I’ll admit that, since abandoning my “update” posts halfway through the novel, Miller made some progress climbing out of the deep hole she put herself in. Not sufficient progress to warrant my recommending this book to you, I should make absolutely clear. But it has put sufficient distance between itself and the bottom of the barrel that I think Miller should get some kind of acknowledgement.
Miller is at her best when she is drawing out the features of the confined, isolated, lonely lives of the people of the rural Deep South in the antebellum period, especially the housewives. At times, she manages to portray their combination of grit and innocence, of piety and practicality, in a very hushed and humble way that really does shine, if only for a few paragraphs. In those moments, I am reminded most of Thornton Wilder’s much better Pulitzer-winner, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and his ability to weave understanding of a character out of very little dialogue, preferring the juxtaposition of significant moments and images. These moments do not last.
This is because Miller is a writer out of her depth—reading the novel is like listening to a well-meaning 7th grader declaim a Shakespearean soliloquy, or watching a dog swim. No matter how much you may admire the mixture of courage and foolhardiness involved, you can’t really praise the skill exhibited. It’s just beyond their ability (in the case of the 7th grader, perhaps they’ll grow into it; in the case of the dog, it’s a matter of finding some other outlet for its talents—the jury’s out, as far as I’m concerned, regarding which category we should place Miller in). Her dialogue is usually pretty lousy, and her narration is often not much better. She falls into the same trap as other writers of dialect—because she doesn’t know how to express complicated and mature ideas in the sing-song slang of the backwoods, she ends up producing characters who aren’t capable of complicated or mature ideas, which is irritatingly patronizing. Worse yet, her dialect comes and goes—the narrator talks in perfect English half the time, only to lapse suddenly and without warning into words and phrases only slightly more decipherable than Eliza Doolittle‘s (pre-Higgins).
And Miller’s plots are a mish-mash. At times, I commended her for giving us some straight accounts of life on a struggling farm. As someone obsessed with genealogy (my own, and other people’s), I’ve seen the records—the numerous children dying young, the accidental deaths happening to people in their prime, the toll that childbirth after childbirth took on very young women. There was something moving (and tragic) about seeing a lot of these events enacted. But Miller can’t quite manage all the work she has to do—too often she simply drifts into sentimentality, or else into unseemly family chaos (the Jerry Springer themes surrounding poor “loose” Margot never really go away). And when she handles difficult moments, her eyes always seem to be on the wrong things, almost as though she doesn’t understand which moments we want to be present for, and which thoughts we need to be given insight into. Imagine Sophocles telling the story of Oedipus marrying his mother, Iocasta, as the social faux pas of a woman who wore white despite its being her second marriage, and the tragedy of a man who didn’t realize until after his wedding that his wife’s age meant that she would never understand the pop culture references he was making. Your jaw hits the table as the narrator slowly works around the room, avoiding the elephant but describing the dust bunnies under the couch in real detail. I may be exaggerating, but only slightly—Miller never really seems to understand what in the story is worth relating.
Because of this, Miller writes with her head down, failing to look ahead to see where the story is going: in the end, there seems to be no particular point to the book. It ends abruptly and in perhaps the worst possible way, leaping away from every character of importance to someone long since written out of the story. She explains in painstaking detail “whatever became of X”, but since A) we already figured that’s what had happened, and B) X is almost completely unimportant to the novel at that point, the choice to close with several pages of X is baffling. This is especially true given that she had narrated several other characters into at least mildly tense situations that more or less cry out for some kind of resolution. But Miller may have forgotten about them entirely.
Miller writes sweetly at times, and it’s clear she felt a lot of sympathy for her main characters. I suspect she saw herself in Cean—certainly her stories are the liveliest, and the life of her mind is the most believable. There were moments as I read this book that made me almost think of recommending it—almost. But then I remember how even the best scenes are larded up with bad writing, and how the narrative bounces around so unexpectedly that it really doesn’t linger on anything worthwhile for long enough. There’s no denying that, having lived through the first half and therefore invested myself (on some level) in the characters, I got some enjoyment out of watching them grow up, and see who married who, etc. But it’s no real argument in favor of you attempting the same thing.
As mentioned above, Miller is effective at evoking the solitude of life as a farmer in the relative wilderness of rural Georgia—what it would be like to grow up never meeting anyone of another race, to grow up using words like “ocean” and “wave” as metaphors (say, in a beloved hymn) without ever having seen even a decent-sized lake, let alone the sea. This gives her some small amount of latitude to explore why poor Southern white people might have been invested in the institution of slavery despite the fact that they had never benefited from it directly, and never would. She does so only in the leanest and most glancing of ways. Stribling’s Reconstruction-era novel, The Store, which had won the Pulitzer just the year prior, is immeasurably better at examining the South and what race and conflict meant to that culture. So, a slight nod of the head to Miller for giving me insight into the lives of Southern women and rural farm life as it concerns their husbands, their families, and to a small extent, their religion. I just can’t do much with that knowledge, given Miller’s inability to draw on a larger picture.
On the unscientific scale, Lamb in His Bosom receives a “there’s no way I can envision you sticking with this book long enough to extract its few worthwhile elements”. At its best, maybe 2/3 of the way through, there were definitely situations I liked better than any comparable paragraph in maybe half of the Pulitzers I’ve read. But I can’t envision why on earth I would have stuck it out if I hadn’t been compelled by my Pulitzer pledge to keep going. And I can’t say, all in all, that the benefits are even close to commensurate with the amount of time I had to invest getting there. If for whatever reason you think yourself inordinately interested in the home life of rural Southern farmers, and you’re particularly forgiving of dialect, sentimentality, and loose plotting, I imagine you could read and enjoy this book. But don’t consider this as any kind of endorsement.
It’s tempting to choose one of Miller’s best passages here, but I realized that it would kind of be a misrepresentation of her work, since the rare moments I enjoyed were certainly neither typical of her novel nor characteristic of her goals as a writer. It’s also difficult to find passages that stand up, anyhow, since most of their success stems from my knowing and being invested in the characters (to the extent that I was), which you won’t have going for you. So I thought I’d grab a fairly typical moment from the world of Cean Carver Smith, where she is thinking about her family and of the future, since I think it’s always interesting to notice places where novelists envision historical characters looking forward. It at least has the merits of avoiding almost entirely any dialect intrusions (for a whole paragraph!), and while it’s undeniably sentimental, there’s something sincere at the heart of it. Here is the narrator’s account of Cean’s musings one day:
Through the varying seasons the crêpe myrtle shed its bark, its fluttering loam of bloom, its leaves, like a pretty woman changing her garments of differing colors and texture as befits the season. Cean sometimes wondered how a senseless thing like a tree or a flower can feel heat and cold, can count days and months like a body, can change her garb to suit the weather. Two years gone, Lonzo had brought her a century plant from the Coast, and Cean set it in a far corner of her yard and watered it. She wondered how anybody would ever know if it counted a hundred years right till it was time for it to bloom. She would not be here, nor Lonzo, nor the last youngest child that she might bear. She would never know; the only way would be to write this flower bush’s true age out in Pa’s bible, and let her grandchildren wait and see about it. But she did not like to ponder over such matters. In a hundred years the almanac would say Anna Dominy Nineteen-Fifty, and she would be dead and rotten long ago. There would be nothing alive that she had known—not a child, nor a cow, nor a bird. Yes, the ‘gators were long-lived creatures; they would go on bellowing in the spring; and the turtles would go on sticking out their ugly heads on leathery necks. The pines would go on living, and Cean’s boxwood and evergreens. But she and hers would be gone, like prince’s-feathers and old-maid flowers and bachelor-buttons that die with killing frost, leaving only dried seeds for a careful hand to garner if it will; blazing-star and mulberry geraniums will leave roots to sleep in the earth like a wild thing; Cean would leave no roots to wake again to the sun of another year. Her children, she judged, were her seeds and roots and new life. Godalmighty must have meant it to be that way.