Book Review: “Pig Years” by Ellen Gaydos

The pigs of the title are a side hustle, bought as piglets at the beginning of each season, and fattened on grain and scavenged food (cafeteria waste from the local school, cartons of spoiled cream). Gaydos gives them names, notices their different personalities and watches over them — there’s an adroit description of porcine sex that one can’t unsee — until the days grow short and cold. Then guns arrive, knives are sharpened and the pigs are killed and frozen in boxes that Gaydos will trade, sell and eat through the long winter. Her extended exploration of what it is to nurture life (wild and domesticated, plant and animal) and also end it is one of the most compelling parts of the book.

Though Gaydos considers herself “promised to farming,” she also wants a family. Her boyfriend, Graham, is a painter who lives in New York City; he makes periodic appearances at the various farms where she works. Gaydos writes, “He doesn’t care about farming really, which I mostly like about him, but he still lovingly cooks the vegetables we grow, melting down lard for greens, salting eggplant and gently frying zucchini.”

Graham is not at peace with the proximity of the pigs to the house (“I’m sick of all the animals”), or their slaughter at the end of the season. Gaydos longs for a child with him, a longing entwined, abstractly, with the animals she raises. She craves a form of connection more permanent than the short cycles of birth, husbandry and death.

Readers get the best view of this routine at a farm run by Gaydos’s friends, Ethan and Sarah, who grow vegetables on land they do not own. First, it belonged to the Shakers, whose population dwindled to nothing; now the place is a Sufi commune in decline. It’s nestled on the outskirts of New Lebanon, N.Y., a town Gaydos likes “for what it is: the sort of ugly strip of Route 20,” bringing “strangers who seldom stop” past a small library, the Stewart’s gas station, “the creeks and unfolding pasture.” Like many towns in rural America, New Lebanon was built around agriculture; now the roots of the place are softening under the inexorable hand of change. In “Pig Years,” there’s a sense of rural rage as old institutions disappear, to be replaced with liquor stores, food pantries and a juvenile detention center.

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