I don’t think I can contain this becoming a long rant. Be warned, those going ahead—I’m a bit fired up about this book.
This portion of the novel (I’m close to halfway through it, at this point) really brought out the feminist critic in me (admittedly, that’s not normally hard to do—I don’t know why, but I’m increasingly sensitive to sexism in novels). I’ll summarize it thus: Wully runs to Chirstie’s house, but when she sees him, she runs away and finds a gun. He’s confused. I mean, clearly she loves him, since she was looking at him during prayer, and she kissed him that one time. So she’s probably the one who’s confused. Ah, that’s better. Nice use of reasoning, Wully.
So Wully tries to figure out why she’s confused. He learns, by merest chance (more on this later), that Chirstie was apparently the subject of “unwelcome advances”. Actually, “unwelcome advances”, euphemistic as it is, is still way more explicit than Wilson is willing to be, and of course what has actually happened is that Chirstie has been raped. Wully holds back from killing the man in question, but forces him to leave town. Then he rushes to Chirstie’s side, hugs her, kisses her passionately, insists he’s made it “all better” and demands she marry him the next day. Good one, Wully.
So, Wully rushes a wedding—his mother, for propriety’s sake, insists they wait an extra 24 hours—out of fear she’ll reject him again. She does, in fact, tell him many times in those 24 hours that she isn’t willing to go through with it, but good old Wully just kisses her forcefully every time until she relents. Which is, as anyone knows, the most sensitive way a man can deal with the woman he loves, especially one who has been sexually assaulted. At the wedding itself, she won’t say “I do” until Wully says “Of course she will marry me. Won’t she, dear?” And kisses her. And she nods and all proceeds in wonderful fashion. Well, except for her fainting dead away after the ceremony. Proof of her passion for you, eh, Wully? Must be all that good kissin’.
Now, it turns out that her reluctance to marry him is because she is bearing a child, due in perhaps 5 months or so. Wully seemingly knew about this all along (how? The girl has said literally a dozen words in the novel up to this point—a more mute central character I have not experienced). He’s decided to claim that he and Chirstie conceived the child out of wedlock, rather than get into the whole assault thing (the attacker was a mutual cousin of them both), and tells his parents so. As the narrator helpfully supplies, Wully wants to help “bear her shame” like the noble young man he is. If you’re not angry yet, you and I react very differently to fiction.
And then there’s a little string of events where Chirstie’s dad comes home, and Wully’s parents are disappointed in him (his mother, in particular, who figures he’ll never be President now—I kid you not), and Chirstie moves in with the McLaughlins and finds the beauty of a loving and happy family. It’s a marvelous little tale of joy and redemption, you see. At least, it is at the half-way point.
I want to scream about seven hundred different things. If we take the narration and plot at face value, and assume that all of these actions are reasonable, then Wully’s a monster, and Chirstie’s an appallingly victimized character whose life consists largely of being controlled and manipulated by men. The point at which Wully uses forceful kisses on a rape victim to convince her to marry him was the point where I literally had the impulse to throw the book away from me in anger and disgust. I was on the bus, though, and it is a library book, besides. All that saved you, Able McLaughlins.
But of course the narration and plot are not remotely believable. Let us say that Chirstie was attacked, and responded (as she apparently did) by hiding from the world to the point that, when she sees the man she truly loves (allegedly) she runs away crying, and hauls out a gun, either to save him from her (a “damaged goods” mentality is all I can suppose, abhorrent as it is) or to save her from him (a passionate fear of lustful young men seems a reasonable response, under the circumstances). Either way, when Wully comes to her house after driving off her attacker, how does she know that he has done so? And why would it matter to her, if he had—if her attacker’s left the neighborhood, how does that affect either of the possible motives for using a shotgun to keep Wully away? And yet she not only doesn’t get the gun, she allows Wully to sit and hold her close until morning, telling her how much he loves her and that they will marry the next day. I ask you, in what world do these people exist?
I have other problems with flat characterization and use of language, but they really pale in comparison with my major objections voiced already. It’s enough to make me want to skip past the rest of the novel—to say that this wasn’t what I signed up for. But the reason (well, one of the reasons) I decided to do this was not just to read good books, but to understand my country. If this book was award-winning in 1924, it can only be because its readers at the time didn’t react as I am. This is when my grandmother was a small child—was this the world for women at the time? How long did it persist (I hope to Heaven that things are different now; I believe that they are different, but how would I really know)? I have to hold even these unpleasant moments in my mind a while, and ask myself what it means that my culture valued a story like this: even if the Pulitzers aren’t a great reflection of popular taste, they reflect the taste of some group of powerful people, and presumably a lot of people read this book. Soon I’ll be one of them—and hopefully one of the last. I was irked before that KCLS didn’t own a copy of the book, necessitating an Interlibrary Loan. Now I’m kind of glad this is obscure, and I hope my request doesn’t inspire them to put a copy on the shelves somewhere: there are too many good and happy books in the world for people to have to subject themselves to this.