“…outlasting a wife, two sons, several plagues of grasshoppers, wheat-rust and caterpillars, a couple or three invasions of land-hunting settlers and real-estate speculators, and everybody else except the scattering of old pioneers who had cockleburred themselves onto the country at about the same time he did.”
So begins Honey in the Horn, by H. L. Davis, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel for 1936. At first blush, it gives the appearance of being a very good book for me to read—the first Pulitzer winner to be set in the Far West, where I was born and raised, and not just Out West but the Pacific Northwest specifically, which really is still “home” for me. It’s set at the very end of the pioneer era in Oregon, where my wife’s family history runs pretty strong—I’ve spent many hours looking at census and marriage records for Oregon families not too dissimilar from the Shiveleys. I worked for two happy years in a library dedicated to the history of the region, and I’ve performed in reader’s theatre pieces set in pioneer Oregon. I can even sing “The Lay of the Old Settler“, and am known to do so (at least a verse or two), not infrequently. If there’s a group of people predisposed to an interest in this particular subject matter, it’s hard to say how I could make myself better able to claim membership. The particular edition of the novel that I’m reading, in fact, includes an introduction written by an English professor at Western Washington University, one of my alma maters, and a school from which I received my endorsement to teach literature, in fact. So.
Having said that, I’m a bit skeptical about Davis going in—this skepticism has at times been right on the money (The Able McLaughlins, Lamb in His Bosom) and at times has been definitely wrong (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Store). So, while trying not to pre-judge a novel that may end up being a really great reading experience, let me share just a bit about what makes me uneasy. The first piece of evidence is the above sentence—a ponderously long opener that seems not very interested in engaging the reader, and much more like the opening salvo of a story that is so fascinating to the teller that he is determined to tell it while anyone is within earshot. On the page opposite this sluggish start is a note from the author which reads, in part, “I had originally hoped to include in the book a representative of every calling that existed in the State of Oregon during the homesteading period—1906-1908. I had to give up that idea, owing to lack of space, lack of time, and consideration for readers. Within the limits set me, I have done my best.” I can almost hear his editor’s plaintive weeping in the background. If the author really thinks that to have been “limited” to not including a character representing every occupation known to turn-of-the-century Oregon is to have so chained him that he must pre-emptively apologize (“I have done my best“) to his readers . . . well, once again, it seems like more someone telling a story he finds fascinating than someone telling a fascinating story. And if he fought the editor on those grounds, it makes me wonder what he convinced them to let him keep in the book.
Another concern arises pretty quickly, this time about Davis’s consistency and control of the story. The omniscient third-person narrator begins by cataloging the old pioneer men who inhabit the valley, telling us right at the outset that “as far as personality went, they were each one thing, straight up and down and the same color all the way through“. And then the very first pioneer mentioned, Grandpa Cutlack, is described as intensely religious, with attentive daily reading in the Scriptures and family prayer sessions . . . and “an awful memory for smutty expressions, which were continually slipping into his conversation in spite of him, and even into his prayers.” A-ha, I think, interesting. Maybe that whole idea about each pioneer being completely the same straight through is being undercut here by the author—giving us the Sunday School teacher with a sailor’s vocabulary. But no, the next three old men are given to us as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. It seems Davis was just getting sloppy with Cutlack, or else he was too enamored of the idea that all the old guys were single-minded to recognize he’d written at least one who wasn’t. These little slips, judging by the opening chapters, seem to be chronic. I know, I know—even Homer nods, but still. You have to have some kind of expectations about attention to detail, even if you’re forgiving of a work for otherwise being a masterpiece, and so far this ain’t The Iliad.
Shiveley himself is an odd character: very contemplative and scholarly for an old pioneer, and with a curmudgeonly streak that I can see being appealing. But Davis, at the outset, makes him a pretty unbelievable character: one of the first stories about Shiveley is that he was allegedly so caught up in writing one of his historical books that he ignored a coyote attacking his sheep until several women screamed for him to do something…whereupon he kills the coyote with a shotgun, and then kills the sheep too “for having got themselves where a coyote could bushwhack them, and for bringing their troubles in to bother him with“. Solomon’s justice, maybe, but also so incredibly impractical that it’s hard to accept it at all. No farmer would actually kill three sheep, collectively worth a pretty penny, out of annoyance, not even an absent-minded professorial farmer who didn’t want too much bother with the sheep. Now, in a comic novel—maybe something like P. G. Wodehouse—we could bump along with that kind of absurdity because we know it’s part of the fun. But isn’t Davis setting out to write a serious novel about the homesteading days in Oregon? He’s certainly giving every indication of it, and it seems we are to take Preston Shiveley as a realistic character in pretty much every other setting and conversation, so far. It just feels like he doesn’t have much control of the story—it seemed like a nice spot for a joke, so he dropped one in, and then got back to thinking about historical accuracy.
Lastly, there really is no excuse now, given works like The Store, for a Pulitzer winner to treat minorities as unimportant objects of fun, to be used for the sake of the plot or for comic relief, but that seems to be the way Davis is trending. We’re not quite in Tarkington territory yet, but the local Native Americans that have thus far wandered into the story are certainly not being treated as human beings and characters, with motives and perspectives and opinions. They’re there to be pawns, largely Preston’s pawns, and though these moments have been fairly brief, they’re just not very satisfying. Maybe I can get around it if he doesn’t indulge too often, but I think I can fairly expect more from him, and I hope he’ll deliver in the long run.
So, all that said, here we are—Southern Oregon, a cantankerous and quixotic tollbridge keeper named Preston Shiveley, and a collection of weird old men who all know (and, seemingly, have grown to loathe) each other. Presumably some young homesteaders to liven up society a little, and add to that Preston’s no-good son, who he has promised to shoot should he return home. The rains are coming, the creek’s rising, and Preston’s sheep are all about to drown. There may be some fun in this, and perhaps even a worthwhile novel. Mostly, though, I fear it’s a long swim to the opposite shore. We’ll see how it goes as we get there.