Many people, like myself, find old barns attractive. It’s not just the weathered architecture: I sense the traces of many hands, many beasts, crops, the working lives, all of which grow old with grace and dignity.
One day I was in northern California, looking at such an old barn. Actually, I was doing more than looking at it; I was photographing it. Across the way was a house. A woman stepped outside, and from her porch, called out, “Like that barn?”
“There’s a story about it. Want to hear?”
“I’d like that, thanks.”
“The farmer started to build it, but he got sick. His kids came and finished it for him.”
That’s all she said before retreating into her house. But she left me with that story, which became The Barn.
There was more than that of course.
My father’s father, my grandfather, in his old age, came to live with us. I, as an older teenager, sometimes had to take care of him, help him wash himself, put him to bed. He was not always lucid. But one night after I had bathed him, helped him with his pajamas, and put him to bed, he looked at me, and with a very clear eye, said, “When you are as old as me, you will know my shame.”
When I heard the story of the barn, my father had recently announced he was quite ill. This was a man with whom I had never been able to get along: Our lines of communication were at best, full of static.
I also had recently spent some time in Oregon, and as is my way, I read much about the Oregon Trail. What was most fascinating were letters and diaries. What struck me was how these courageous people wrote so simply about their extraordinary lives.
All of these elements went into writing The Barn. Readers’ reactions have been much divided.
Those who have experienced taking care of an older ill person understand it and find it most meaningful. Those who have not had that experience reject it.
Like many authors I am asked if I have a favorite of all my books. I don’t really. But if pressed, I will say, “The Barn.”