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The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert – tragedy strikes in Washington state

January 12, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert (2014) French title: L’heure de plomb. Translated by François Happe.

For Matt Lawson, the hero of Bruce Holbert’s novel, this hour of Lead mentioned in Emily Dickinson’s poem happens in November 1918. He’s at school with his twin brother Luke and they have to go home during an intense snow storm. They leave school but soon realize they will not make it home and decide to go back to school until the weather improves. Their school mistress Linda Jefferson spots them and brings them home but despite her best effort, it’s too late for Luke. He dies of hypothermia.

At home, at their farm, their father Ed leaves the comfort of the house to go and look for them. He gets lost in the blizzard and doesn’t come back; his wife Helen won’t even find his body.

Matt is fourteen when this tragedy strikes. His father and his brother are dead, his mother is walled up in her grief and he’s the only man to run the farm. Luke was the bright and sociable twin. Matt is the quiet and slower one.

Now he lives in a silent household. Neither Helen or him know how to verbalize their grief and talk about their emotions. Stocked emotions erupts in fits of violence and Matt’s love finds an outlet in his dog and his horse.

Matt starts working hard on the farm, lives besides his mother and on Sundays, he drives the carriage around, looking for his father’s body. This is how he meets and falls in love with Wendy. He doesn’t have the social codes for courting her. His ways are unusual, weird even. He frightens her and she rejects him, his second tragedy.

The Hour of Lead is Matt’s story, the life of a man who lives in a remote part in the east of Washington state. We come across other people from the area, as they come in and out of Matt’s life: Wendy and her family, Linda Jefferson and her son Lucky, the Jarms family.

It is a story of the West with people branded by the climate and the wilderness around them. They don’t say much, they act. Matt is weaned of human love when Luke and his father die. He never recovers emotionally and doesn’t know how to express his feelings. Things are not better in the Jarms household.

We are among people who yearn for love and don’t know how to share it, to show it or keep it. In this novel, women are hard, cold and don’t spread a lot of love. Matt’s mother has no interest in her son. Linda’s ways with Lucky are possessive and unhealthy. Wendy has a hard time connecting with her children.

We also witness the taming of the wilderness around them. A barrage domesticates the river. Roads are built and distances are covered more easily. The third generation, Wendy’s children seem more adjusted as if the taming of the nature also put a lid on their wildest instincts.

The Hour of Lead is a compelling story. Matt is a tough man who lost his twin at fourteen, lost himself in the process, became a hard worker to keep his sanity. He loves deeply and is devoted to the people he loves. Holbert could have changed Matt into a drunk but he drew a character who doesn’t drink much since his drug of choice for escapism is sheer physical exhaustion through brutal manual labor.

Matt’s journey in life is one of redemption, a slow walk towards inner peace with a constant care to protect others from his demons. It’s a very atmospheric novel that shows in the background how tough the life was in this part of the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister.

  1. January 13, 2021 at 9:05 am

    This is a wonderful review, Emma:)


    • January 13, 2021 at 9:28 am

      Thank you. Hopefully it will convince someone to read it.


  2. January 13, 2021 at 3:22 pm

    When I first saw your tweet my first impulse was to go to a news site to find out what fresh disaster had befallen us, but then I came to my senses. I admire your fortitude in reading all these difficult stories of earlier generations of white settlers in Western lands. Their mentality of ‘taming’ instead of living with the land didn’t serve them or anyone else very well. Matt sounds like a very interesting character to follow through all his experiences.


    • January 15, 2021 at 2:18 pm

      Good for me: my title was catchy!
      I love those books, to be honest. It’s so different from my country, my quotidian that they make me travel and they remind me that I have nothing to complain about.

      I’m not sure the settlers were the ones who did the most damage to the nature around them. Most of the big taming and great damaging was done by companies coming from elsewhere, not caring about the land or the people and only thinking about money.

      The Hour od Lead is a great book and I think that Matt will stay with me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. January 13, 2021 at 7:00 pm

    The Netherlands is rather tamer than Washington state and it probably snows less hard, but the premise of the book really reminded me of Gerbrand Bakker’s Là-haut, tout est calme. I wonder whether you’d like it. I think you might.


    • January 15, 2021 at 2:19 pm

      I’ve hear of Là-Haut but I haven’t read it. I’ll keep it in mind.

      Next stop is winter in Wyoming with Craig Johnson. Brutal.


  4. January 14, 2021 at 5:55 am

    L’Heure de Plombe – obviously a plumber is someone who works with lead – not any more, of course. I should have paid more attention during French classes.
    My grandfather’s father died when my grandfather was 14, but none of his brothers thankfully for another 20 years (in WWII). and he had to go on the farm to support his mother. I imagine wheat sheep farming in Australia is a bit easier than in the remoter parts of Washington state, and he was happily married 60 years.
    I admire your commitment (or Gallmeister’s) to north west USA, and yes you’ve convinced me to read it, if I come across it.


    • January 15, 2021 at 2:21 pm

      Yes, I suppose plumber and plomb have the same origin.

      I’m not sure that farming in Australia is easier than in the American West. Though they don’t seem to fight a loosing battle against lantana.

      I love Gallmeister’s books, what can I say.


  5. Dorothy Willis
    January 17, 2021 at 10:20 pm

    I just finished reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. The main character in the book lived in Minnesota and was sent to a an experimental medical station in a Brazilian jungle by her boss. After reading the book I wondered if we are changed at the atomic level by the feelings and thoughts provoked by immersing ourselves in the these fictional creations. Since I now live in western Washington, I look forward to reading these two books you reviewed.


    • January 17, 2021 at 11:13 pm

      Thank you.
      I think that books change us through imperceptible but constant brushes. They help us see past circumstances, historical differences and show us the x-ray of human nature, the permanent fixture that makes us human.
      Books help distance ourselves from our circumstances and show us we’re not alone with our feelings and ambitions.

      If you read The Hour of Lead, please come back and tell me what you thought about it. (I left out important parts to avoid spoilers. So there’s more than what my billet lets on)


  1. January 17, 2021 at 10:38 am

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