If I said that Farmer's Son is the most powerful novel I've read this year, you might grab it.
If I disclosed that the author of Farmer's Son is a close friend, you might recall the times you've followed up on my recommendations and discovered that my friends are, as a rule, really good writers.
But if I told you what Farmer's Son is about a generational battle between the world's worst father and his dyslexic son, played out on a few hundred acres in the Midwest -- you'd probably thank me for the suggestion, smile and keep on walking.
Don't you dare move.
It's 1971, and there's nothing Bobby McAllister can't do with a machine, or a tractor. But two seconds into Farmer's Son, here comes his father, screaming for Bobby to get the damn seed in the ground. "And don't you dare plant too shallow," Garrett McAllister orders. "You take it all the way down to the proper depth."
Garrett could not be more wrong. The ground is wet. It won't be dry enough to plant for another day. Bobby knows this. He knows if he puts seeds at the depth his father demands the planter will be gummed up and the moisture will drown the seeds. And yet he does it.
"Mom says it's me," he tells his helper. "I'm too willful."
But he's not. He's just cowed. Not like his smart brother, who was good in school and praised by his father -- his brother who was smart enough to get away from his father, only to die in Vietnam. His sister wins academic awards. Bobby? He's on the verge of not graduating from high school. And if he doesn't graduate, he can't go to diesel mechanic school in Nashville -- he'll be trapped on the farm, working for his father.
Bobby's problem: He can't read. At night, he memorizes; when called on in English class, he recites. What will his English teacher do? Bobby's mother comes to school to meet with her, a meeting kept, by necessity, secret from Garrett. Bobby can't read? Well, he got no help in school all these years, unless you call holding him back "help." And it's a small town; everybody knows everybody's business. By now his mother's begging: one last chance, please, and if Bobby can get a C on the final...
Exhale. One crisis down. So many more to go. And all of them the same. The ranting, scornful, ignorant father -- a bastard worthy of Faulkner -- and his smart, beaten son. Marriage, fatherhood, success on the farm; none of this means anything. Bobby's never right, Garrett's never wrong.
You know what's coming, what has to come. And then you cheer and punch the air -- no, that's Rocky. This novel is better, because it's more truthful about the price a man pays and the years he loses when he is the bitch of a tyrant.
Farmer's Son is two books. One is the story of a good man laid low and how he learns to stand up for himself. The other is a story that looks inviting to a dyslexic when he or she boosts the font on a Kindle, making it easy to read -- a book that makes a dyslexic feel triumphant as Bobby, just for reading it.
As a book, Farmer's Son can't be put down. As a public service -- the first novel for adult dyslexics -- it's even more fabulous.
But let N.E. Lasater tell you how Farmer's Son came to be.
JK: When I met you, you were a successful, respected lawyer. Now you've written a novel, and not as a hobby. What happened?
NEL: This story bit me and wouldn't let go.
JK: Farmer's Son is the story of Bobby McAllister, a farmer in the Midwest. Why didn't you, as John Grisham and Richard North Patterson and Scott Turow have done, write a legal thriller?
NEL: My novel's based on a tragedy that actually happened, plus my daughter is sight-impaired, though not dyslexic. I'd say stories strike us where we're standing. The book does, though, have some fun law in it.
JK: Bobby McAllister is dyslexic. I'm a city slicker who's never planted more than a vegetable garden -- until I read your novel, I would have said that a farmer who's reading challenged doesn't have a life-shattering problem. But that's not the case here, is it?
NEL: So many novels have shown us that no place, no problem, is inherently more or less gripping than any other. It's all in the execution. A big, mentally challenged man on a farm doesn't seem interesting, either, but look at what Steinbeck did with it. (I'm not Steinbeck, but I can dream!)
JK: You've given Bobby a second problem: Bobby works for his father, and Garrett McAllister is the nastiest, most belittling father on the planet. What was it like to write a character so hateful?
NEL: Actually, not difficult at all. We all know a Garrett. The difference is, fiction-writing class says you have to give the reader a tidy reason why the antagonist is so mean. I don't agree with that -- in real life we sometimes never know why someone is how they are. We just have to deal with them.
JK: One not-so-small achievement of the novel is that it makes farming not just interesting but fascinating. How do you know so much about farm equipment, planting strategies and crop yields?
NEL: Absolutely 100% of all I know about farming is in those pages! Don't ask me anything more! I'm a lifelong city-dweller who was kindly invited to a working farm -- twice, for a total of 5 days. I took endless notes, staying up late into the night with a flashlight under the covers in the guestroom!
JK: The style of this book is almost a non-style, in the way that "The Queen's Gambit," one of my favorite American novels, is written in a non-style -- it's all story. Very few metaphors, very little "writing." Just subject, verb, object. Pure narrative. That was clearly a choice. Why?
NEL: My research into dyslexia told me to write a declarative, visually vivid, cinematic book with more dialogue than exposition and short, punchy chapters so those with reading challenges (as well as so-called "normal" readers) would feel that the hard task of reading was overcome by an easily accessible, transparent, gripping story. I tried always to keep that in mind.
JK: Like all afflictions, if you don't have it or don't know someone who does, dyslexia doesn't seem like a big deal. But it is quite common, isn't it?
NEL: As many as 60 million Americans are dyslexic. Dyslexia groups around the country celebrated "One in Five" weekend in March. Nearly every family is touched by dyslexia, and everyone knows someone who has it, even if that someone won't say so because of the stigma and secret shame that still exist.
JK: One of the great things about publishing this book in 2014 is that it's available in an ebook edition. That means the reader can enlarge the type -- which makes a difference for dyslexic readers. How big a difference?
NEL: Huge. And it's not just that readers can blow up the font as large as they need, but ebook devices can provide instant audio reading too. One severely dyslexic artist I know has listened to more than 5,000 books. These new devices bring millions of new readers to the page.
JK: This book had an early champion in David Baldacci, who's sold 110 million copies of his 27 novels. With that endorsement and all those potential readers among the reading challenged, you'd think publishers would have clawed one another's eyes out to have your book. But you're self-publishing. What happened?
NEL: It was the agents, the harried gatekeepers of publishing. They are inundated, and they had never seen anything like Farmer's Son, which is written intentionally so straightforwardly it could be YA, but it isn't. They didn't know how to slot it. Some agents said, "Why write a book for people who don't read?" And "dyslexics don't walk into Barnes & Noble." One said, "No one reads books about farms." It's a tough business, particularly now, and I understand wanting to agent something easily slot-able. I got enough praise for the writing and the demographic to encourage me to self-publish, though, for which I'm grateful.
JK: Like a lawyer preparing a case, you seem to have found almost every prominent American who's dyslexic -- and you've asked for their endorsement. How did that go?
NEL: Amazingly well. I got the idea to send out galleys along with a cover letter asking total strangers to read Farmer's Son. The book's been praised by Jewel, the singer/songwriter, a 3-time Pulitzer nominee, the former President of the College Board, the Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, a NASA rocket scientist and the founder of Kinko's -- all of whom are dyslexic. Even more gratifying than their praise was their delight that they could actually read Farmer's Son and feel it expressed their lives. Several heads of prominent schools for the learning disabled also read it and had extraordinary things to say. I am humbled and forever grateful.
Cross-posted from HeadButler.com