Notes from My Own Book Stacks: The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry
For Christmas, my partner Mick and I exchanged only books again for the third year in a row. He gave me a lovely stack of books that are a mixture of fiction and nonfiction.
I started off with one of the fiction works: The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry. That book turned out to be just what I needed.
First, a little background. Mick is from Wisconsin. When we were first together, I met several uncles of his who were old Norwegian farmers in one way or another. Marvin, a lifelong bachelor, lived outside of Blue Mound on a piece of the old Mickelson family farm. The farm had been sold and the new owners made an arrangement with Marvin to stay there. There was Vernon, my father-in-law’s twin brother, who had a farm with huge horses that I learned were Percherons. Also a bachelor, he didn’t own a television but did own several old-fashioned coffee grinders. One of those grinders now lives on top of our china hutch. And there was Milo, who wasn’t a bachelor but a microbiologist. He lived in Iowa and helped inspire Mick in his own path to scientific research. My father-in-law worked as a dairy microbiologist and lived in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. He maintained a strong connection with his roots and never drank skim milk; whole fat or nothing! There were other uncles and aunts and cousins scattered around southern Wisconsin who worked closer to the land and animals than anyone from my family.
Being with Mick opened up a whole different way of being in the world for someone raised in an urban area. I had never set foot on a farm.
So, it was with great amusement that I opened up The Jesus Cow to discover the main character, Harley Jackson, was a bachelor farmer in a very small fictitious town called Swivel in Wisconsin, right off the interstate highway that Mick and I travelled every time we visited his family. And he spoke a lot like those uncles of Mick’s: to the point. Low-key. Without drama. I liked him immediately.
The Jesus Cow was first released in 2015. It’s a hugely funny book. I'm not sure how it took me this long to find it. The story begins when Harley Jackson’s cow, Tina Turner, gives birth to a calf on Christmas Eve. This calf is no ordinary calf; he has a lovely design on his black-and-white hide that looks like a stencil of Jesus Christ. Harley Jackson is sure that means trouble. He tries to keep the calf a secret for as long as he can, but word eventually gets out and life changes.
What I loved about this book – besides the humor – is the quirkiness of all the people in the story. Every character is written with such love for the very human need to matter. Harley himself is gentle, unassuming, and lonely. His friend Billy helps him navigate the circus that erupts once the calf’s existence becomes public, tenderly protecting his friend from exploitation. Harley’s and the calf’s fame run up against the plans of others in the community. Carolyn Sawchuck, former college professor fallen from grace, tries to figure out a way to save the environment only to make matters a little worse. Klute Sorensen tries to become a famous developer at the expense of everyone’s goodwill. Meg Jankowski, who runs the junkyard and is a devout Catholic, still grieves her young husband many years after his untimely death. There is small-town politics as well as small-town closeness. Everything about this story cradles the imperfections of all in the palm of forgiveness. The deep desire to believe in something bigger than the self is a constant.
If you want a feel-good book for these still-long winter nights, this one would do nicely.