1935: Now in November, by Josephine W. Johnson

Literary Style:

Josephine Johnson finished with the same strength I’ve been raving about throughout the novel—this is a gem of a book, and all the more remarkable when you consider that it was a first novel written by a 24 year old.  It captures the Depression through the very humble lens of a single family on a failing farm, and it does so with a power that is, for me, as successful as what I’ve read of John Steinbeck.  Johnson is careful not to overplay the worldwide Great Depression as a presence, and generally steers clear of presenting any of the rich and powerful folks who are making life harder for the family farmer.  At times, I worried this diminished her message, but on the whole I feel it was the best possible decision: to pit the haves against the have-nots would make it too easy for us to rush past Marget’s real hopes and fears, and the lives of her family.  We would know what side to take up, and spend our energy railing against the fat cats.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a novel that calls for activism, but novels that do this distract us from listening, and it’s critical that we listen to Marget.  She is telling us, with courageous honesty, a story we need to be quiet to hear.  I think we have to listen to her, because while it is not our story, it might have been.  And it still may be, after all: the rains still fail for some of us, sometimes, and whatever that metaphor means in real terms to you or me, it’s important to face it.

I am moved by Johnson’s ability to evoke real understanding of several very different characters, and I’m struck by her ability to make women the centerpiece of the novel, especially young women—the three sisters are very distinct, very real, and their action (or inaction) is what drives the novel.  The men in this story are important, but only in relationship to the Haldemarne girls.  I hesitate just a little in calling this a “feminist” novel, because that word has been so abused in our society (and its meaning will vary widely depending on who reads it) and because Johnson would not have had that word in her head as she wrote.  But it feels like an authentically feminine and feminist story in a way that even the best Pulitzer-winning women thus far (Wharton and Cather, each a giant in her own right) didn’t aim for or achieve in their prize-winners, whether or not they do elsewhere.  I know I’ve been fixated on race over the last few novels, but I don’t want to ignore the importance of America’s growth and change regarding gender, and this book feels important to me as a leading indicator that women’s authentic lives were finally becoming more acceptable as worthy of public attention and interest.

Reviewers at the time were very much in love with Johnson’s voice, which has been called “poetry with its feet on the ground”.  She was compared to Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters, although I’m not sure I’d draw the same parallels—like them, she has a great respect for (and ability to evoke and describe) the interior life of the young woman at home, especially an introspective young woman whose mind is much more active than her voice.  She sees nature very differently, though, and her interests in story and character development fall in the very large gap between a Dickinson poem and, say, Wuthering Heights.  But that she was a rare talent is certain: not many 24 year olds are discerning about themselves and the world around them with the kind of depth Johnson (through Marget) displays in Now in November, and still fewer of them could articulate that way of seeing the world in the structure of a novel.

I’ve tried to say very little about the story itself even here in the review, as I want to encourage as many people as possible to read the book.  Unlike the other Pulitzers that sit at the top of my list of favorites (The Age of Innocence and The Bridge of San Luis Rey), this is a forgotten novel—a book that even lit majors have never heard of, a book you would not have been asked to read in 8th grade or in English 301.  It deserves to be read and enjoyed, and recommended, not for any reason other than that it is beautiful and it offers us no easy answers.  It’s the kind of book you can sink into a really good discussion about—which characters you sympathized with, what significance to attach (or refuse to attach) to a given moment or turn of phrase.  How to see the ending and what to take away from the experience.  Marget’s narration is lyrically done, a very pleasant combination of plain-spoken words about the daily life on a dying farm and sharp-eyed crystalline images of the natural world, both intimate and remote from human lives.  It’s a book that doesn’t rail against injustice—it shows you what it’s like to live immersed in it, without even understanding why or how the injustice is perpetuated.  It talks about love as it really is—equal parts elation and burden, often ultimately unfulfilling and unfulfilled, almost never (once we are no longer 16) really the Romeo-and-Juliet blind wrecking-ball.  I won’t call it the Great American Novel—its scope is not quite wide enough, its ambitions are not so high, and there are little stumbles for me that are easy to forgive but just enough to hold it back from the very pinnacle.  But it is a great American novel, and a brief one, and one that anybody past the age of 12 or 13 can read with pleasure—I hope its renaissance is coming soon.

Historical Insight:

As alluded to above, this book is as good as any fiction I’ve yet read about the Great Depression—we should keep in mind that I have not yet read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (it’s coming, though! 1940), but that’s still pretty high praise.  I’ve read plenty of American farm novels at this point (thank you, Pulitzer board, I guess), and this really does outshine them with its ability to bring out the anxieties inherent in depending on wind and rain and sun for your life.  The tensions between farm and city are here (though often very subtle), and Marget defends the life of the farmer in her characteristically calm fashion: you can see what America looked like from the vantage point of that farmhouse front porch in 1933.  It would be easy to nitpick here—to point out that the book could do more to expose the economics that underlay the problem, or to put us more in touch with what it’s like to be Marget’s father.  But the book does more than enough for me given its brevity, and its limitations are Marget’s—we don’t get more about economics because the character narrating for us doesn’t really know what’s at work, and we don’t see more from her father’s perspective because of how much he has alienated her and how unwilling he is to share his fears with anyone in the family.  Anyway, the bottom line is, if someone told me “I’m looking for a good novel that will help me really get a feel for rural life in the 1930s”, I’d recommend this before they finished talking, and then Of Mice and Men.  Yes, Johnson beats Steinbeck.  I’m trying not to overhype this little novel, but I love it much too sincerely to be less enthusiastic about it.

Rating:

Now in November receives one of the highest ratings I have yet issued: “You really owe it to yourself to find and read this book”.  I am not phrasing it in the imperative, as I did with The Age of Innocence, but I’m coming as close to that as I can.  I can envision someone disliking this book, but honestly unless you’re the kind of person who demands that your books be “cheerful” or your interests are very narrow (only certain genres, time periods, etc.) I’d be stunned if you didn’t at least enjoy the book, whether or not you reach my level of excitement about it.  It’s the kind of book a reader wants—an intriguing (unreliable?) narrator, good characterization, a vivid natural setting, and a skilled author who cares about craft and phrasing.  If it’s at your library, borrow it.  If it’s not, suggest they buy a copy.  Amazon will sell you a copy for $11.  I’m not promising refunds, but I expect you won’t be asking for one.

Last Word:

I’ve striven to avoid giving away too much of the novel, although I should probably note that it’s not full of too many twists and turns—this isn’t an Agatha Christie, and I think knowing a three sentence summary of the plot would barely diminish your enjoyment of the book.  Anyway, because that’s been my aim, choosing a passage to share as Johnson’s “last word” has been a little tough—I’ve selected one that gives away as little as possible, and have avoided by ellipsis anything I think gives too much away.  All I’ll provide as context is that this is after Marget’s lived through a lot, but before she’s lived through everything there is to face, and she’s offering a reflection on how she makes sense of her life:

“It is November, and the year dying fast in the storms.  The sycamores wrenched of leaves and the ground gold.  The ploughed fields scarred around us on the hills. . . .

I do not see in our lives any great ebb and flow or rhythm of earth.  There is nothing majestic in our living.  The earth turns in great movements, but we jerk about on its surface like gnats, our days absorbed and overwhelmed by a mass of little things—that confusion which is our living and which prevents us from being really alive.  We grow tired, and our days are broken up into a thousand pieces, our years chopped into days and nights, and interrupted.  Our hours of life snatched from our years of living. . . .

We have no reason to hope or believe, but do because we must, receiving peace in its sparse moments of surrender, and beauty in all its twisted forms, not pure, unadulterated, but mixed always with sour potato-peelings or an August sun.

There is no question of what we will do.  It is as plain before us as the dead fields.  We are not trapped any more than all other men.  Any more than life itself is a trap.  How much of what came to us came of ourselves?  Was there anything that we could have done that we did not do?  God—if you choose to say that the drouth is God—against us.  The world against us, not deliberately perhaps, more in a selfish than malicious way, coming slowly to recognize that we are not enemies or plough-shares.  And we against ourselves.”

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“This is not all behind us now, outgrown and cut away. It is of us, and changed only in form.”

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.”

“Now in November I can see our years as a whole. . . .”

“…This autumn is like both an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with the blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now.  It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.  There were nights when I felt that we were moving toward some awful and hopeless hour, but when that hour came it was broken up and confused because we were too near, and I did not even quite realize that it had come.”

So begins Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1935.  It’s the first of the novels (as far as I can remember) to provide the title in its opening lines—a tactic I usually find a bit precious, even cloying.  But there’s something clear-headed about Johnson’s style that makes this opening work for me, enough that I decided to provide you with more than just the first sentence, since I like her cadence.  I’m cautiously optimistic about this novel: certainly so far it’s living up to the quotation on its back cover, where the New York Times calls the novel “firmly wrought, poetic in the best sense”.

One of the reasons I think it’s working is that we finally have a first-person narrator, after lots of “close third” that wasn’t done terribly well.  For me, the first-person narrator usually pays lots of dividends—I like the question of narrator reliability, and the limited perspective that even a reliable narrator requires.  It immerses me more successfully in the characters and relationships (speaking very generally) than third-person narrators normally can manage.  And Johnson knows how to pick a narrator, giving us the story of the Haldmarne family through the eyes of Margret, the middle daughter, who shares with us all the secrets and anxieties of a wise-beyond-her-years thirteen year old farm girl—her take on her tomboy older sister, Kerrin, and her sweet and sunny younger sister, Merle, as well as her long-suffering and gently encouraging mother and her proud, distant, hot-tempered father.  Margret sees with a poet’s eye, and chooses her phrases with what I see as care and precision.  Here, for instance, is a little portion of her first thoughts on her father:

“He wasn’t a man made for a farmer, Arnold Haldmarne, although brought up on the land when a boy, and now returning to acres not different much from the ones he used to plough.  He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have—that resignation that knows how little use to hope or hate, or pray for even a bean before its appointed time.  He’d left the land when he was still sixteen and gone to Boone, making himself a place in the lumber factories there.  He’d saved and come up hard and slow like an oak or ash that grows with effort but is worth much more than any poplar shooting two feet high in a season.  But now he was chopped back down to root again.  It’s a queer experience for a man to go through, to work years for security and peace, and then in a few months’ time have it all dissolve into nothing; to feel the strange blankness and dark of being neither wanted nor necessary any more.  Things had come slow to him and gone fast, and it made him suspicious even of the land.”

One of the funny things about this Pulitzer project is reading what other fellow pilgrims have to say about the same novels I read—mostly I find the conclusions they reach, and the statements they make, ridiculous.  (A key exception, of course, are the talented ladies—Diablevert and Dreadful Penny—at Along With A Hammer, whose posts are always thoughtful and well-reasoned, even though they and I don’t always see eye to eye about which novels are worthy of praise.)  I mention this because, in reading other reviews of the last novel, Lamb in His Bosom, I came upon a review from a blogger-who-shall-remain-nameless, who claimed that Caroline Miller’s writing was practically flawless, and that specifically she was a writer who “never wasted a word” in her narrative descriptions.  This had me about as gobsmacked as a fellow can be: it’s like hearing someone describe Ernest Hemingway’s style as “too flowery” or call Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek “a real potboiler”.  One of the clearest flaws in Miller’s prose was her inability to get down to brass tacks, and measure her words carefully.  Her adjectives were as thick as mayflies.  Anyway, it’s my opinion that Johnson, at least so far, is showing Miller how it’s done.  Her descriptions (as you can see above, and judge for yourself) seem to me to strike the right balance—this isn’t spartan stuff, but she also knows how to get the most mileage out of a phrase.  She isn’t turning little gems like Oscar Wilde, but given the narrator’s identity and the whole environment in which the story takes place, I think the style is really well-chosen.

My only complaint, at this point?  I am so tired of American farm novels, I want to leap from a window.  Nine of the seventeen I’ve read so far use the farm as a key setting, including the last four straight, and six of the last seven.  It’s a good thing Johnson’s style caught my fancy right away, because when I saw the cover and realized I was heading back to the bean fields, I really felt a sense of despair.  I like a good farming story as much as the next person, I think, but I guess not nearly as much as the Pulitzer judges of the 1930s.

So, we’re embarked.  My hope is that this will prove to be a really insightful take on a farming family in the Great Depression (yes, after multiple historical novels, we seem to have caught back up with the present), and that the psychological depth Margret has shown in analyzing herself and others will continue to be an important but not oppressive presence in a book I’m sitting down to read with pleasure.  But we’ll see where it takes us.

“Cean turned and lifted her hand briefly in farewell as she rode away beside Lonzo in the ox-cart.”

So begins Lamb in his Bosom, by Caroline Miller, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel for 1934.  And I have to say, I’m getting weary of the Pulitzer board’s tastes.

That’s not to say I’m not enjoying the novels: there have been some great discoveries so far, amid the dreck.  But this particular setup—young married couple, out on the land ready to pioneer it—is getting incredibly old.  I’ve watched with mild interest Selina DeJong’s marriage meander unhappily in the fields, I’ve waded painfully through the agonizingly offensive marriage of Wully McLaughlin, I’ve gazed curiously and sadly at the fragile falling-out of Claude and Enid, and more recently I slogged along as Wang Lung gradually crushed his long-suffering wife beneath his self-regard.  And that’s not even half of the examples.  So starting off in an ox-cart with the just-married Lonzo and Cean feels like the Pulitzers on auto-pilot, rattling down the rut they’ve dug for themselves.  Some of these stories are better than others, but I think it’s fair to say that, in general, the best of the novels were the ones most able to get free from the trials of young marriage and the perils of the farm.  I’m not saying there’s no good novel in either subject.  But they seem awfully elusive (and strangely compelling) to the novelists of this era.

Added to that is this novel’s weird (and off-putting, at present) obsession with sexuality—it reminds me of The Able McLaughlins at its very worst.  Within a page of the opener, we get a not-that-vaguely incestuous longing for Cean from her jealous younger brother who (I kid you not) is angry that she’s marrying Lonzo because he liked sharing a bed with his sister.  The brother is, as far as I can tell, more than old enough for this to be uncomfortably weird.  And the rest of the opening chapter follows Cean and Lonzo tensely to the home they will share.  Every few sentences Cean “notices” her husband as a sexual being—the sweat on his powerful neck, the thick black hair on his chest, etc.—and nearly crawls right off the edge of the ox-cart.  He seems painfully awkward around her also.  The chapter closes with him leaving the house while she undresses and crawls into bed to wait, silently and seemingly rigid with anxiety.  He walks around his land and the narrator keeps mentioning Lonzo’s thoughts turning to “planting his seed”.  Hmmm….could that possibly be a metaphor of some kind?  No, surely not.

All of the above—the young couple, the farm setting, the creepy sexual vibe (which seems to be totally dominated by the notion of sex as something a man “does” to a woman)—and a bit more thrown in (the usual 1930s dialect slang in the dialogue, an odd father-daughter dynamic between Lonzo and Cean…he keeps calling his newly-wed wife “little ‘un” in a way I find unsettling) make me think I’m being hurled from one of the best novels I’ve read thus far to something even Julia Peterkin wasn’t capable of.  First impressions can easily be wrong, of course—they were wrong about The Store, and about The Bridge of San Luis Rey—but I’m edgy about this one.  It appears to be relatively short, and we’ll see if that means speeding through becomes the necessary option.

“The driver of the wagon swaying through forest and swamp of the Ohio wilderness was a ragged girl of fourteen.”

Thus begins the novel selected for the 1926 Pulitzer Prize: Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis.  And it’s a beginning that threatens to make me feel weary…I know it’s America’s heartland, but after Willa Cather’s prairie life (interesting, if stifling), Margaret Wilson’s prairie life (soul-crushingly awful, at its best), and the farms of Edna Ferber (sketched a bit hastily, and less isolated), I don’t think I can take a novel that begins with the ragged teenage girl guiding her wagon to her homestead.  Luckily, though, she’s around for all of two paragraphs when the narrator flies forward almost a century, noting off-hand that the girl is the great-grandmother of our real protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith.

Martin’s a doctor (or at least a doctor-in-training) in a small town called Elk Mills in the fictitious state of Winnemac, which apparently is intended to stand in for the “civilized Midwest” (small town Ohio/Indiana/Wisconsin/etc.).  I’m not far in, and already I can tell that Sinclair Lewis earns his reputation for biting wit and sarcasm…this is the man whose novel Main Street was edgy enough that, even though the Pulitzer jury recommended it for the prize in 1921, the board refused to issue the award to him, preferring instead The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (I haven’t read Main Street, but given how much I loved Wharton’s book, I’m not sure the board didn’t get it right, in spite of themselves).  I’ve heard of Babbitt and Elmer Gantry for a long time, but I’ve never read any Sinclair Lewis until now.  For a taste of his keen jabs at middle America and its values, here’s his description of the University of Winnemac (a big state school):

The University has a baseball field under glass; its buildings are measured by the mile; it hires hundreds of young Doctors of Philosophy to give rapid instruction in Sanskrit, navigation, accountancy, spectacle-fitting, sanitary engineering, Provencal poetry, tariff schedules, rutabaga-growing, motor-car designing, the history of Voronezh, the style of Matthew Arnold, the diagnosis of myohypertrophia kymoparalytica, and department-store advertising.  Its president is the best money-raiser and the best after-dinner speaker in the United States; and Winnemac was the first school in the world to conduct its extension courses by radio.

It is not a snobbish rich-man’s college, devoted to leisurely nonsense.  It is the property of the people of the state, and what they want—or what they are told they want—is a mill to turn out men and women who will lead moral lives, play bridge, drive good cars, be enterprising in business, and occasionally mention books, though they are not expected to have time to read them.  It is a Ford Motor Factory, and if its products rattle a little, they are beautifully standardized, with perfectly interchangeable parts.  Hourly the University of Winnemac grows in numbers and influence, and by 1950 one may expect it to have created an entirely new world-civilization, a civilization larger and brisker and purer.

Remember, this is 1926…we’re still a long ways from Malvina Reynolds writing “Little Boxes” and Tom Lehrer belting out “Fight Fiercely, Harvard”.  There certainly was a counterculture in the 1920s, but it’s still impressive to realize it was this mainstream.  I do want to note, though, that Sinclair Lewis refused to accept the Pulitzer for this novel.  I don’t know exactly why (principled opposition to the concept of the prize? a sour reaction to their having snubbed Main Street?), but I’ll find out and share it with you soon enough.  In the meantime, it’s an interesting book, and I’m curious to see where Martin Arrowsmith goes, and what he does.

“You can’t run away far enough. Except you stop living you can’t run away from life.”

Maartje Pool, for an overworked and thoroughly task-focused farmer’s wife, offers a very philosophical perspective to Selina on the eve of her wedding.  A true one, too, I’d say.  Selina’s sudden panic at the thought of tying herself to farm life in High Prairie forever is certainly understandable, but the heart has its reasons, I suppose.

In all honesty, I can understand her heart’s reasons in this case, as she prepares to marry the sturdy and kind Pervus De Jong.  He steps in to spare her embarassment in public in a surprisingly sweet way, and then pays her for reading lessons.  He’s a simple man, whose run of bad luck (whether we consider crop failures, the deaths of his first wife and their only child, etc.) is shockingly consistent.

I do like Edna Ferber’s work to keep the story grounded in reality. The courtship of Selina and Pervus is a bit too easy, but even there, Ferber offers a lot of context (especially in the attitudes of the Pool family, including Roelf, the 13 year old boy who is not-so-secretly in love with Selina) that keeps it from being a fairy tale.  And Selina’s life after the wedding is the rough, exhausting, never-ending drudge of a life that every woman in the community seems to lead.  These Great Lakes farms do not bear the storied amber waves of grain…they are lucky if good cabbages can be produced.  And Pervus is never lucky.

He refuses to take his wife’s advice on planting—her experience in it is all book learning, of course—preferring to trust the same techniques and practices his father used (and perhaps his father before him).  But he’s not a monster.  Pervus is exactly who he always was—a simple, kindly man who sincerely loves his young wife (and their newborn son, Dirk), but someone who has no concept, even, of the life that Selina wants to lead.  She is desperate to go back to “culture” and “society”, but she can’t even get Pervus to repaint their wagon.  They may be in love, but this was a poor match.

I don’t know if the tale is intended to be cautionary, but it certainly serves that purpose.  Selina, a young thing and full of passion, thinks that the rapid beating of her heart when Pervus is near will be enough.  I don’t think it will.  Even if she is loyal to him, and he to her, they will never really fulfill each other’s needs.  He will never be interested in the books she reads (let alone read any himself, for them to talk about), and she will never be the homemaker that Maartje Pool is.  I hate to be a downer about this…to say that love isn’t the all-conquering force that pop music and Hallmark want us to believe it is.  There’s no other way to account for the reality of relationships, though.

Oddly, this book is titled So Big, which, as noted before, is the nickname young Dirk De Jong gets as a toddler (his mother asks him “how big Baby is” and gets that stock response).  So, where will Selina, our central character for the book’s first 110+ pages, disappear to?  I know that novelists play with the idea of which character is the real protagonist; an idea perhaps most famously stated in the opening line of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”).  But given the otherwise straightforward nature of this book’s plot, it’s hard to see why and how Dirk “So Big” De Jong will supplant his mother—and honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine being able to transfer my emotional investment in her to him unless it’s done really skillfully.  We’ll see.

Oh, and I have to mention that the brief passages we get of her schoolteaching (before she’s married) are horrifying.  Maybe all teachers at the time really did demand their students to “parse” (or “diagram”) sentences on the fly.  But it strikes me as a rotten way to teach—people reminisce about the good old days, sometimes, but educationally, I ‘d say it appears to me we should be glad to get well clear of 1890s public education (at least in rural areas).

“You’ll find out that pretty nearly everything you believe about life—about marriage, especially—is lies.”

The above words are not what most people would be glad to hear on any occasion.  To hear them, as Claude Wheeler does, after asking a man’s permission to court his daughter, must be even more devastating.  What is strange is that Mr. Royce, whose daughter Enid is a long-time friend of Claude’s and has tended Claude on his sick-bed, doesn’t seem opposed to the marriage for his daughter’s sake.  If anything, he seems to be warning Claude that Enid won’t make him happy, that Enid is a poor choice of a wife (for Claude, at least), and the fellow seems sincere.  Maybe this tells me more about the Royce’s relationship than it does about our author’s attitudes, but it still seems a strange conversation for Cather to offer us.

Generally, I’m enjoying the book a lot.  Claude’s struggles as a farmer (and his difficulties relating to his family, as well as his trouble figuring out who to court and how to court them) are interesting, occasionally amusing, and seem to endear him more and more to me even as they reveal his deepest flaws.  The background of all this is how much the world is changing—the mill runs on a gas engine now, not water power.  Claude reflects at length on the strangeness of the farmer’s world, in which truly excellent produce and livestock are sold, and the money is used to buy cheap, flimsy, unreliable bits of machinery and furniture.  A horse, he notes, will last you three times as long as an automobile: we might be down to “twice as long” now (with the exception of my father’s ancient green van) but it’s still an interesting idea.  Claude’s family and friends are an interesting group, especially the housekeeper, Mahailey, who chatters in some indescribable brogue and bustles about the house during a snowstorm wearing a specially hideous coat and hat she saves for “calamitous occasions”.  Even Enid, who’s become suddenly a major character in the story, is a more complicated creature than simply the attractive girl next door.  I am fairly certain Claude’s dreams of romance are doomed (this section of the novel, Book II, is entitled “Enid”…I’m thinking that the last book would bear her name if a successful courtship was likely), but I’ll admit I can’t figure out why.  If Enid turns Claude down after the way she’s behaved towards him, I’ll certainly understand his shock.  It’s funny, though–by page 150, you’d think I could tell you what this novel is “about” but I can’t say I’m certain yet.  It’s about more than Claude Wheeler learning to love the right girl, or learning that farming is pretty hard after all, or learning that the academic life is the life for him.  More than that, I cannot say.

What I will say again is that Cather is a good writer, and this book is a good read.  It does not sparkle with the same wit and humor that Edith Wharton has at her fingertips, but there is a quality to this society and these characters that is undeniably appealing without being excessively cheery.  There are real tensions–the society’s reactions to Ernest’s atheism (and the suspicion that Claude shares his skepticism), or perhaps the awkward and often unpleasant behavior of Bayliss, Claude’s older brother.  None of it surges over into melodrama, though–in many ways, I feel I’m reading the sort of book about Nebraska that Tarkington wanted to write about Indiana.  A wide, sweeping view of the community in which the characters live, casting an eye somewhat critically on the “progress” that is changing the world.  A focus on a young person who does not quite understand themselves for who they are, and who, for good or bad, feels a sense of detachment from the family and friends who surround them.  I wish Booth had read some of Cather’s work and taken it more to heart.

So, both to illustrate the style of Cather (to contrast it with the excerpts I gave of Wharton’s work) and to share a little moment I enjoyed, here’s a snippet from one of the chapters on the snowstorm:

“He rose and went to look out, but the west windows were so plastered with snow that they were opaque.  Even from the one on the south he could see nothing for a moment; then Mahailey must have carried her lamp to the kitchen window beneath, for all at once a broad yellow beam shone out into the choked air, and down it millions of snowflakes hurried like armies, an unceasing progression, moving as close as they could without forming a solid mass.  Claude struck the frozen window-frame with his fist, lifted the lower sash, and thrusting out his head tried to look abroad into the engulfed night.  There was a solemnity about a storm of such magnitude; it gave one a feeling of infinity.  The myriads of white particles that crossed the rays of lamplight seemed to have a quiet purpose, to be hurrying toward a definite end.  A faint purity, like a fragrance almost too fine for human senses, exhaled from them as they clustered about his head and shoulders.”