1944: Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin

Literary Style:

This book took me less long than the last one, but still much too long—especially because it’s a much better novel, and deserved better from me.  My chief complaint (already described at some length in a previous post) is Flavin’s weirdly circuitous style, that depends so heavily on flashbacks and informing us of sudden, shocking information off-handedly in retrospect that it can be a bit irritating at a plot level.  You can only read passages that go like this—“His mother had arrived by hired limousine, although he didn’t know it at the time.  She looked well when she walked in; so well that neither of them would have suspected this was the last time they saw each other before her untimely death.”—a few times before you start grousing out loud to the narrator.

And yet Flavin makes it work.  In part he does manage at times to achieve that almost Tristram Shandy effect that I imagine he’s going for, where we move back and forth around some key times in the life of our main character, Sam Braden—the sound of an old iron fence being brought down one afternoon punctuates I don’t know how many chapters late in the book, and it comes to take on a certain significance as he keeps bringing us back to Sam in his study that afternoon.  But more importantly, Flavin has such a sure hand on these characters that, even when I know startling news about them in that narrator’s shorthanded asides, finally seeing that same event play out in real time is still gripping to me.  Even when I know what they’ll say in the end, I like to hear them say it.  Life has distracted me away from this book more than once, but Flavin’s hold on the characters—and on me, the reader—is so strong that I never need to retrace my steps.  I am immediately and vividly right back with them, I remember why we are where we are, and I want to observe them again just as intensely as when I set the book down last.

This really is the book that The Late George Apley set out to be and failed at—a long rambling walk through the life of an almost-great man and his family and friends, that illuminates a lot about America from 1900-1940 and has something left to say to a wartime home front.  Sam is remarkable, with just enough flaws and just enough virtues to be interesting to watch, sometimes a good guy to root for, but never the expression of wish fulfillment or some silly notion about “the ideal American businessman”.  Through his eyes we see poverty, opportunity, race, class, gender—you name it.  Flavin isn’t quite progressive enough to give us a novel that could withstand our modern sensibilities, but this is light years beyond the Pulitzer winners of the 1920s and 1930s, dealing very calmly with interracial romance, religious bigotry, and extreme political and class struggle tensions between characters.  It will never be read and dissected like a Steinbeck or a Fitzgerald, but it ought to be better remembered than it is: the story is expansive, the characters fragile and unpredictable in their humanity, and ultimately more than one scene moved me emotionally to the point that I felt at least misty-eyed.  This is a good novel.

Historical Insight:

A well-thought-out book on this front—it certainly captures the sea change that a small Midwestern river town would have gone through over fifty years, including the rise of the railroads, the impact of two wars and the intervening depression, and ultimately the rise of commercialism and factory production.  Sam is reflective enough (and involved enough in a lot of this change) to help us imagine what this looked like to Americans passing through it, and he has two close friends on opposite sides of this America—a grizzled, American Legion type businessman with a fire for competition and an idealist, leftist newspaper man with no head for numbers or accounting but a passion for the rights of the working poor—whose conversations help draw some of these images out in more detail.  A lot of the story of Sam Braden and his family is about class, too—what America will let you overcome and what it won’t, what money will buy and what it won’t—and given this particular era in American history, that makes a real difference to me as the reader.  This doesn’t quite rise to the level of a novel like my last one by Upton Sinclair, but it’s not trying to: what Flavin wants to do on this front, I think he succeeds with, and it certainly is more than good enough at evoking America in this time period to make me happy with it as a Pulitzer winner.


My unscientific scale calls this “a great read for anyone who enjoys well-developed characters, especially if you like a longer family saga or a historical novel”.  Not among the very best Pulitzers I’ve read, but close behind them, totally worth reading, and a book I’m glad won an award, since I want it to be remembered.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the last word to the author, and let you be the judge of what you find.  Here, late in the story (after World War II has already engulfed America), Sam Braden is writing a letter to his son, Hath:

“He did not mean, he said, to accuse himself uniquely, for it was his generation which much be indicted; he, himself, was no more than a reflection of the world in which he’d lived, not atypical at all.  He could only be convicted of having realized the fruit which his fellow men had coveted, of being a winner in a race in which, as it turned out, there were not any winners, since there were not any stakes—no real reward for winning; but only the winners had a chance to find that out.  He would plead guilty to success—the very same in pursuit of which most people lived and died, never knowing that the stars at which they grasped were fireflies and marsh lights.  And success had this advantage: once in your hand you could examine it and appraise its actual value—a benefit denied to less successful men.

‘Values,’ he wrote, ‘that’s where we have been wrong: bad accounting methods, confusing liabilities with assets; the books are in a mess.  But I think that it is changing—not just for the duration, as many people say.  And I believe in you, Hath, all you fine young men who must suffer for our faults, who must fight and win a war which you had no part in making, and who must remake a world which we have wrecked—I believe that you will not repeat the old mistakes.'”

Poetry Friday: Miller Williams and the Sestina

I embarked on a consideration of the poetry of the Inland Northwest last time out, but, as often occurs here on Poetry Fridays, events have distracted me and taken me somewhere else this week.  I saw somewhere that Miller Williams had died.  Now, most of you might not be familiar with Miller Williams—he’s a noted but not pop-culture famous American poet of the late 20th Century, who’s probably most well-known, in all honesty, for being father to an award-winning singer/songwriter, Lucinda Williams.  His work touched many, though, and brought him high enough in the esteem of the right ears and eyes that he was asked to write and recite a poem for the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton, in 1997.  Miller was a clear-thinking and tough-speaking poet, often, and according to the Poetry Foundation’s bio of him, he always felt that the best praise he ever got was “a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’” I think that’s fair.

The reason I knew and loved Miller’s work really centered around one particular poem of his, “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”. The reason for it is that, each December and January of my teaching career, I taught a mini-unit on poetry. Some of the all-time classics, some poems by friends of mine, some stuff I suspected most of the sophomores wouldn’t get and some stuff I dearly hoped most, if not all, of them would. One of the things I wanted to show them was the dazzling array of poetic forms, and the most fiendishly challenging and clockwork-clever of them is the sestina. It’s a tricky form to even understand—it abandons meter, and focuses on a small set of six words, which dance along the right margin of the poem like it’s the Virginia Reel, spinning, changing partners, always there but never in the same place. You can follow the link a couple sentences back to the Wikipedia entry explaining the exact pattern—how each of the six line stanzas uses the same six words to end each line, but how no word is ever at the end of the same line twice (that is, the word that ends the first line of the first stanza will end the second line of the second stanza and the fourth line of the third stanza, and so on for each of these six special sestina words). Now, because a sestina has to keep coming back to the same six words, most sestinas end up feeling a little silly. They can never move on from the topic at hand, and by the fourth or fifth stanza it often can feel like the poet has said all they have to say, leaving us irritated and bored. A neat device, you may think—catchy at first, but ultimately more a set of rules that prevent you from writing a decent poem than enabling you to.

But not Miller Williams. He had the genius notion that the sestina is an engine of great emotional power, structured in such a way that, in the hands of an artist and a passionate human being, can punch us in the heart and the head at just the right moment, and leave us wiser. At least that’s what I think. Because every year, no matter what else won the acclaim of each crew of sophomores, I could always count on them falling just a little bit in love with Miller Williams, and “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”:

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come—

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark—they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they come.
They’re going to
less with time.


Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the years come
then you will, too. Me, I’ll still be home.

That damn sixth stanza. It makes me cry every time. I don’t think I have to tell you why or how this works. It will move each of us in different ways, and show us different sides of love and of loss. I just wanted you to know it existed, and that there existed, too, a man named Miller Williams who wrote something that will live far beyond his mortal body. I bless him and these words of his.

“You got a God. Don’t make no difference if you don’ know what he looks like.”

Sairy Wilson’s final conversation with “Reverend” Jim Casy resonated with me, hence my grabbing a quote from Sairy as the post’s title.  What’s interesting to me is how much Grapes of Wrath, which is in many ways as physical and material a book as possible (so rich with details about the natural world, about people’s bodies and possessions, etc.), is about the immaterial, and ultimately about faith and hope in things we do not see, or (in some cases) even believe in (yes, that’s a contradiction in terms, and an intentional paradox).  I’ll set aside Sairy and Jim for a moment and extend these thoughts out to other characters—I’ve gotten all the way over the mountains with the Joads now, and have reached the point where they’re looking down on the beautiful valley that, in this instant, is the California they’ve dreamed of, all along Route 66.

Ma’s faith is in “the family unbroke”, a remarkable phrase given that, in so many ways, all of these people are broken—the old ones too far gone to reach the Promised Land, the parents breaking down physically and emotionally as they go, the younger members of the family all afraid or lost or fragile.  Right after she expresses her willingness to rely on that concept—the family unbroke—the family begins to shatter as a unit.  We lose one more Joad to death, and another to the lure of freedom.  It’s increasingly clear that Tom’s commitment to stand up for himself come hell or high water will land him in trouble…likely either a California grave or a long ride back to an Oklahoma jail.  Will what’s left of the Joads, in a hundred pages or two, be enough for Ma to live by?  At what point does the gravity lose hold, the disc fan outwards into particles flung on tangents by centrifugal force?

Tom’s faith is, as far as I can tell, in himself—whatever he lived through in prison, it’s convinced him that there’s nothing he can’t handle.  He takes guff from nobody, not even men with authority and influence enough to put him back in jail.  He speaks with authority himself, now; Pa remarks to Ma about how Tom’s so “growed-up”, talking almost like a preacher now, and she agrees without hesitation.  He tells people like the one-eyed man at the wrecking yard what’s wrong with their lives and how to fix it—he sets Al straight and gets the family across the desert, insisting at one point that, if need be, they’d walk it.  Tom’s rule seems to be that if another man could do it, then by God Tom Joad is going to do it and there isn’t a soul on earth to tell him no.  I can’t tell yet what Steinbeck’s doing with this self-confidence….setting Tom up for a fall?  Revealing the inner dignity of the working man, no matter his background or circumstance?  Showing the false front so that later chapters can open up the wounded and vulnerable man underneath?  What is clear, anyway, is that Tom’s faith is in as hard-to-see a thing as Ma’s “family unbroke” or Jim Casy’s God.  He believes in a drifter, a parolee who broke parole the first chance he had, a man who murdered yet never seems to have learned caution from it.  He believes in the inherent worth of a man who will consistently be assessed as worthless by the people he meets, because of how he talks, how he looks, how he smells.  Time will alone tell if Tom’s put his faith in the right person.  Much as I admire him, I can’t rate his chances very high, given the environment he’s about to step into.

Jim Casy, then, to return to where I began.  That conversation with Sairy is so deeply moving—her quiet acceptance of her fate, her hopes for her husband, so piercing.  Ultimately Jim prays a prayer she cannot hear (does he pray?) to a God neither of them can see (is God there?) and then turns and walks “out of the dusky tent into the blinding light”.  What to do with J.C. is a challenge—as I alluded to in an earlier post (and as plenty of people have with this book, I expect….I really haven’t looked up critical essays about it), Casy’s initials obviously could be used to imply that he acts as a Christ-figure for Steinbeck’s novel.  There’s definitely material to work with—Casy as a man who takes on the suffering of others, Casy the one they all find they can depend on in a crisis, Casy who ultimately gives Sairy Wilson peace and then vanishes into the light (an ascension? a transfiguration?).  But I’m not sure I want to take him there.  More than anything else, Casy strikes me as Steinbeck’s alter ego.  He speaks rarely, but when he does, it’s usually a pronouncement of some kind—he asserts truths about who people are and why they move and what it all means.  For this reason, I find him alternately fascinating (he is the most philosophical character in a book full of wise but simple folk) and a bit irritating (his speeches sometimes feel forced on the narrative, especially since Casy rarely speaks on any other occasion….it’s easy to forget he’s still with the family some chapters).  Regardless, though, I have to deal with him, and this faith he does and does not seem to have.  He announces that he’s left God’s service, but no one else will let him.  His prayers for the dying and the dead are clearly significant moments to those around him, but he considers them of no real account.  What does Casy believe in?  Not himself—if nothing else is clear to me, that is.  He’s not like Tom in that way; he’s painfully conscious of having failed others in the past, and is wary of accepting responsibility for them now.  As the only person in the book right now who doesn’t have a family, it’s hard to see him agreeing with Ma that the unbroken family is the thing to trust in—he doesn’t exert any influence on the decisions where the family was about to split up (temporarily or permanently).  But is Casy, then, an argument for faith in God?  Who or what does he trust?

Shafter, Kern County, California. A view of th...

Whatever California looks like from a distance, this is what it will look like up close, for the Joads. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book is getting intensely sad, and I’m uneasy about the arrival in California.  The struggles of keeping two old jalopies running down Route 66 will soon seem pretty minor in comparison with the squalor and the desperation of the picking fields.  The stories the Joads hear on the road are terrifying, especially the man whose children and wife starved to death (if we needed any evidence to understand what an impact the New Deal would have, and how desperately grateful the nation would have been to FDR for the idea of the “safety net”, this novel certainly makes a good case).  But as Tom says, the Joads have no other choice, no place to return to.  What do you do when you only have one choice?  You take it.  But what a terrible position to be in.  And even then, as people are suffering and dying because of the manipulations of the big growers and the landowners, you can hear the voices shouting down the slightest dissent—a man suggests for even a few moments that the workers are being taken advantage of, and suddenly he’s accused of being a “troublemaker”, a “labor faker”.  It’s announced loudly that these types stir up trouble and make people angry, and for the good of everybody they’ll all be rounded up and killed sooner or later.  It’s awful and true that most human societies run this way—it becomes strangely less unjust to cheat and starve the common people than it is to be the person pointing this out to the common people.  The more I read the novel (which is of course fiction, but which also of course strives to be true to that time in history, given when and for whom Steinbeck writes it), the more I realize how close we were in the 1930s to two different Americas—one America an oligarchy run by authoritarians protecting the moneyed interests and dragging the country into fascism to protect capital, and another America in a state of revolution, where workers throw their lot in with international communism for the furious and desperate reason that they cannot see another way to get bread for their children.  That we threaded the needle in that environment (to the extent that we did—obviously in some times and places both sentiments and scenarios prevailed to some extent) is a testament to something about America.  I haven’t yet figured out what.  We’re in California now, and maybe I’ll see clearer from this vantage point.  For now, it’s onward to the fields, and good luck to the Joads.

Poetry Friday: 1937 speaks for itself (via Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Having posted Sharon Olds’s commentary on 1937 last week, I figured 1937 should get a retort, and who better to speak for that time and place than Millay, a woman who at her best is one of America’s keenest-eyed poets (though who at her worst, admittedly, is trite and clumsy).  1937 isn’t necessarily her best year, but it did yield some good stuff to think on: a poem slightly longer than I usually post, but one worth the time and attention, I think.  Here is Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies”:

Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it’s much too small, because she won’t curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don’t die.

And if you have said, “For heaven’s sake, must you always be kissing a person?”
Or, “I do wish to gracious you’d stop tapping on the window with your thimble!”
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you’re busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, “I’m sorry, mother.”

To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,
who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.

Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries;
they are not tempted.
Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly
That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;
They are not taken in.
Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,
Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake
them and yell at them;
They are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide
back into their chairs.

Your tea is cold now.
You drink it standing up,
And leave the house.

Millay’s power usually comes from skill with sound and meter—the rhythm of “sink and rise” in “Love is not all” or the cheerful, almost sing-song sound patterns of her poem about running back and forth all night on the Staten Island ferry in “Recuerdo“.  What I am struck by with this poem is how its greatest impact comes from the ideas, and the plainness with which they are spoken.  The premise itself startles and grabs me, the idea that “childhood” is not a set sequence of years, or a physiological/emotional developmental stage, but rather that space in which we mortal creatures remain remote from our mortality.  The phrase, though, captures that other aspect of childhood—the fantastical, the way in which being a child opens our imaginations so that it really is like living in a private kingdom, a world where we can make-believe almost anything.

Millay is patient with the idea.  Having spoken it, she sets out to test its boundaries, almost as if it’s a hypothesis whose truth she is uncertain of.  She dispenses with the deaths that happen to forgotten relatives easily enough.  I wonder if she’s as right about lost pets, since certainly a cat or two who died in my childhood were much lamented, but she’s undeniably right that the sting of that mourning was really nothing to what has come since.  I marvel at her sharp observational skills—the phrase “she won’t curl up now” is incredibly immediate to me, flashing me back to cat burials in the backyard and the terror of rigor mortis and the sense that, whatever I was burying, it was not the creature I had known.  Those little turns of phrase are much more direct here than what I’m used to from Millay, and I like them even when they make me sad.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit baffled by the stanza about the thimble and the apology to her mother (is this Millay saying we are old enough now to realize we’re becoming our parents?  Or something else?): there’s something about the structure that leaves me feeling I’m only getting half of a conversation.  I suspect I may be seeing references only Millay and her mother would really have understood.  But the stanza that follows knocks me flat because it is so real and so absurd: death as the great removal of all our self, not just our noble moments but the quiet ones where we sit and chat or drink our tea.  To be grown up really is that kind of mourning—not the simple grief wailed over a cat dying too young, but the slow terms we grapple with as we face loss in the morning light, the quiet ways we are reminded of how our lives will not be quite the same.  Millay builds the tension here—she darts all over her house, she becomes upset; the dead are not moved.  They are beyond our ability to alter them.  What connects this with childhood, I wonder, and with growing up?  There’s a thread here I feel certain I’m not picking up—I get what’s happening in one sense, but I feel like Millay’s reflections on childhood and adult life must be present here still, and I don’t follow the distinction she’s making.

I love that last stanza, though.  After the building emotion, it would have been easy to end on something big and sweeping.  But instead, she handles the humdrum details of the poem neatly—the tea cannot sit undrunk forever.  The house cannot remain a shrine, and the child grown up cannot kneel in grief always.  There is a life to be entered—one in which the tea is cold because we have waited too long to really get started.

In the end, I wonder if I’m clinging to the “childhood” references too much.  Maybe the poem is more about being an adult than in the transition to adulthood, and the child is just a way of entering the space where she can talk about it.  It seems to me like a self-addressed poem, in which Millay needs to move herself on in some real way.  But it touches on emotions I think any adult who’s lost someone they care about can understand.  Like I said above, I feel like there are things I’m not getting: I figure either you agree and may have some idea of what, or you disagree, and think this poem may not be as good as I think it is.  Either way, it would be nice to hear your thoughts below.

“He detested lying to anybody, not because he had any scruples against it, but because it appeared cowardly.”

That quotation from The Store sums up a lot about The Colonel’s character pretty aptly, and demonstrates why I’m finding real depth in Stribling’s novel.  Colonel Miltiades Vaiden is a man who does the right things for the wrong reasons—and a few wrong things for what he, at least, believes to be the right reasons.  There’s a moral flexibility to The Colonel that is interesting because his spectrum doesn’t run from good to evil, like a character in a melodrama.  His spectrum seems to be based much more on honor, like a samurai’s bushido or Achilles’ pursuit of timë and kleos, only he combines this obsession about personal glory with a personality that seems much too milquetoast to carry out his career with success.  I alluded to Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman played by William H. Macy in Fargo, in my last post, and there’s a lot of Jerry in The Colonel still, despite the fact that Miltiades is a war veteran who clearly had access to a better reserve of courage at one point in his life.

The Colonel’s straining for glory hits some unexpected curves in the point of the story I’ve reached—I continue to be intrigued by his plot line, even as he becomes more and more reprehensible.  What I like best about Stribling is the way his novel sides with the African-Americans living in Florence in the subtlest of ways—he lingers on certain images (the starving family in the darkness rejected by Jerry Catlin, the look in Grace’s eyes as she delivers bad news, etc.) like a director taking an extra beat at the end of a scene before the movie moves on.  The narrator is a personless omniscient 3rd person voice, so there’s no one to opine about the plight of impoverished black people—just the reality of who they are as people, and it’s a reality Stribling never lets too far away from the stage, even though it rarely takes the spotlight.

One of the sides that I therefore find most fascinating is the attitude The Colonel holds towards the people who were formerly his family’s slaves.  They bear his surname of Vaiden, and continue to feel a connection to him.  He feels the connection also, and carries it in a variety of ways—at times he seems sympathetic, and deals with them almost as though a distant family member, but too often their names and lives seem to be his possessions.  He can deal with them as he likes, not because they are Vaidens, but because they are the Vaidens’—no longer legal property, but still somehow beholden to him (in his mind) because of some unspoken bond between them.  The fair hair and eyes of some of these young African-Americans is such a visible marker, for me, of the real biological connections between the families, but Miltiades seems blind to it.  Given my examination of my family’s history (which is explored online in two places thanks to my conversations with Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates about his and my ancestors—black and white families named Smack and living in the same Maryland town—and what I’ve come to learn about them), this is personal for me.  And personal in a way I hardly know how to share.  Was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather a Miltiades, looking down on (and simultaneously emotionally bound to) Ta-Nehisi’s ancestors, his own son or nephew or cousin?  Or were we better than that, somehow—a family who accepted the black Smack families as freed individuals before the war?  Is it possible they could have acknowledged real kinship to each other?  And what would it mean to me, if so?  If I am lucky, some day I may find out the truth about our connection—by which I mean, only to know that he and I share an ancestor (and what that implies).  But the rest of it—the truths I want to know about how these men and women thought of each other and spoke to each other, how they made sense of their lives in relationship to each other—these are truths I cannot even think of looking for.  They are lost to me.

So reading The Store draws me (and weighs on me) because I can see how complicated these relationships were after the war (Stribling makes them feel very honest, at least—I trust that he is showing me the real South at the time), and almost against my will I am forced to walk in the white Vaidens’ shoes.  I ask myself how this complicated blend of ideas and feelings, some of them contradictory, came to be, and how long it would have to take to change those feelings.  I ask myself what events would really make these families separate and equal, to appropriate (and change the meaning of) the language of Plessy.  Would it take dying side-by-side in a war?  Voting side-by-side in a polling station?  Sitting side-by-side as children marry each other across racial boundaries?  When would the wrong bonds be broken, so that the right bonds can form?

Stribling’s doing something that works, here.  He knows how to play this game—how to distract with the left hand while the right sneaks the rabbit into the hat.  All the things that should go wrong for The Colonel go right, and the last things he expected to fall apart, do.  I’m still working out what this story is really about, but the more I read, the more I think The Colonel himself is a waved handkerchief, a puff of smoke.  His story is real and matters, but Stribling wants to keep me focused on him in order to bring other guns to bear.  I’m trying to pace myself a bit and enjoy this (as I did with Wharton’s novel), but I won’t be able to slow down much: I’m hooked.

“It was like a thing ordained, and life with him would be exciting, a thrilling affair.”

This quotation describes Sybil’s enthusiasm for Jean, the son of a French man and an American woman, whom she met in Paris, fell hopelessly in love with, and has pursued since his arrival in Durham for a visit.  But it also sheds light on her mother, Olivia, whose marriage to Anson Pentland seems to have been a thing ordained—but of course with Anson life has been and will be boring, a stultifying affair.  O’Hara makes Olivia’s blood run hot, but she will never leave her husband for him.  And her husband would never dream of inciting the scandal a divorce would bring, even if he discovered her wandering eye and straying heart.  They’re an interesting pair of women.

It’s hard to say what Bromfield wants to draw out of the story, other than that he seems to be good at avoiding cliche.  Sybil and Jean fall in love, but it’s obvious they’re doomed at the outset.  They’re in love with an idealized vision of romance that each has embodied for the other during long months apart.  If they do find a good relationship in the long run, it won’t have much to do with how they feel right now.

The character I’m most impressed by, though, is Olivia.  It would be easy to make her into a “wronged woman” who casts her lot in with the rebels, thumbs her nose at the old fuddy-duddies, and dashes off into the moonlight with O’Hara.  But she can’t be that woman, and luckily Bromfield knows it.  He shows us the subtle changes of opinion in her.  It’s clear that her acceptance of her marriage to Anson isn’t a bitter one—Anson’s inability to even contemplate divorce is part of his nature, his character, and always has been.  She can no more resent him for it than she could resent a dog for barking or a bird for eating worms.  And as time goes on, it’s fascinating to watch her move within the strained relationships all the Pentland women have with each other.  Strangely, it’s the daring iconoclast, Sabine, that Olivia shuts out more and more, as she realizes she can’t trust Sabine’s discretion.  And Aunt Cassie, the nosy busybody who infiltrates every family affair with her outmoded views of the world, transforms slowly into an object of pity, at least…and sometimes it seems Olivia is gentler still with a woman who was a victim of circumstance in many ways.

I like that kind of subtlety—Bromfield is not as good with language as Wharton, but I think his characters are almost as rich.  And the plot he’s devised creates more ambiguity: when Olivia finally finds what her insane mother-in-law had “hidden” in the attic, a truth about the family is revealed.  But as much as it alters Olivia’s sense of who they are and what it means to be a “Pentland”, she doesn’t share it with the others—she knows it would destroy her husband and her father-in-law to know the truth.  And as time goes by, it’s clear that there is a strength that comes from being a “Pentland”, from having a sense of pride about the past and about the good work the family has built up in Durham.  It raises interesting questions for me about family—as genealogists, my mother and I have found details from time to time that reveal less-than-positive sides of our family’s past.  Is it right to dig them up?  Is it right to share them with others?  As much as we like to believe that “the truth sets you free”, I wonder: free from what?  Olivia seems to think that the awful freedom she would give the Pentlands in revealing what she knows is a free-fall, a spiral into the unknown and a loss of identity.  Is it somehow better to try to live up to the image that never existed, to be inspired by a dream because you think it is a reality?

I’ve cruised a long way in this book (though you wouldn’t know it by the number of posts—sorry, folks, grad school dominates life right now), and may only post once or twice more before a review, since I’m over 2/3 done.  I don’t think the book is building to a big “message” at the end, but I really like it.  I hope that feeling lasts, since it would be great to raise the average review on this site from the depths that The Able McLaughlins dragged it to.

“Do you mean to tell me you’d marry a man simply because he happened to have a lot of money!”

The answer to such questions, of course, is almost invariably “Yes,” whether or not the person answering the question can be honest enough to say so.  (I’m not saying people are always willing to marry for money—just that if you’re getting asked that question, I’m inclined to think there’s a reason you are.)  Certainly it’s “yes” for Paula Arnold, the young woman being questioned by young Dirk DeJong.  She’s a family friend (daughter of Selina’s best friend from her childhood) and has been raised in fabulous wealth thanks to the success of her successful “pork baron” grandfather, August Hempel: she says frankly (and unashamedly) to Dirk that it would take a millionaire to keep her happy, and even though Dirk’s attractive and bright, he simply couldn’t provide for her at the level she’s accustomed to.

It’s become Dirk’s story now—I have to admit, I think Ferber may have tried too much with this novel.  Dirk’s a very different person than his mother, and having invested half the novel in Selina (who’s almost absent for much of the latter half), it’s hard not to feel that the whole Dirk storyline is a distraction to the reader.  I see some opportunities for drawing those plots together (which will come in at the end of this post), but it’s too often a bit disengaging, like two reasonably solid novellas that have been hastily stitched together.

I do have to emphasize that solidity–the novel isn’t shifting into a weaker story by following Selina’s son.  Dirk is interesting to watch, especially in the light of the novels I’ve already read on this journey.  He seems to want to be Georgie Minafer (the unredeemed version) or Newland Archer.  Despite his interest in, and talent for, architecture (thanks to training at Cornell), he’s not moving up fast enough, so he connects himself to the easy life of investments and the stock/bond trade.  It’s the early 1920s, after all, and that spiral seems to lead upwards forever.  Paula, who’s married a much older man for money (and unhappily, it should be noted), is constantly pushing him into this world, using her rich husband and rich family to make connections for Dirk and raise him into one of the brightest young stars in the city.  She’s in love with him, and he with her, it seems—it’s only a matter of time before their relationship is the scandal of Chicago.  (Sidenote: This aspect of the novel is in some ways strangely reminiscent of the story of Frank Lloyd Wright, which I read in a novel, Loving Frank, that was good enough to be almost worth recommending to you.)

There’s an obvious and depressing trend to these young Chicago men.  The old rich men, at least, had the virtue of industry and passion for what they did.  August Hempel may be a rich old tyrant, but there’s something vital about him, and the rest of these imperial barons who built the town up from the mud.  Their children and grandchildren, by contrast, seem to value riches without effort, style without substance.  And Dirk wants to live that way, as well.  But isn’t this the way every generation sees its children?  Ferber’s implicit criticisms of young bond-traders are surely not much different than the criticisms levied against the young businessmen of the 1950s or the young guns on Wall Street in the 1980s.  Is this the real Chicago of the 1920s, or just the narrative that we hand down in every generation—that the Golden Age is dead, that “the great men are gone and we shall not see their like again”?

All this setup, though, leads to a truly wonderful scene.  Selina learns from Paula’s mother that there’s talk all over town about Dirk and Paula, and the affair everyone expects will manifest.  The next time Dirk comes home, she asks him to come sit in her room that evening, and she confronts him about the course his whole life is taking.  Their conversation is masterfully done—Ferber allows both characters to speak as frankly and sincerely as two people would in such a situation.  When they’re melodramatic, it’s because people in such situations overplay their hands.  When they leave things unsaid, we hear them all the more loudly.  Selina is appalled that her son would abandon real and important work—the making of beautiful buildings—for something as common and base as the pursuit of wealth through the buying and selling of little pieces of paper.  And Dirk cannot fathom why his mother thinks so little of him, or fails to see the importance of changing to adapt to the new world.  At one point, she asks him (as she often did, long ago) how big he is, now.  He says “So big,” and holds his thumb and forefinger mere millimeters apart.  And in his heart he thinks himself very “big” indeed.  In context, it’s a very powerful moment.

And though Selina is angry with Dirk (and I understand that anger), I think she’s unfair to him.  She wants him to pursue his dreams.  She thinks he would have done better to work on her farm than go off to the financial markets.  But Selina’s journey from seeking the “hard and thrilling” life to the “hard but honest” life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses.  She could never be the comfortable farmer she is today if a land-owning farmer (Pervus DeJong) hadn’t married her, and if a rich man (family friend August Hempel) hadn’t offered her an interest-free loan after her husband’s death.  I’m not saying anything against Selina, who’s worked her fingers to the bone for that farm.  But without two successful men (well, one who was well off enough to have a decent farm, and one who was truly and epically wealthy) she’d never have gotten where she has.  Is it so hard to see that Dirk would look at the course of such a life, and decide that it would be better to be August Hempel than to be Selina DeJong?  And because he doesn’t understand either of them, really, he chooses a line of work that offers the path of seemingly least resistance.  It’s the American way.  And in a few years, it will utterly destroy the American economy…if he only knew.  I’m almost at the end, now: a review will almost certainly be my next post.