Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
The author writes about her childhood – the experiences and feelings of her six-year-old self – with a simplicity that gives this book its appeal. The story she has to tell is one of a pioneer family’s life. What comes across forcefully is the resourcefulness needed to survive. Pa can build a house from scratch, dig a well, shoot game, plant a crop. When a prairie fire comes sweeping toward them, he knows exactly what he and Ma must do to save themselves. On those occasions when he goes to Independence for supplies, or is late to come home, apprehension sets in; Pa is the linchpin of the family. Ma is the glue; she does her full share of work, but she also imposes orderliness; despite the fact that they have a dirt floor, the house must be clean and tidy, and Laura and her older sister must be well-mannered young ladies. These people are strong in spirit, resilient, upbeat; pioneers must be or they would crumble in the face of the many hardships and dangers they encounter. In one chapter a huge pack of wolves surrounds the house. The entire Wilder family is felled by what they call “fever ’n’ ague” (it’s actually malaria). A neighbor tends to them; though separated by miles, people come to the aid of each other when needed. As for Indians, they’re not seen in today’s politically correct terms; Pa believes that, since he developed the land into a farm, it should be his. The Indians are hostile, sometimes threatening, though never violent. In the end the government orders the settlers off the land, so the Wilder family pack their wagon and leave all they worked so hard to make. They move on to their next home, and many young readers followed. Why the huge success of this series? The overriding feeling this book imparts is one of warmth, and this warmth comes from love. The Wilders loved one another, and therefore Laura’s childhood was idyllic.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
Initially I was impressed by this novel, especially when I learned that the author was in his mid-twenties when he wrote it. Kesey’s two antagonists are archetypes: McMurphy is the unconditioned, untamed male, Nurse Ratched the emasculating female; in the confines of a mental hospital they become engaged in a deadly battle of wills. The narrator is a broom-wielding Indian inmate who relates what he witnesses and also conveys his vision of a world controlled by an inhuman Combine. But when I passed the halfway point an array of nagging problems set in, mostly involving the Chief (McMurphy’s name for the narrator). The accumulation of things he sees and hears becomes unlikely (he’s everywhere). Then he begins to enter the minds of other characters; the switch to third-person omniscient is jarring. The Chief becomes a participator in events, but he was more interesting when he was a shadowy observer. Also, I felt that Kesey inspiration and drive had petered out, and he was groping around for ways to move his story forward; what he comes up with too often are juvenile hijinks. Would the fishing trip, which is to be chaperoned by “two sweet old aunts,” be allowed by the hospital staff, especially when one of the aunts shows up and is young, pretty and scantily clothed? A problem for the novel is that the movie version was better. Being more compact, it eliminated most of the meandering, and the Chief doesn’t carry the burden of narrator. As I read the final pages I realized that I was seeing the closing scenes from the film, and it was those remembered scenes that moved me. Though one thing the book did at the end that the movie didn’t. When the lobotomized McMurphy is returned to the ward – now a vegetable which Nurse Ratched puts on display – the men dismiss him as a fake. “Aaah, what’s the old bitch tryin’ to pull over on us anyhow, for crap sakes. That ain’t him.” In this statement Kesey returns to his original theme: men need the untamed McMurphys to roam the world.
The Wine of Solitude – Irene Nemirovsky (French)
In Helene’s highly dysfunctional family her mother is a selfish, amoral beauty who treats her daughter with aggressive disdain and her father is an amiable absentee, compelled to go out gambling nightly. At age twelve cynical, world-weary Helene wants her father’s love and harbors a hatred for her mother; at age twenty-one cynical, world-weary Helene wants her father’s love and harbors a hatred for her mother (and gloatingly watches the woman’s beauty erode as her own grows). She decides to get revenge by stealing the affections of her mother’s layabout lover. She succeeds, though she never allows him more than kisses; he departs in disgust (can’t blame him). Nemirovsky severely exaggerates emotions while failing to develop the personalities who are feeling those emotions; as a result her characters turn into caricatures striking dramatic poses (the father’s deathbed scene was so overwrought that it became silly). And I started to have practical questions about our heroine. Why, as a grown woman, doesn’t she have a life outside her family? Why hasn’t she developed intellectually or morally? Can’t she do something more constructive with her days than plot? The author obviously recognized this flaw, so in the ending she lets Helene soar, free as the wind: “ ‘I’m not afraid of life,’ she thought. ‘The past has given me the first experiences of the world. They have been exceptionally difficult, but they have forged my courage and my pride. And that immutable treasure is mine, and belongs to me. I may be alone, but my solitude is powerful and intoxicating.’ ” Right, sure. A novel like this has a perverse appeal: its faults are entertaining (“forged my courage” – that kind of thing). And Nemirovsky can write well; the atmospheres of the various places the Karol family flee to in the wake of the Russian Revolution (Kiev, St Petersburg, Finland, Paris) are evoked nicely (though, through Helene’s eyes, all except Finland are grim and joyless). In the beginning I found her negativity to be bracing; as a thirteen-year-old she looks at a picture of a happy family in her textbook and thinks, “Good Lord! What imbeciles . . .” The picture may depict a lie, but the author of this book doesn’t come up with any truths either.