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.
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.
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.
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.”