Thursday, November 08, 2012

A Sense of Place: The Midwest & Margaret Wilson's The Able McLaughlins

Willa Cather's childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
The Midwest is not the landscape of literature.  I've bicycled on trails all over the Midwest, between bluffs and a river on the Root River Trail in Minnesota, through woods and corn fields in the Loess Hills of Iowa, and on a creekside trail in Nebraska so windy I could barely pedal.  But I've seldom recognized these places in books.  I lack a literary sense of place.

Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather, author of My Antonia, A Lost Lady, and Lucy Gayheart, was the first writer who made the prairie and the little Midwestern towns vivid to me. There are a surprising number of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists who write about the Midwest, among them Sinclair Lewis (Arrowsmith), Booth Tarkington (Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons),  Toni Morrison (Beloved),  Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres),  and Marilynne Robinson (Gilead).

But one Pulitzer Prize-winning Midwestern writer, Margaret Wilson, has fallen off the literary mapThe Able McLaughlins, which won in 1924, deserves to be revived.  

Set in Iowa during and after the Civil War, this compelling novel has both a protofeminist theme and a philosophical bent.  It centers on a family secret. 

Wully McLaughlin, a Civil War soldier at home on leave, is anxious and ill when he meets Chirstie McNair, the beautiful daughter of a parsimonious neighboring farmer.  With someone to love and fight for, Wully faces the terrors of war again, but when he returns for good, something has happened.  Chirstie will barely look at him and even threatens him with a gun.  The secret is that Chirstie has been raped. 

When Wully discovers the secret, he threatens the rapist, their cousin Peter, with violence, telling him he must leave Iowa that nightChirstie slowly recovers her self-respect, amazed that Wully does not blame her for the rape and the pregnancy.  The couple are happy and well-liked and keep the secret of the rape, and though some blame them for the baby born too soon which is obviously the result of sinful pre-marital sex, Wully's mother stands up for them and keeps the gossip down.  The couple are happy with their baby on their own farm until something unexpected and terrifying happens.  Peter returns.

This is not, overall, a violent novel.  It is not a novel of vengeance.  It focuses on everyday people and the joy and faith of a close family of Scotch immigrants who have prospered on the prairie. The writing is simple but moving, but the novel also asks philosophical questions and seeks out-of-the-ordinary solutions. Wilson, an Iowa-born writer who graduated from the University of Chicago, worked as a missionary in India, and returned to Chicago and attended Divinity School before she began to write short stories and novels in the 1920s, has an unusual point of view. 

There is much humor in some of the other threads of the story, and Wilson portrays many charming, eccenetric characters.  Chirstie's widowed father, a stingy farmer who has gone back to Scotland to recover an inheritance, returns with a new wife, Barbara, "a wee body" who makes beautiful dresses, refuses to go outside in the muck or snow, and eventually rules the house.  Barbara hates the prairie, and every day tells her husband she cannot live in a sty and must have a house like Chirstie's.  Finally she wins, and is determined to beautify the house.  They go to town so she can buy flowers, and a woman gardener gives the amazing history of her flowers.  There is some beautiful writing here.

"That rose, the lady explained, she had brought with her from Davenport, in a little box with grape cuttings and the peony, which  she had carried in her lap in a covered wagon long before there were railroads to the town.  She had brought it to Davenport coming down the Ohio and up the Mississippi soon after she was married.  A woman had given it to her when she left Ohio for the West.  The peony her mother had brought from eastern to western Oho many years ago, and when she had died, the daughter had chosen the peony for her share of the estate.  Her mother had got it from her mother, who came a bride to Ohio from western New York, clasping it against her noisy heart, out of the way of the high waters her husband had led her horse through, across unbridged streams, cherishing it more resolutely than the household stuffs which had to be abandoned in pathless woods."

The history of the flowers goes on, but that is as much as I can type now.

I am not saying it is a great book:  don't misunderstand me.  But it is good.  It is worth reading. It belongs with the novels of Booth Tarkington and Bess Streeter Aldrich, which are underrated.  And I hope I will be able to find the sequel, The Law and the McLaughlins.


Sherry Jones said...

Did I twll you that I finished "Too Dear for My Possessing" and loved it? The second book in this trilogy is on its way to me, and I am so excited! Thank you, again, for bringing us books that we might not otherwise have even heard of. I love your blog!

Frisbee said...

So glad you liked it! Pamela Hansford Johnson is one of my favorite writers. And that reminds me, I have to reread the THIRD book in the trilogy.

Frisbee said...

I am posting this comment for Ellen:

For your blog: I doubt she's the same person who wrote the life of Fanny Austen Knight - but who knows. It sounds like a good book and it's telling it felll off the literary map. I've just been writing about maps and have this comment to add from my blog:

I enjoyed your Willa Cather blog too. I like her so. I know you've visited her house once.

Frisbee said...

Ellen, she's not the biographer but Wilson is such a common name. There's very little about my Margaret on the internet, and I'm not sure what I found on Wikipedia is accurate. She is one writer I'd like to read more of, but I WOULD like to know which of her other books are worth reading. I don't like ordering "blind" off the internet.

I look forward to reading your blog entry.

Vintage Reading said...

Perhaps we need an American equivalent of Persephone books to re-discover forgotten women's writing. I'd like to read this. I'll never forget Willa Cather's wonderful descriptions of the burning red dust of Iowa at the beginning of My Antonia.

Frisbee said...

Yes, it's very odd that we DON'T have a Persephone equivalent.