Thursday, June 25, 2009

More Ruth Suckow

You know it’s the hottest summer of your life when you don't bother to shave your legs. When you go out on your bicycle, flecks of mud and bugs stick to your sunblock, and the floppy capris cover 3/4 of your legs anyway. The construction worker directing traffic respectfully calls you “Ma’am” as you weave between bulldozers. (You've been wasting your time shaving your legs.) In shimmering 95-degree heat, you bike to the air-conditioned public library (the computerized library telephone voice has threatened to send a posse to collect your overdue books). When you reach the library, you guzzle half a bottle of water, hurry inside dripping with sweat, check out more Ruth Suckow books, and pay a $23 fine. Did you know they take Mastercard and Visa?

I checked out The Odyssey of a Nice Girl (1925) and Carry-Over (1936), which is an omnibus that contains two novels, Country People (1924) and The Bonney Family (1928), as well as some short stories. This fiction is as slow as molasses, but Suckow's plain style matches the simplicity of the middle-class midwesterners whose lives centered on church and neighborliness almost 100 years ago. Born in Hawarden, Iowa, where her father was pastor of the Congregational church, Suckow studied in Grinnell, Boston, and Denver, where she earned her M.A. in English, and returned to Cedar Falls to get married (eventually she and her husband moved to California). She chronicles women's work and social lives, the extremes of midwestern weather, pioneer history, and the holidays that mark the changing of the seasons.

I’m halfway through New Hope, which is supposed to be a portrait of Hawarden, and am enjoying Suckow's descriptions of small-town life. Nobody knows this - but I once went to a taffy pull. And I have attended various Pioneer Days festivals and church suppers, all in the line of New Hope. Suckow’s characters' social lives revolve around the church, and she describes in detail their preparations for a Thanksgiving festival, the Christmas-service and gift-giving in the Primary Room, choir practice and fudge-making at the Millers, kaffeeklatsches, cooking big suppers, and the Miller girls' flirtations and rendezvous, which often take place at church. Bess, the oldest daughter, gets engaged at Christmas, but slyly waits till Easter to announce it by wearing her diamond ring with an inappropriate spring dress in wintry weather. Her cranky younger sister, Edie, drops out of school and refuses to discuss marriage and future plans. And their beautiful, finicky, cynical sister, Irene, makes a bet with a friend that she can get the wealthy Harvard-educated Vincent to come out of his house and notice her. She relates the triumph to her sisters and friends as they primp and get ready for the Easter evening service.

Irene didn’t seem to mind telling the story. Her voice had a note of subdued sweet malice. The children had heard that note before; they admired, and were wary of that tone. ...Reports were all around that Vincent had said he had no time to waste on any girl brought up in the atmosphere of New Hope; although Alicia Donohue was a beauty in her way...

How does she attract him? Irene crosses the muddy street in front of Vincent’s house and walks into a puddle, where her shoes get stuck. Vincent comes out of the house and extricates her from the mud. Then he gives her a pair of his mother’s slippers and entertains her while the maid to dries and clean her dainty slippers.

But where were her rubbers?

“That smile curved Irene’s lips. A dimple showed faintly in one cheek. 'Look under the sidewalk near Vance’s crossing,’ she said demurely, as she took up her silk waist to put it on."

There isn't much of a plot and it's not really necessary to finish these books. Read a little bit - enjoy the small-town scenes - and then put the book aside. She's not a great writer, but I'm adding her books to the ranks of regional fiction by the likes of Bess Streeter Aldrich, Mildred Walker, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. (My personal opinion: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the best known, is the most overrated writer of the group. Now I'm not saying Suckow is better. I'm saying Canfield Fisher is overrated).

Well, off to cope. The air conditioning is broken. I may have to read something a little more spellbinding.


Ellen said...

We never did read Dorothy Canfield Fisher on WWTTA. We meant to, just never did. I have two novels by her in the house, one scholarly book.

The books you mention and this one show why Glaspell's books were so revolutionary I suppose. I felt last weekend when I was in Cleveland I was seeing a bit of mid-western America and its older history when we went round the city.

We are hot too. I'm too much a coward to bike but I get into my car and drive without air conditioning so I know what you mean.

What's a taffy-pull?


I've read The Homemaker and thought it was just all right. Many people love her, though. I was prepared for a new Kate Chopin. Imagine my disappointment.

Glaspell is more my kind of writer.

Interestingly enough, Ruth Suckow and Dorothy Canfield Fisher corresponded.

As to your final question: Oh my goodness, what's a taffy pull?

I went to one in a small town very like New Hope.

It's a taffy-making party. The group makes taffy (the candy). It reaches a certain consistency and two people hold opposite ends and pull it. As I recall, the men pulled the taffy while the women cooked.

I was one of the wrappers. (I wrapped the candy.)

Very old-fashioned!