Tom McKay

A Story from the Land:

In 1968, Jim Blair comes to the tiny western Illinois community of West Fork to teach in its new school. He meets a young woman named Linda Bray who grew up on a local farm and hopes to return after studying veterinary medicine in Michigan. As Jim faces the uncertainties and surprises of being a new teacher, the best surprise in his life is the love he comes to share with Linda.

Jim also learns to cherish the gentle and friendly flow of everyday life in West Fork. Even so, no place is spared the greater turmoil throughout the country that surrounds the Vietnam War. While Jim is silently thankful for the draft deferrment that results from his job as a teacher, Linda vocally opposes the war. Her father staunchly supports it. The war captures headlines, but another major event is already under way yet almost unnoted as farms consolidate and fewer and fewer people live in the countryside. Neither Jim nor Linda nor the people of West Fork can see what lies ahead.

Author’s Note:

On a warm and sunny autumn day in the early 1990s, I was returning to my home in Belleville, Wisconsin from an annual trip to Eastern Illinois University to give a lecture to students in the Historical Administration Program. As I traveled north, the still green countryside and the beautiful weather tempted me to veer west across Illinois to the area of Knox County where my aunt and uncle once had a farm.

While farms still blanketed the area, I traveled across a very different landscape than the one I could rememeber from my childhood. Where once hundreds of tiny a-frame hog houses dotted the farm fields, silos stood next to red barns, and laundry hung on clotheslines behind well-kept farmhouses, the land had been given over to huge fenceless fields broken only by occasional, isolated farmsteads on the rolling prairie.

Within a few miles from the place where my aunt and uncle had farmed, I passed through a small hamlet with a handful of houses. On the right hand side of the highway stood a modern cream brick school, no doubt built in the 1960s and already abandoned as a school. I thought to myself that if the people of the area had known what was coming as farms consolidated, they might never have built that school.

It is often true that people cannot see what lies ahead, but we all have the capacity to remember and reflect. I thought of a rural culture that has all but disappeared, one with smaller farms, crossroads communities, and many more people living on the land. It is a culture worth remembering and worth reflection. From my reflections about much–though not all–that was good in that culture came the story of West Fork. And because I believe that the best human stories are love stories, West Fork became a love story.


Published by East Hall Press

Augustana College

Rock Island, Illinois