Friday, June 1, 2012

Book #1: His Family by Ernest Poole

Aren't I an eager thing? Day 1 has come to a close and I have already knocked out the first book on our list, His Family by Ernest Poole.

Prior to this challenge, I had never heard of this book. It takes place in pre-war New York City and revolves around, well, a family. It really is as simple and complicated as just that: a story about a family. But of course because this book was published in 1917 and takes place in 1914, it is really a story about an old man who is watching the world around him change from the elegant and refined Victorian era of his youth into the wild and lusty Jazz age that is soon to come. What makes this book an especially interesting ride is that the author, due to his lack of possession of a time machine, has no clue what Jazz or Flappers or The Roaring 20s are. From his frozen moment in history, he can only share with the readers all of the symptoms of this era that we know is soon to come. As a bonus, we get introduced to America's first "Helicopter Mom" who is dedicated to hovering over her oversocialized and painfully commercialized children. We also get to read about changes in attitudes about education of children, the modern woman, women's suffrage, the NYC skyline, the NYC subway system, and the main character's horror at the increasing diversity of NYC.

Actually, to call his reaction "horror" is a pretty poor way to put it. Roger Gale, the patriarch of the family and the main character, behaves a bit like a nervous small dog throughout most of the book.
He fidgets, he  nips, he whimpers, and cowers about the city, not quite sure how to react to this new modern world that has been forced upon him. In doing the math, he was born in the 1850s and grew up during the Civil War  in a world free from motor cars, movie theaters, and telephones. However he doesn't seem phased by technology. He seems phased by PEOPLE. Especially those of the Italian and Jewish variety who dare to breed freely. In 2012, we would sum up Roger as a "Racist Old Fart" but it would seem that in 1914 he was nothing more than a "relic of a better time" or a "victim of the arrival of the unwashed masses." Seeing how he (and some of his family members) try to justify and make light of their racist notions was well worth the read. I can admit that there were a few times that I almost felt sorry for him and began to see his point of view. That is until I remembered that he was talking about human beings and not vermin. The main lesson I took from his racism is that it is just as silly to hate a man you don't really know as it is to love a family member you only think you know. Everyone deserves a chance to be truly known and then loved or hated accordingly.

There were also some pretty solid moments of sexism in the book of the "Oh look, she is so smart for a girl!" variety. These instances were too numerous to mention and clearly reflected the main character's struggle with his genuine love and respect for women but his unsureness about how much he loved women having a purpose beyond being in possession of a functioning womb.

I don't want to give the impression that this book is one long rant about the racist and sexist notions of a man who has reached the end of the line. That is just one sliver of Roger's personality and Poole gives us so many layers to this man. Even better, his layers are shed and re-cloaked often as the story goes on. Poole's entire cast of characters are each interesting, relatable, infuriating, and so well drawn out that you can very clearly hear their voices and anticipate their actions. Each of Roger's daughters had her own quirks. One daughter in particular was begging to be smacked soundly in the face by someone, anyone. If your characters incite me to violence, you've done a good job fleshing them out! The family is this book is REAL with breath and blood and tears and dreams. You could pluck this family out of 1914 and place them at any other cross roads in American history and enjoy the drama of their journey from one era to another.

Did I love this book? No. It started off painfully slow and muddled with descriptions to the point that I wanted to chuck my Nook off the balcony a few times. But then, out of nowhere, the plot started to really MOVE and I was completely sucked in. My chief complaint in the actual story telling is that dear Mr. Ernest Poole seems to lack the ability (or desire) to captivatingly describe women's clothing or food. I have to accept that he wasn't writing a period piece so perhaps he had no clue that some dork would be reading his book 100 years later wondering "What was on the table as they breakfasted? Oooh, what was served when they lunchoned? Come on already! What was for supper?!" But seriously, was anyone fashion forward enough to be wearing Chanel? Was anyone old fashioned enough to be wearing corsets? I suppose I also have to accept that the book was largely told from the voice of Roger and he hardly seemed like the type of fellow to know anything at all of ladies undergarments. Sigh.

Anyway, it is pretty clear to me why this book was nominated and I suppose also why it won. It is very well written and for sure provides a snapshot into an important moment of American life. Roger's frustrations and fears must have resonated loudly with other middle aged and elderly readers. The fear of growing old, the fear of not having enough time in life, the fear of becoming one of many strangers within your own family, the frustration of being so old and yet still making so many mistakes, and the ultimate fear of seeing the "world" you know and love vanish before your eyes.

I think I'd like to come back and read this book again at age 60 and see what else I can dig out of it. I have to believe Roger's plight will become more poignant to me once my own children are grown and moving on with their lives without me. Maybe at that point I too will come to find a new definition for the word "family."We shall see, eh?

1 comment:

Maria said...

Ha ha ha, the original helicopter mom FOR SURE!