The Distant Music – H. L. Davis
I turned to this book because I wanted more of what Davis did so well in his first novel, Honey in the Horn. But instead the one flaw in Horn was the dominant feature of Music. Davis couldn’t depict close relationships, especially those between men and women, and in this generational saga we have a plethora of relationships. Paragraphs describing feelings are an unintelligible jumble, major characters are disposed of in a cursory way, love is absent, even between parent and child. As in Horn, his ability to render full-bodied dialogue and to tell a lively anecdote are major virtues. But the humor so abundant in Horn is absent from Music. This is a much darker novel. Its people are hard, reticent, distrustful; ambitions that begin in defiance invariably end in deterioration. The same can be said of the land; man’s helter-skelter progress destroys all natural beauty. Davis’s point-of-view about life comes across forcibly, but his one inadequacy as a novelist is fully exposed in his ending. He has six characters caught up in an emotional quagmire; he needed to bring about a comprehensible resolution, but instead he flails along for many pages, then abandons all of them. Though the book is a failure, the imprint of Davis’s personalty was so strong that I was motivated to find out more about him. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Music was an end-of-life work by a man whose final years were marked by physical suffering and emotional turmoil. Early on in the novel he writes, “In that country the change from youth to maturity was not a process of enlargement, but of narrowing down from an infinite range of light and transitory interests to a few serious ones, possibly six or eight. The change from maturity to old age narrowed them still further, usually not to more than two or three, and finally to only one or none at all.”
O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
This novel isn’t about the hardships of pioneering in Nebraska in the 1800s; it’s about relationships. In the first chapter the four main characters are introduced. Alexandra is in her late teens, her friend Carl is a few years younger, and her brother Emil is five. Carl rescues a kitten that has fled to the top of a telegraph pole. Later Alexandra and Emil go into a general store where a little girl named Marie is being shown off by her uncle; Marie and Emil begin playing with the kitten. We will follow the lives of these people for the next twenty years. Of Alexandra Cather writes, “Her mind was slow, truthful, steadfast. She had not the least spark of cleverness.” It’s these qualities that make her the solid core of the novel. She’s oblivious of her beauty; in the opening scene, when she removes her veil to put around her brother’s neck, a traveling man emerges from the store: “He took his cigar out of his mouth and held the wet end between the fingers of his woolen glove. ‘My God, girl, what a head of hair!’ he exclaimed, quite innocently and foolishly.” She stabs him with a look of “Amazonian fierceness.” Which brings up another aspect of Alexandra: “Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries.” Yet she does have a recurring reverie in which she’s “being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as if she were a sheaf of wheat.” Though she’s self-sufficient, she does need friends, and to them she’s reliable and generous. No better friend exists for her than Carl, but he’s restless, unhappy with the difficult life of a farmer on the High Plains, and he departs for the city. Emil grows to young manhood; Marie, who is married, lives nearby; that these two love one another leads to tragedy. One hopes, in a book as good as this one, that the author won’t make a misstep. But Cather lets her emotionality override her restraint; for me the tragedy was overwrought and melodramatic. I wanted the “white book, with the clear writing” to continue on its calm way. I was, for a week, one of the “happy few” who read that book.
The Country of the Pointed Firs – Sarah Orne Jewett
Jewett gives a resolutely positive depiction of life in a small town on the coast of Maine in the late 1800s. In describing Mrs. Blackett she writes, “Those dear old fingers and their loving stitches, that heart that had made the most of everything that needed love!” There are too many frilly adjectives insisting on the qualities of preciousness and charm. People show generosity toward each other because they know the danger of isolation in such an isolated place; interdependency is a necessity, if only as a means for socializing. One character, “poor Joanna,” is disappointed in love and goes to live alone on a small island called Shell-heap; that people respect her decision but still care for and help her is to their credit. Eccentricities are common in Dunnet, and are observed closely. Very closely. If one is alert to undercurrents the human tendencies to be nosy, to engage in gossipy sniping and to hold onto petty grievances are evident. Yet this remains an undercurrent; the surface of the book is placid. What gives it spirit and verve is Jewett’s ability to portray people through their speech; in this case, Maine dialect. And do her people talk! Mrs. Almira Todd, in whose house our observant narrator stays, is an especially vivid creation: “Last time I was up this way that tree was kind of drooping and discouraged. Grown trees act that way sometimes, same’s folks; then they’ll put right to it and strike their roots off into new ground and start all over again with real good courage.” There’s some gentle folk wisdom to be found on these pages. Willa Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to Jewett, “whose beautiful and delicate work there is the perfection that endures.” My reaction was more moderate: I felt I had been on a pleasant vacation, but I was glad that I didn’t stick around for the harsh winter months.