“…This autumn is like both an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with the blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now. It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it. There were nights when I felt that we were moving toward some awful and hopeless hour, but when that hour came it was broken up and confused because we were too near, and I did not even quite realize that it had come.”
So begins Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1935. It’s the first of the novels (as far as I can remember) to provide the title in its opening lines—a tactic I usually find a bit precious, even cloying. But there’s something clear-headed about Johnson’s style that makes this opening work for me, enough that I decided to provide you with more than just the first sentence, since I like her cadence. I’m cautiously optimistic about this novel: certainly so far it’s living up to the quotation on its back cover, where the New York Times calls the novel “firmly wrought, poetic in the best sense”.
One of the reasons I think it’s working is that we finally have a first-person narrator, after lots of “close third” that wasn’t done terribly well. For me, the first-person narrator usually pays lots of dividends—I like the question of narrator reliability, and the limited perspective that even a reliable narrator requires. It immerses me more successfully in the characters and relationships (speaking very generally) than third-person narrators normally can manage. And Johnson knows how to pick a narrator, giving us the story of the Haldmarne family through the eyes of Margret, the middle daughter, who shares with us all the secrets and anxieties of a wise-beyond-her-years thirteen year old farm girl—her take on her tomboy older sister, Kerrin, and her sweet and sunny younger sister, Merle, as well as her long-suffering and gently encouraging mother and her proud, distant, hot-tempered father. Margret sees with a poet’s eye, and chooses her phrases with what I see as care and precision. Here, for instance, is a little portion of her first thoughts on her father:
“He wasn’t a man made for a farmer, Arnold Haldmarne, although brought up on the land when a boy, and now returning to acres not different much from the ones he used to plough. He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have—that resignation that knows how little use to hope or hate, or pray for even a bean before its appointed time. He’d left the land when he was still sixteen and gone to Boone, making himself a place in the lumber factories there. He’d saved and come up hard and slow like an oak or ash that grows with effort but is worth much more than any poplar shooting two feet high in a season. But now he was chopped back down to root again. It’s a queer experience for a man to go through, to work years for security and peace, and then in a few months’ time have it all dissolve into nothing; to feel the strange blankness and dark of being neither wanted nor necessary any more. Things had come slow to him and gone fast, and it made him suspicious even of the land.”
One of the funny things about this Pulitzer project is reading what other fellow pilgrims have to say about the same novels I read—mostly I find the conclusions they reach, and the statements they make, ridiculous. (A key exception, of course, are the talented ladies—Diablevert and Dreadful Penny—at Along With A Hammer, whose posts are always thoughtful and well-reasoned, even though they and I don’t always see eye to eye about which novels are worthy of praise.) I mention this because, in reading other reviews of the last novel, Lamb in His Bosom, I came upon a review from a blogger-who-shall-remain-nameless, who claimed that Caroline Miller’s writing was practically flawless, and that specifically she was a writer who “never wasted a word” in her narrative descriptions. This had me about as gobsmacked as a fellow can be: it’s like hearing someone describe Ernest Hemingway’s style as “too flowery” or call Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek “a real potboiler”. One of the clearest flaws in Miller’s prose was her inability to get down to brass tacks, and measure her words carefully. Her adjectives were as thick as mayflies. Anyway, it’s my opinion that Johnson, at least so far, is showing Miller how it’s done. Her descriptions (as you can see above, and judge for yourself) seem to me to strike the right balance—this isn’t spartan stuff, but she also knows how to get the most mileage out of a phrase. She isn’t turning little gems like Oscar Wilde, but given the narrator’s identity and the whole environment in which the story takes place, I think the style is really well-chosen.
My only complaint, at this point? I am so tired of American farm novels, I want to leap from a window. Nine of the seventeen I’ve read so far use the farm as a key setting, including the last four straight, and six of the last seven. It’s a good thing Johnson’s style caught my fancy right away, because when I saw the cover and realized I was heading back to the bean fields, I really felt a sense of despair. I like a good farming story as much as the next person, I think, but I guess not nearly as much as the Pulitzer judges of the 1930s.
So, we’re embarked. My hope is that this will prove to be a really insightful take on a farming family in the Great Depression (yes, after multiple historical novels, we seem to have caught back up with the present), and that the psychological depth Margret has shown in analyzing herself and others will continue to be an important but not oppressive presence in a book I’m sitting down to read with pleasure. But we’ll see where it takes us.