I’ll keep this a little briefer than I might otherwise—Now in November is moving quickly since I’m really enjoying the read, and I’d rather not slow down too often to detail who is doing what. But I want to record a few of my thoughts as I’ve been reading, partly for myself, and partly to try to continue my encouraging you to read the book. It’s still really excellent, and seems very solidly on course to remain so.
There’s a quality to Marget’s narration that, at its best, really does rise to the best first-person narrators I’ve read. At times perceptive about human cruelty (and her own weaknesses) almost to the extent that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is, at times as capable of hiding the truth from herself (and consequently almost hiding it from us) as Nick Carraway is in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. Johnson can’t always sustain this momentum—this is, after all, her first novel, and the novel’s scope is limited enough by the setting (the isolated family farm during the Depression) that there isn’t always room to extend out the right metaphors and images. But it works well enough often enough that I really am startled the novel has been so forgotten. Johnson should be at least as familiar a name to us as Willa Cather or Harper Lee, in my opinion, or at least this book is about as deserving of a place in the canon as what I’ve read by those two women. Yes, I’m comparing this novel to To Kill A Mockingbird. In doing so, I am probably overstating the case a little, but not by much. There’s psychological depth here, alongside a very vivid and horrifying look at what it’s like for a farm to dry up and blow away in the Dust Bowl. It’s the kind of book I’m going to re-read more than once, because I know I’m missing some of its subtlety as I storm forwards to see how the threads come together. I may be disappointed in the end—certainly any novel has the ability to fail in its final chapters and weaken the overall impression of the book. For now, though, my enthusiasm is unflagging.
In part it’s because Johnson really does get inside the Dust Bowl—the plants turning to cinders in the fields, the lack of water so painfully real that my throat constricts as I read. Hot, angry nights where Father sits in his chair reading the Farmer’s Almanac like some kind of Tarot deck, hoping to turn over an image of rain that will make it real. The chafing of the horse’s shoulders as it pulls water from the pond miles to the bellowing cows. A man, drowning in despair, pouring out gallons of milk in his strawberry fields to see if they can grow on it. There in the dust a young woman describes her family tearing apart, descending into madness, destroyed by their own hope. It’s remarkably compelling, despite being a plot that thrives largely on the absence of events—more than anything else, it is a novel about what doesn’t happen, and what will not come to pass. I’m hooked. A review approaches, perhaps with one more reflection before it arrives, and perhaps not. Go get a copy from your library and see if I’m wrong about this one.