Josephine W. Johnson, and her narrator, Marget, know a lot about human beings—what we love and fear, how we learn to live the roles assigned to us, maybe most of all what it means to be a part of a real family. Marget’s tense, tight-jawed father still looms quietly over every family dinner, and the small actions of his wife and daughters all operate in orbit around his stoic panic over the mortgage and the ability of the land to yield what they need. Marget is convinced (and how can I not be, with her as my guide) that this summer defines their lives—that it certainly expresses all they’ve lived thus far, and given her experience of life thus far it seems all but certain that it will chart the course of their future. The import of the summer being narrated is still not apparent to me, though the arrival of a new hired hand (Grant, the minister’s son) seems obviously significant on a farm with three eligible daughters in their late teens or early twenties. It doesn’t matter. Marget is bewitching as a narrator—frank about her shortcomings and misgivings, perceptive about the desires and anxieties of others, sharp-eyed for an image from the natural world surrounding them. Johnson doesn’t have the knife-like wit of the authors most in command of the language (yes, this is me signalling once again that I don’t think The Age of Innocence will be displaced from my “favorite Pulitzer novel” position), but she is remarkably good, and the book is a joy to read.
Johnson and Marget are very reminiscent of Thornton Wilder, whose novel is narrated in retrospect by an unnamed character who gives away the ending for the sake of the plot. Marget hasn’t done that yet, but she’s writing from “November” and it’s clear the book won’t be about the “how” of what happened in the summer, but rather the “why” or “what it means”. Wilder eschewed dialogue for patient and calm imagery, and as I said at one point:
Wilder thinks that a person’s life moves at a much gentler pace than other novelists do. Most writers tackle detail with a passion, revealing character in the thousand tiny moments that make up a day, a conversation, an encounter. Wilder sees us as speaking our selves in the long cadence of our lives, an unbroken line of chant that arcs up and down over the course of years, of decades. . . . He reveals the details of a life carefully, stacking the dominoes gently and slowly, until when we reach those rare moments of dialogue (written dialogue occurs perhaps 5 or 6 times over 40-50 pages on Uncle Pio) we can see all the threads of his life weaving together in the simplest of sentences. It heightens the tensions underlying every conversation because Wilder has established why that conversation matters.
I repeat that passage of mine because Johnson gives me the same feeling. It’s not a perfect analogy—Wilder’s book traces characters over decades, while Marget’s framing of the story allows her (at most) a decade or so of flashbacks across their years living on the farm, and really most of the description and action is boiled down into six months or so in what I take to be a summer in the late 1920s or early 1930s. But Marget has that same basic belief about people—that who they are is essential, that it is very difficult to change, and that a true understanding of a person allows us to interpret and make sense of their whole life by reading individual moments in the context of the larger landscape.
And I think it’s a testament to Johnson’s craft and ability that, despite my extreme “American family farm fatigue” (described in an earlier post), this novel is winning me over. It feels modern in its treatment of the farm in a way no one else has, maybe because instead of making it sentimental or titanic, it captures the mundane terrors of depending on rain and sun and seed to be dependable. For some reason, as I read I keep hearing a soundtrack in my mind, and it’s Nanci Griffith (too often overlooked, and a delight)—in part it’s because she sings so sweetly but truthfully about the small farmer’s life, and I’ll admit it’s in part because a lot of Griffith’s lyrics are eerily echoed in the novel (I hummed “I Wish It Would Rain” for hours after Marget comments “I wish to God it would rain”, and there are many other coincidences….so many that I wonder if Griffith read Now in November as a child and internalized some of the phrases). That probably won’t make sense to (or appeal to) anybody but me, but if this blog isn’t a record of my personal idiosyncrasies as a reader, I don’t know what else it is.
I don’t want to say a lot more about the book right now—detailing plots or characters. This novel works, and if you think you have any sympathy at all for a book that examines the crumbling American family farm in the Great Depression through the eyes of a sensitive and articulate farmer’s daughter, I really think you ought to go out and find a copy of this book in your local library or used bookstore. Start reading it, post a comment or two here, react to my review (when it comes) in real time. I think it’s worth it. As one more little taste-test to try to entice you, here’s a little of Marget’s narration at the end of a chapter, where she’s been thinking about her willful and wild older sister, Kerrin, and is tying those thoughts into a larger idea [the ellipses in the quote are in the original]:
“I wanted to forget her, wanted to pretend a little longer that tomorrow—some time—she would be different. Or gone. It seemed at times that this feeling of waiting, of life suspended and held in a narrow circle, would go with her. I knew that this wasn’t so, that nothing would really begin that had not its roots in ourselves, but could not help feeling she was the thing that caused this smothering. There was something in her—or lacking—that kept her from seeing outside the warped and enormous ‘I.’ It came to me that she would do anything she chose, because she saw wrongly and did not need any excuse but desire. . . . What is sanity, after all, except the control of madness? But it must be something more, too, a positive thing—inclusion of love and detachment from self. . . . I had to fight up thought by thought to things known and recognized all my life, and yet until this year never realized. But until May the first fog of happiness covered up much of this, and stood between me and the real seeing.”