Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living

As romantic moments go, the meeting between Jean Finnegan and Robert Pettergree in Carrie Tiffany’s earthy and utterly absorbing novel Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is notably without frills. The year is 1934, and Jean is a sewing instructor in the ”women’s car” of the Better-Farming Train that chugs across rural Victoria, Australia, like a rolling Learning Annex of agriculture. Robert is an agrostologist, a specialist in soil and crops who explains to an audience of farmers that ”if you want to feed yourself, you must feed the soil. You have to get to know your soil. Gentlemen, you have to watch it and touch it. You have to taste it.” He’s famed for being able to ”identify any place in the state of Victoria just by the taste of its soil.”

Soon enough, Mr. Pettergree is tasting Miss Finnegan, and then the two are married and living in the Mallee — remote farm country in South Australia — where, as the new Mrs. P describes in her first-person narration, ”Robert and I, as free and independent units of production, will implement the proven facts of scientific research.” For guidance, the young wife need only consult her husband’s published manifesto of modernity, a concise handbook for living built on the logic that ”the only true foundation is a fact.”

Of course, what Jean Finnegan Pettergree can only learn by instinct is that connection to the earth, to her husband, to her country, and to growth in all its definitions cannot be measured simply with soil tests and baking experiments that compare the crumb structure and crust color of bread loaves to assess wheat quality. The author’s striking achievement in her first novel is to build emotional resonance on a similar foundation of facts: She describes cows, bees, utensils, clothing, fellow Better-Farming Train personnel, and sand drifts as terrible as dust-bowl destruction with keen interest. And from Tiffany’s vibrant appreciation of ”thingness,” we’re pulled into a pulsing literary world that’s about far more than merely the tangible.

Tiffany was herself trained to observe and gather dirt, first as a park ranger and then as an agricultural journalist in her native Australia; the idea for her novel grew out of an article she researched on the very real Better-Farming Train that spread the gospel of agrarian modernity across Victoria from 1924 through 1935. She is a marvelous observer, at times gently bawdy, aware of sights, sounds, smells, textures, and temperatures, as applied to intimacy as well as to soil storms that expose the roots of Mallee scrub plants so that they ”sit up, exposed, like the unclothed bodies of men and women.” In an age when opinions speak louder than fact, I can’t wait to read about any true thing her eye falls on next.

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living
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