I wish I could say I was getting into this novel, for Scarlet Sister Mary’s sake. She is a sad figure in many respects, caught between worlds. After her wedding to the rakish July (the boy’s name might as well be Trouble, given how boldly the author makes it clear that this is not a man to marry), July convinces her to go to a dance. Being a “good Christian”, though, like her Maum Hannah wants her to be, she can’t dance. July, though, is unencumbered by faith (or decency, or compassion, or…) and proceeds to dance wildly and a bit sensually with a girl named “Cinder” who’s long had her eye on him. This is on his wedding night, mind you—not that it’s any better three days later, but it gives you a sense of the man’s awareness of the feelings of others. So Mary, out of anger and desperation that she’s losing her man, gets his twin brother June to play a song, and she dances by herself outside with such fury and passion that she’s the talk of the dance, and July loses interest in Cinder (for the moment). And the next day she’s thrown out of the church.
And their marriage proceeds much as you’d imagine it would. The child is born, early enough to be a scandal—July names him “Unexpected”, a word Mary needs to have defined for her. They agree to call the little boy by the nickname “Unex”. And then everything runs downhill…Cinder returns to town and puts on her best wiles, July hears the call of the wild, and wedding vows seem to be of little importance. There’s a longing in Mary for something more—a longing she feels for July at times, but also for the sound of singing at Christmas, or when she is picking cotton in the fields. But that longing isn’t well expressed, either by the character or her narrator, so it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to glean from all this.
We’re back to my standard complaint about these Pulitzer novels. I’m done with 1/3 of the book, and I’m still trapped in a painful paint-by-numbers plot I saw coming a mile down the track. There’s no real depth to Mary as a character (her limited intellect diminishes the author’s ability to do much more with her), and July and Cinder are even more one-dimensional. The deep, interesting possibilities I saw in Maum Hannah and her son are totally unexplored…the characters are almost forgotten. (Even so, the best moment in this section is Hannah’s—her willingness to forgive Mary’s “sin” is heartwarming, and her statement that she forgives Mary, but God might not be so forgiving, is intriguing. Who does Hannah think God is, that she’s more merciful than him? What does faith really mean in this community? Ah well….Peterkin’s not going there.) Even June, who may be of some importance to Mary’s future escape from this marriage (at least, I anticipate an upcoming escape), isn’t doing anything—I know as much about him now as I did one paragraph after seeing him first described.
I get the feeling that, in the 1920s, just having a bit of a potboiler for a plot, combined with some scandal (unmarried sex! infidelity! stories about black people for a white audience!) and some local color (in this case, dialect and the plantation setting) was pretty startling. Somehow it was impressing the Pulitzer board, at least. But color me bored. I’m hoping this book gets moving soon, since 200 more pages of drawn-out marital tension followed by Mary’s inevitable escape into the faithful arms of June is going to be a Harlequin romance without the sexuality, and I don’t know anybody who reads Harlequins for the dialogue and character development. More on this soon, I hope.