Driftless: A Novel


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Chapter 1: September

HANNAH LOVED THE TAIL END OF SUMMER, when the sunset was horizontal gold, casting long shadows across the rooftops and fields. She looked out her third-floor window, taking in the leafy suburban boulevard below. The trees were mostly green still, with a few glimpses of orange and brown. Her neighborhood, full of neat square houses and a few bigger, older buildings, was on a hill, and her place was near the top. She could see for miles, roofs and streets and trees rolling away from her toward the horizon.

            She turned back to the bed, where her suitcase lay open and clothes were scattered around, and sighed.

            “Something wrong?” Peter poked his head around the doorway.

            Hannah shrugged. “Just trying to pack light.”

            “You’ll be able to do laundry, won’t you?”

            She nodded and carefully folded her favorite pair of jeans, the dark skinny ones that made her butt look great. Peter smiled appreciatively. “Don’t go wearing those jeans around any eligible bachelors. They’re dangerous.”

            She knew he was teasing, but she sighed inwardly. There had been a little tension between them over the last few weeks; Peter had been acting needy, smother-y. Her friends all thought that Hannah was experiencing classic mid-twenties womanhood: waiting for her man to propose. She could never bring herself to fully disclose the truth—that she’d turned Peter down twice. It had been three weeks since his latest attempt.

            That was one of the reasons Hannah had jumped at the chance to get away for a few weeks. Her grandmother, Nana Jean, had fallen and broken her leg. While she was laid up at home, she needed help with food, cleaning, and tending the garden.

            Peter sat on the edge of the bed, watching her fold. “I’m sure your grandmother will be happy to see you.”

            “Yeah. I haven’t been out to visit much lately.” Nana Jean lived less than an hour away, an easy day trip, but Hannah hadn’t made much of an effort over the last few months. Her own life was happening too quickly these days—work, finding time for Peter, seeing her girlfriends on the weekends. She added, “It’s too bad my mom and dad can’t be here, but I suppose I’m the next best thing.” Her parents were snowbirds. They’d eyed an oceanfront house in South Carolina for years, and had made the move the moment Hannah’s father had retired. They were happy there, enjoying the sunshine, sending her photos of the view from their expansive lanai. They’d offered to fly back right away after Nana Jean’s accident, but Hanna assured them she could handle things—and Nana Jean was tough. She didn’t want anyone to fuss.

            “Do you remember how to be a farm girl?” Peter asked skeptically.

            She smiled. “I do. It’ll be good to brush up.” Hannah’s mind was filled with memories, images of the expansive fields, the old farmhouse, the soft nose of Betsy the cow. Nana Jean didn’t farm the land anymore; Gus Peterson rented the fields from her and grew feed corn and soybeans.

            Hannah stood back and surveyed her suitcase. “That should be everything.” She brushed a strand of hair out of her face.

            Peter came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I’ll miss you,” he whispered, kissing her neck.

            “It’s just for a couple of weeks.” She felt herself tense a little, annoyed at his touch. But then he kissed her again, full of tenderness. Once in a while, she remembered why she’d fallen in love with Peter in the first place—that’s what made it so hard to, well,  move forward, one way or another. Hannah sighed, pushed her suitcase out of the way, and let Peter pull her onto the bed. She breathed in his familiar smell and kissed him back.



Hannah was up at dawn to load her car and get on the road. She grabbed a big cup of coffee, with plenty of cream, to fortify her for the day ahead. Peter had stayed over, and she nudged him awake when she was ready to leave. “Bye,” she said quietly, kissing him on the cheek.

            He squinted at her sleepily and sat up. “See you in a couple of weeks. Tell Nana Jean I said hi.”

            She smiled. “I will. The apartment keys are on the hall table.”

            “Call me tonight?”

            “If I have time.” She heard him sigh behind her as she left the room.


The drive to Nana Jean’s was the most gorgeous sixty miles in the whole Midwest, Hannah was sure. This part of Wisconsin, called the Driftless region, was un-glaciated—the last ice age had stopped just short of the southwestern part of the state, leaving undulating hills and networks of caves intact. The glaciers, where they ended, had also left mineral deposits, which made the prairies grow tall and the land ripe for farming.

            Hannah had forgotten how much she loved this drive. Even as a kid, she never tired of it. The road ran along one of the higher ridges, so she could see for miles. This time of year, the fields were tall and golden. She watched for familiar landmarks: the llama pasture, the white-steepled country church, the sign for an Amish family’s vegetable stand.

            She had always felt connected to this landscape. More, she suspected, than her parents did. They’d left the small town where they’d both grown up—where Nana Jean still lived—as soon as they could, moving to the big city for better jobs, a sprawling suburban house, and a modernized school district for their brood. They’d wanted a big crop of children, but had ended up with just Hannah and her older sister Millie.

            Speaking of Millie…Hannah checked the clock. It would be mid-afternoon in London. She pulled her phone out of her bag, dialed Millie’s number, clicked it to speaker, and nestled it in the cup holder. It rang twice, and Millie answered.

            “Mill! It’s me.”

            “Hi! I wasn’t expecting to hear from you today. Everything okay?” They usually schedule phone chats every week or two.

            “Everything’s fine. I’m just on my way to Nana Jean’s, so I thought I’d try you.”

            “Oh, that’s right. How’s Nana?”

            “She sounded chipper on the phone yesterday. I think she’s glad I’m coming, even if she won’t admit it.”

            Millie laughed. “How’s Peter?”

            Hannah felt the funny, awkward tingle her stomach that she felt so often these days when someone asked about Peter. “Fine.”

            Millie had sensed the split-second pause. “Hmm. What aren’t you saying?”

            Hannah knew she ought to talk about it with someone. She sighed. “Things are a little weird. After the last proposal. I can’t seem to find the…enthusiasm? Is that the right word? The enthusiasm I used to have.”

            “Do you still love him?”


            She shrugged, and then remembered Millie couldn’t see her. “What if we’re just going through a little rough patch?”

            Millie was wisely quiet. She’d always seemed to like Peter, but didn’t know him very well—he and Hannah had gotten together only a few months before she left for London. “Well, I’m sure a couple of weeks away will help. Give you some space for a clearer perspective.”

            “Yeah.” Hannah hoped so. “How are your boys?”

            Millie laughed. “Oscar is busy at work and loving it. Sam is busy at school and hating it.” Sammy, Hannah’s only nephew, was an oddly spoiled eight-year-old. Millie and her husband Oscar let him get away with murder—trying to compensate for moving him halfway around the world at the tender age of six, Hannah suspected.

            “Give them my love,” she said. “I should go—I’m almost to Green Valley.”

            “So glad you called, Hannie. Give Nana Jean a big hug for me.”

            “I will. Love you!”

            “Love you too!” Millie clicked off. Hannah exited the highway and turned onto a potholed country road. It dipped into a small wooded valley, and trees grew tall on either side. Sunlight filtered down, dappling the gravel and the hood of Hannah’s car. She drove for a few miles in the dim morning sunlight until the woods gave way to open fields and pastures. Right away, she could see Nana Jean’s white farmhouse—just up ahead to the left, set back a quarter-mile from the road. There was a little stand of trees in the front yard, including the ancient oak—tire swing still hanging on a frayed, bleached rope.

            Hannah smiled and turned into the drive. The house and the yard looked the same as always. A little shabbier, perhaps, than at her last visit in the spring. As she got out of the car and pulled her bags from the backseat, she checked the basics: the grass had been mown, and the windows were clean. Gus Peterson must  have been stopping by; good man.

            She knocked loudly on the front door and tried the knob, knowing it would be unlocked, as ever. “Nana Jean?” she called.

            “Hannie!” The voice, a little rough around the edges, was warm. “I’m in the kitchen!”

            Hannah set her bags down and went through to the big kitchen. Nana Jean was propped up in a squashy armchair by the window. She smiled at her granddaughter. “You look lovely. So sophisticated.”

            Hannah bent down and gave Nana Jean a squeeze. “Sophisticated?” She raised an eyebrow. “In my blue jeans and sweater? Not by city standards,” she added dryly. She was about to ask if Nana Jean wouldn’t be more comfortable in the living room, but then she realized—the kitchen had every other room beat when it came to the view. The enormous bay window, the vista over the fields, the bright September sun coming in. She turned around to survey the room. “Are you comfy? Eating enough?”

            Nana Jean waved her hand dismissively. “Yes,” she said, drawing out the vowel like a long “a,” in her Upper-Midwestern way. “Don’t fuss, now.”

            “What exciting plans have you given up to spend the next two weeks with your old gran?”

            Hannah smiled. “Come on. I haven’t given anything up. In fact, life’s not particularly exciting these days.”

            “Ha! You’re getting old.”

            “I am!” Hannah exclaimed. She often felt that way. Her friends were moving on to true grown-up life stages: buying houses, getting married, having babies, settling down with career-length jobs. There was less spontaneity, less foolishness. “Sometimes I miss the drinking,” she said with a tinge of bitterness.

            Nana Jean laughed. “Oh, now, you’re not too old for that. But how’s work?”

            Hannah leaned back in her chair and thought for a second. “It’s good. I’ve been writing a series about artists and craftspeople.”

            “For the magazine?”


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