1934: Lamb in His Bosom, by Caroline Miller

Literary Style:

I’ll admit that, since abandoning my “update” posts halfway through the novel, Miller made some progress climbing out of the deep hole she put herself in.  Not sufficient progress to warrant my recommending this book to you, I should make absolutely clear.  But it has put sufficient distance between itself and the bottom of the barrel that I think Miller should get some kind of acknowledgement.

Miller is at her best when she is drawing out the features of the confined, isolated, lonely lives of the people of the rural Deep South in the antebellum period, especially the housewives.  At times, she manages to portray their combination of grit and innocence, of piety and practicality, in a very hushed and humble way that really does shine, if only for a few paragraphs.  In those moments, I am reminded most of Thornton Wilder’s much better Pulitzer-winner, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and his ability to weave understanding of a character out of very little dialogue, preferring the juxtaposition of significant moments and images.  These moments do not last.

This is because Miller is a writer out of her depth—reading the novel is like listening to a well-meaning 7th grader declaim a Shakespearean soliloquy, or watching a dog swim.  No matter how much you may admire the mixture of courage and foolhardiness involved, you can’t really praise the skill exhibited.  It’s just beyond their ability (in the case of the 7th grader, perhaps they’ll grow into it; in the case of the dog, it’s a matter of finding some other outlet for its talents—the jury’s out, as far as I’m concerned, regarding which category we should place Miller in).  Her dialogue is usually pretty lousy, and her narration is often not much better.  She falls into the same trap as other writers of dialect—because she doesn’t know how to express complicated and mature ideas in the sing-song slang of the backwoods, she ends up producing characters who aren’t capable of complicated or mature ideas, which is irritatingly patronizing.  Worse yet, her dialect comes and goes—the narrator talks in perfect English half the time, only to lapse suddenly and without warning into words and phrases only slightly more decipherable than Eliza Doolittle‘s (pre-Higgins).

And Miller’s plots are a mish-mash.  At times, I commended her for giving us some straight accounts of life on a struggling farm.  As someone obsessed with genealogy (my own, and other people’s), I’ve seen the records—the numerous children dying young, the accidental deaths happening to people in their prime, the toll that childbirth after childbirth took on very young women.  There was something moving (and tragic) about seeing a lot of these events enacted.  But Miller can’t quite manage all the work she has to do—too often she simply drifts into sentimentality, or else into unseemly family chaos (the Jerry Springer themes surrounding poor “loose” Margot never really go away).  And when she handles difficult moments, her eyes always seem to be on the wrong things, almost as though she doesn’t understand which moments we want to be present for, and which thoughts we need to be given insight into.  Imagine Sophocles telling the story of Oedipus marrying his mother, Iocasta, as the social faux pas of a woman who wore white despite its being her second marriage, and the tragedy of a man who didn’t realize until after his wedding that his wife’s age meant that she would never understand the pop culture references he was making.  Your jaw hits the table as the narrator slowly works around the room, avoiding the elephant but describing the dust bunnies under the couch in real detail.  I may be exaggerating, but only slightly—Miller never really seems to understand what in the story is worth relating.

Because of this, Miller writes with her head down, failing to look ahead to see where the story is going: in the end, there seems to be no particular point to the book.  It ends abruptly and in perhaps the worst possible way, leaping away from every character of importance to someone long since written out of the story.  She explains in painstaking detail “whatever became of X”, but since A) we already figured that’s what had happened, and B) X is almost completely unimportant to the novel at that point, the choice to close with several pages of X is baffling.  This is especially true given that she had narrated several other characters into at least mildly tense situations that more or less cry out for some kind of resolution.  But Miller may have forgotten about them entirely.

Miller writes sweetly at times, and it’s clear she felt a lot of sympathy for her main characters.  I suspect she saw herself in Cean—certainly her stories are the liveliest, and the life of her mind is the most believable.  There were moments as I read this book that made me almost think of recommending it—almost.  But then I remember how even the best scenes are larded up with bad writing, and how the narrative bounces around so unexpectedly that it really doesn’t linger on anything worthwhile for long enough.  There’s no denying that, having lived through the first half and therefore invested myself (on some level) in the characters, I got some enjoyment out of watching them grow up, and see who married who, etc.  But it’s no real argument in favor of you attempting the same thing.

Historical Insight:

As mentioned above, Miller is effective at evoking the solitude of life as a farmer in the relative wilderness of rural Georgia—what it would be like to grow up never meeting anyone of another race, to grow up using words like “ocean” and “wave” as metaphors (say, in a beloved hymn) without ever having seen even a decent-sized lake, let alone the sea.  This gives her some small amount of latitude to explore why poor Southern white people might have been invested in the institution of slavery despite the fact that they had never benefited from it directly, and never would.  She does so only in the leanest and most glancing of ways.  Stribling’s Reconstruction-era novel, The Store, which had won the Pulitzer just the year prior, is immeasurably better at examining the South and what race and conflict meant to that culture.  So, a slight nod of the head to Miller for giving me insight into the lives of Southern women and rural farm life as it concerns their husbands, their families, and to a small extent, their religion.  I just can’t do much with that knowledge, given Miller’s inability to draw on a larger picture.

Rating:

On the unscientific scale, Lamb in His Bosom receives a “there’s no way I can envision you sticking with this book long enough to extract its few worthwhile elements”.  At its best, maybe 2/3 of the way through, there were definitely situations I liked better than any comparable paragraph in maybe half of the Pulitzers I’ve read.  But I can’t envision why on earth I would have stuck it out if I hadn’t been compelled by my Pulitzer pledge to keep going.  And I can’t say, all in all, that the benefits are even close to commensurate with the amount of time I had to invest getting there.  If for whatever reason you think yourself inordinately interested in the home life of rural Southern farmers, and you’re particularly forgiving of dialect, sentimentality, and loose plotting, I imagine you could read and enjoy this book.  But don’t consider this as any kind of endorsement.

Last Word:

It’s tempting to choose one of Miller’s best passages here, but I realized that it would kind of be a misrepresentation of her work, since the rare moments I enjoyed were certainly neither typical of her novel nor characteristic of her goals as a writer.  It’s also difficult to find passages that stand up, anyhow, since most of their success stems from my knowing and being invested in the characters (to the extent that I was), which you won’t have going for you.  So I thought I’d grab a fairly typical moment from the world of Cean Carver Smith, where she is thinking about her family and of the future, since I think it’s always interesting to notice places where novelists envision historical characters looking forward.  It at least has the merits of avoiding almost entirely any dialect intrusions (for a whole paragraph!), and while it’s undeniably sentimental, there’s something sincere at the heart of it.  Here is the narrator’s account of Cean’s musings one day:

Through the varying seasons the crêpe myrtle shed its bark, its fluttering loam of bloom, its leaves, like a pretty woman changing her garments of differing colors and texture as befits the season.  Cean sometimes wondered how a senseless thing like a tree or a flower can feel heat and cold, can count days and months like a body, can change her garb to suit the weather.  Two years gone, Lonzo had brought her a century plant from the Coast, and Cean set it in a far corner of her yard and watered it.  She wondered how anybody would ever know if it counted a hundred years right till it was time for it to bloom.  She would not be here, nor Lonzo, nor the last youngest child that she might bear.  She would never know; the only way would be to write this flower bush’s true age out in Pa’s bible, and let her grandchildren wait and see about it.  But she did not like to ponder over such matters.  In a hundred years the almanac would say Anna Dominy Nineteen-Fifty, and she would be dead and rotten long ago.  There would be nothing alive that she had known—not a child, nor a cow, nor a bird.  Yes, the ‘gators were long-lived creatures; they would go on bellowing in the spring; and the turtles would go on sticking out their ugly heads on leathery necks.  The pines would go on living, and Cean’s boxwood and evergreens.  But she and hers would be gone, like prince’s-feathers and old-maid flowers and bachelor-buttons that die with killing frost, leaving only dried seeds for a careful hand to garner if it will; blazing-star and mulberry geraniums will leave roots to sleep in the earth like a wild thing; Cean would leave no roots to wake again to the sun of another year.  Her children, she judged, were her seeds and roots and new life.  Godalmighty must have meant it to be that way.

“I’ll kiss who I please . . . ‘n’ you kin do the same . . .”

Caroline Miller is taking Lamb in His Bosom pretty solidly into Jerry Springer territory, although her wobbly handle on the plot means that the novel’s not quite as satisfyingly cheap a thrill as an audience on their feet shouting “Jerry! Jerry!” while we watch working class families fight it out on stage under the supervision of “security guards”.  I don’t know how much to delve into here—let’s just say we’ve got a baby born out of wedlock but raised by the married woman who had been cheated on, an ongoing affair between a grown man and a teenage girl, and the possibility that the number of Carver men who have slept with Margot has gone from two to three (Miller’s so absent-minded about plot events that she seems to have forgotten to clarify whether anything really happened).

My concerns about things like racism and sexism in novels continue—again, it’s not that I refuse to read a book with these elements in them.  Society contains (and contained) these ideas, and people who backed them.  I just mind a book written badly enough that you can’t get much out of it if you reject the basic premise.  For example, most (but not all) people agree that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, whether or not we then conclude that Shakespeare was personally anti-Semitic.  But Shylock is a complex enough character that A) we can, if we like, find line readings that make him sympathetic (and therefore reject that the play’s message is anti-Semitic), and B) the play is clearly about a lot more than the simple question of prejudice against Jews (it takes on questions of deceit and honesty, and what it really means to be merciful, to name only two of the other elements present).  I’m wrestling with whether this book has much to say beyond its being brutal to the women involved.  The men behave so haphazardly that I can only really draw one of two conclusions: Miller either thinks all men are naturally inclined to hate and mistreat women, or she has no ability to write characters so that their decisions regarding how to treat women make sense.  If it’s the first, it’s really hard to see what to get out of this at all, other than disgust at a bunch of cruel and one-dimensional male characters.  If it’s the second, it’s hard to see why I’m bothering to try to get anything out of this.

It’s not a grotesquely offensive book—unlike that awful McLaughlins novel, I’m not asked to sympathize with a character who is, to put it kindly, a sexually manipulative and lethally violent fiend.  And it doesn’t traffic solely in horrifying racial caricature, like Peterkin’s account of poor “Scarlet Mary”.  So I guess it rides above those two.

But I’m frustrated by the book’s seeming disinterest in saying much of anything.  Events occur for no reasons that I can discern.  More confusingly, we are often set up for events that never pay off—Margot’s treatment of Jasper seems to be setting up an affair but then that line simply stops (not that they drift apart…Miller just loses interest and starts talking about other characters), the injury Lonzo’s mother accidentally does to Cean’s mother is alluded to about once every 80 pages but it’s not clear that it has any impact on any of the characters’ relationships, there’s a terrible drought which makes life hard for a while but then somehow miraculously Lonzo trades well at the Coast and they’re really not deprived of much of anything.  It’s like the scene in The Princess Bride where Peter Falk stops in the middle of the eel scene to tell Fred Savage that the eel doesn’t get Buttercup, in case he was getting nervous.  Imagine that, but a whole book of it.  I just can’t work out why anyone would think it was good reading.

I really don’t think I can keep doing updates on this thing—it’s simultaneously too wretched and not wretched enough.  If something remarkable occurs or I get a real epiphany, I may weaken and offer one more reflection.  Otherwise, look for a review soon, since I’d like to knock it down quickly enough, and move on to something new by the weekend, if I can manage it.

“Well he knew that loving a woman overmuch is evil, a thing to guard against, a taint of the flesh to pray away…”

And young Lias (Cean’s brother) steps with care into the world of marriage.  In my last post, I was a little dubious about this book, as the author, Caroline Miller, had flung me on the road with a bunch of characters I didn’t know or care much about.  I remain dubious—in some ways I think Miller’s working things out better than I’d expected, but in others I still feel like Miller’s mired in a plot that doesn’t seem to go anywhere interesting.  Lias is an excellent example.

Lias goes, with his father, his older and younger brothers, and his new brother-in-law, to the coast to trade.  While there, he meets and falls in love with someone I think we can fairly call a “tavern wench”—a pretty and daring young woman named Margot.  Lias is bewitched by her loveliness (and her worldliness?), Margot is clearly smitten by this country bumpkin, and he determines to marry her.  His father, Vince, warns Lias about Margot’s reputation, but Lias insists these are lies.  Vince considers, and ultimately rejects, telling his son that he knows from experience that the talk is true.  (Catch that?  From experience.  Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.)

So they marry and everyone rides home together on the oxcart.  This is the most bizarre turn of events I could have expected, and Miller doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with it.  On the one hand, she doesn’t play out any of the kind of psychological depth you’d expect here—the father’s a little socially awkward, I guess, but we don’t get even a moment’s puzzling from Margot.  It would take someone really supremely skilled to work this one out in a manner that avoids being tawdry and salacious—a skill on par with Wharton’s or Fitzgerald’s, I think, though with considerably less restraint—and Miller doesn’t evidence that she even thinks it’s worth an attempt.  But the other approach you’d expect—the Jerry Springer “she’s carrying his dad’s baby”, or even Sophocles’ “Lias is Margot’s baby and the gods have sent a plague upon his city that he is sworn to investigate“—doesn’t seem to arrive either.  Instead it’s a mild and unimportant complication that fades into the distance pretty quickly.

We could argue that Miller’s playing the long game, and that all these uneventful events—the snakebite, the marriage, the purchase of a white rat as a pet—all of it is designed to work together in some kind of fascinating denouement.  If it is, I will doff my cap to her.  For now, it seems like the novelist is afraid of the novel becoming too complicated, and so she’s rushing to resolve any signs of tension before they can build into anything of interest.  It’s not terrible writing, but it’s terribly timid and somewhat boring.  Where I left off, she’d finally intersected Margot and Cean in such a way that I finally understand why she spent so much time in both characters.  But this really is ten dollars’ worth of preparation for a dime’s worth of dramatic payoff.  She can’t do this for the rest of the book, or at least I dearly hope not.

She also is developing a bad habit of circumlocutions that insert into the narrative without warning…for example, Margot looks back at her home as she leaves it, and suddenly we spend pages with the backstory of the mother she never knew, and where this mother lived, and why her mother’s life went the way it did.  We then return to the plot with no indication that these bird-walks have any real relevance to the story.  I can’t plausibly defend that they’re the thoughts of the characters, since some of the details couldn’t possibly be known by the people present at the time of departure.  It’s just odd—like Miller had written up a lot of backstory and, by gum, she was going to get all her work on the page.

I’ll admit, there’s something likable about these simple folks—their lives are so humdrum that the least little things give them delight.  Certainly I’d like it all to work out for Lonzo and Cean, and Lias and Margot, and whomever ends up married to Jasper and Jake.  But I never managed to sit through a whole episode of The Waltons, and it’s difficult to see how any of these characters are even as morally complicated as John-Boy.  Margot, the reformed ex-tart, might prove an exception, but it’s hard to see how Miller plays that up without her having to play out Vince and Lias talking openly about having slept with the same woman, and short of two brain transplants or some folding chairs and a screaming audience, I really don’t see how she’ll do it.

One last note: the narrator, who is not a character, but is clearly omniscient and 3rd person, narrates in dialect.  It’s bad enough reading the silly dialogue, which is only in dialect when Miller remembers (seemingly, only when she realizes they are beginning to sound intelligent).  But the narrator occasionally dipping into dialect is worse.  It’s exacerbated further by it happening only occasionally—as you can see from the quotation that serves as the post’s title, the narrator handles tough prose fine much of the time.  But then out of nowhere we are told that Person A “didn’t much cyare” about Person B’s opinion, or something like it, and the “cyare” bangs in there like a wrong note at a recital and then just hangs in the air.  I know I’m too picky about language, but the early 20th Century American fascination with local slang crosses lines I think most of us can agree on.

So, Lamb in His Bosom continues onward, with very little occurring of note, and with me growing increasingly confused as to why the board picked something so trifling.  If Miller can’t get this plot on the road in the next few chapters, it’s hard to see how she’ll ever get me excited enough to read the book for any reason beyond a dutiful commitment to see this project to its end.

“After this, ‘lessen I’m with ye, you keep home, little ‘un.”

Ah, the sweet nothings spoken by a husband to his beloved wife—or so they appear as interpreted by Caroline Miller in this blog’s current Pulitzer-winning novel, Lamb in His Bosom.  There is a sort of logic to Lonzo, I’ll admit: his injunction demanding that Cean stay home does stem from a momentarily frightening snakebite, which might inspire anybody to be a bit overprotective.  Fortunately for Cean, the snakebite proves utterly uneventful—she has no lasting harm from it, her unborn child is unaffected by the snake venom, and a few pages later we’d all be hard-pressed to notice whether Lonzo is even particularly interested in enforcing the “do not leave the house, ‘lessen ye’re with me” decree.

Uneventful is perhaps the kindest and cruelest thing I can say about the novel, at present.  Miller is seemingly fascinated by the humdrum details of life at home.  Imagine someone narrating your everyday morning routine—”He is careful to set the toothpaste cap on a flat surface, so that it does not accidentally roll away.  He then retrieves the toothbrush from its holder, which is designed to keep the bristles upright, allowing them to dry between brushings.  This kind of foresight is important to a thrifty household.”—and then extend it for a few chapters.  It’s hard to understand why I’m reading, or what any of these people have to do with the idea of storytelling or fiction.

I recognize, there may be something subtle happening here.  It’s at least a little cheering to see a female character kept in the spotlight: we follow Cean’s daily life, and not Lonzo’s.  But it’s hard to tell whether anything that happens to her is of significance.  Their lives are so simple that very little distinguishes one day from the next, and the rare moments of apparent importance (like the day she is bitten by a snake) recede into the distance like ripples swallowed into a sea far too placid to take notice of them.  If Miller seemed interested in using these details to explore the psychological experience of the sheltered and isolated farmer’s wife, I could make sense of this.  Alternatively, she could be operating like Melville in Moby-Dick, who used the routines of whaling as a sort of baseline for the narrative….only Melville’s details are at least describing a kind of work that is dangerous and somewhat thrilling, and Melville uses the banality of whaling as a sort of contrast to the epic and almost excessively outlandish behavior of the captain and crew in certain scenes.  Miller doesn’t have either of these elements working for her.

And, at the point where I’ve left off, she’s losing her one advantage, since she’s turning the narrative from Cean now to her husband, father, and brothers as they take goods to the coast for trade.  Granted, this may open up the novel a bit, bringing in new characters and possibilities for interaction.  But it’s hard to be invested in them—I’m 10-15% of my way through the book, and now I’m on the road with five men I don’t know, all of whom are walking far away from the only character Miller has bothered to invest me in.  It doesn’t matter that they’re her family—I have no idea who they are, how they relate to each other, or why I care about them.  This isn’t a tragedy….just a mild discomfort, like being seated at a table full of the bride’s friends at a wedding reception you are attending solely due to a childhood friendship with the groom.  Maybe I’ll end up loving my afternoon, but I’m half-way through the salad course and I’m not feeling optimistic.

I don’t want to doom my reading experience—I know that it’s easy for anxiety about a novel to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But so far it feels as though I’m in a novel that has been put together somewhat carelessly, and with very little attention to the critical elements of plot and character.  It’s hard to tell what I can latch onto to get me through: we’ll see where I get to this weekend.

“Cean turned and lifted her hand briefly in farewell as she rode away beside Lonzo in the ox-cart.”

So begins Lamb in his Bosom, by Caroline Miller, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel for 1934.  And I have to say, I’m getting weary of the Pulitzer board’s tastes.

That’s not to say I’m not enjoying the novels: there have been some great discoveries so far, amid the dreck.  But this particular setup—young married couple, out on the land ready to pioneer it—is getting incredibly old.  I’ve watched with mild interest Selina DeJong’s marriage meander unhappily in the fields, I’ve waded painfully through the agonizingly offensive marriage of Wully McLaughlin, I’ve gazed curiously and sadly at the fragile falling-out of Claude and Enid, and more recently I slogged along as Wang Lung gradually crushed his long-suffering wife beneath his self-regard.  And that’s not even half of the examples.  So starting off in an ox-cart with the just-married Lonzo and Cean feels like the Pulitzers on auto-pilot, rattling down the rut they’ve dug for themselves.  Some of these stories are better than others, but I think it’s fair to say that, in general, the best of the novels were the ones most able to get free from the trials of young marriage and the perils of the farm.  I’m not saying there’s no good novel in either subject.  But they seem awfully elusive (and strangely compelling) to the novelists of this era.

Added to that is this novel’s weird (and off-putting, at present) obsession with sexuality—it reminds me of The Able McLaughlins at its very worst.  Within a page of the opener, we get a not-that-vaguely incestuous longing for Cean from her jealous younger brother who (I kid you not) is angry that she’s marrying Lonzo because he liked sharing a bed with his sister.  The brother is, as far as I can tell, more than old enough for this to be uncomfortably weird.  And the rest of the opening chapter follows Cean and Lonzo tensely to the home they will share.  Every few sentences Cean “notices” her husband as a sexual being—the sweat on his powerful neck, the thick black hair on his chest, etc.—and nearly crawls right off the edge of the ox-cart.  He seems painfully awkward around her also.  The chapter closes with him leaving the house while she undresses and crawls into bed to wait, silently and seemingly rigid with anxiety.  He walks around his land and the narrator keeps mentioning Lonzo’s thoughts turning to “planting his seed”.  Hmmm….could that possibly be a metaphor of some kind?  No, surely not.

All of the above—the young couple, the farm setting, the creepy sexual vibe (which seems to be totally dominated by the notion of sex as something a man “does” to a woman)—and a bit more thrown in (the usual 1930s dialect slang in the dialogue, an odd father-daughter dynamic between Lonzo and Cean…he keeps calling his newly-wed wife “little ‘un” in a way I find unsettling) make me think I’m being hurled from one of the best novels I’ve read thus far to something even Julia Peterkin wasn’t capable of.  First impressions can easily be wrong, of course—they were wrong about The Store, and about The Bridge of San Luis Rey—but I’m edgy about this one.  It appears to be relatively short, and we’ll see if that means speeding through becomes the necessary option.