them wants to be separated from the other.
Marian doesn’t like the idea of going to Illinois with Rod — she has a fretful disposition and likes her creature comforts, as well as genuinely being in ill health — but he talks her into it. Rod will live on a houseboat with the other engineers on the job, and Marian will board at a farm two miles away.
Marian soon finds a friend in Sally Lou Burford, the wife of one of the other engineers and the only other woman connected with the drainage district project. But she also hates her surroundings and has no interest in the work itself — in contrast to Sally Lou, who pitches in wherever she can. Then things start going wrong: the chief engineer gets seriously ill and has to leave, and then the surly fourth engineer quits altogether, leaving Rod and Burford responsible for the entire project.
Marian doesn’t have a Hildegarde-style moment of transformation — there’s no morning where she wakes up and resolves to be a good sport. She just slowly gets better. She adjust to some things and not others, and it takes her a while to get invested in the success of the contract. But she does, and starts taking on a share of the work. And the boys need Marian and Sally Lou’s help, because they’re hit by a series of weather and machinery disasters, and the outcome of their project is seriously in doubt.
I had no idea what a drainage district was before starting this book, but it’s a thing where a bunch of landowners band together to get their area drained. If enough of them agree to do it, even the dissenters have to contribute. So Rod and Burford are responsible to their employers, but also to all the farmers around them, which makes for a few interesting situations. Katharine Holland Brown does a good job of explaining it and of gauging how much detail the reader needs. She doesn’t get super technical, but she gives you enough to understand the impact of the various disasters that befall the project. And I love that.
I mean, look, The Hallowell Partnership isn’t a great book. But I don’t care, because I’m so grateful for what it is–a book about people doing interesting stuff, with drama that doesn’t feel manufactured, and no romance shoehorned in unnecessarily. Actually, Brown’s restraint in that department might be my favorite thing about the book.
My least favorite thing, by the way, was a scene involving a muddy dog and some clean laundry. It’s meant to be funny, and probably a lot of people would enjoy it, but I cringed all the way through. But that was just one (not very) low point in a book that mostly had me thinking, “I like this book. I like it a lot,” all the way through.