“Proving Up” is the fourth story in Karen Russell’s second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here. “Proving Up” was originally published in Zoetrope, Vol. 15, No. 3 as “The Hox River Window.”
After not particularly liking the prior two stories in this collection (indeed, after thinking one was the worst story I’ve read in some time), “Proving Up” reminded me why I admire Karen Russell. It’s a haunting (literally) look back at the earliest, brutal days of settling Nebraska under the Homestead Act, suggestive of the cost in humanity and sanity.
When the story begins, it’s a big day for Miles, our eleven-year-old narrator, and his family. They’ve spent the last five years on the prairie, trying to set up some kind of home, trying to grow some wheat in the dry fields. Today the Inspector is supposed to be visiting the Hox River region to see who among the settlers has met the Homestead Act requirements to become the rightful owners of 160 acres. Everything these people have been doing has been focused on this one event. This man has the authority to validate their struggle. It’s faith in him that has kept them there:
I think Jesus Himself would cause less of a stir stepping off that train; He’d find a tough bunch to impress in this droughty place, with no water anywhere for Him to walk on.
The Homestead Act was very particular, and most homesteaders failed. In addition to a five-year “proving up” period and general improvements on the land, the home had to be at least 10′ x 12′ and had to include at least one glass window. As it turns out, in all of Hox River, there is only one glass window, and Miles’ family has it. When news that the Inspector is approaching, Miles is entrusted with a terrifying responsibility: he is to take the window around to all of the neighbors, install it while the Inspector is there, and then escort the Inspector to their own home, where they will install the window, the Inspector none the wiser in any of this. This will be Miles’ own opportunity to prove up.
Ma, for her part, has lost her faith: “The Inspector is a rumor, he’s smoke! I can make you a promise: no such person is ever coming out here. How long do we have to wait before you believe that?” Since coming to Hox River, Ma’s given birth to three daughters, and not one survived. She certain that, had they remained in Pennsylvanian, all would still be alive and not buried in a field they may never own. Miles suffers from visions of his little sisters:
Through the hole in our kitchen where the Window will go I watch my mother kneeling in their field, weeding thistle. The three sisters sway behind her. They stare at me with their hundred-year-old faces. They know they missed their chance to be girls. The middle one smiles at me, and her white teeth outshine the harrow. She gives me a little wave. I wonder if she knows I’m her brother.
This is the first time the supernatural is introduced into this otherwise straight story. But when Miles leaves to accomplish his task, the story turns entirely horrific. I read this story late in the night, and it genuinely scared me. But at the same time it succeeded in making an impression on me of the terrors suffered by these early pioneers. So far, it’s one of Russell’s strongest stories, and certainly the strongest so far in this collection.