Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Place to Belong

I've finished the fifth Pulitzer-winning book, One of Ours, by Willa Cather. It's excellent. In college I read two of Cather's other novels, My Ántonia and O Pioneers!, and I don't have fond memories of either one. In fact, I don't really have any memories of either one because I'm not sure I finished reading them. When this challenge is complete I plan to revisit those novels. Sometimes with books, as it can be with people, the timing is just not right.

The hero of One of Ours is a young Nebraskan farmer boy named Claude Wheeler. Claude is intelligent, sensitive and passionate. He's also a little bit sad most of the time. From the time he is a young man he knows he doesn't exactly fit in with the farmer's life that he was born into; yet no matter where he looks for a place to belong he can't seem to find one. First he tries college, but he dislikes the religious school his family has sent him to. He tries to convince his parents to allow him to transfer to the state school, but to no avail. Before he is able to finish college his father impels him to take on managing the family farm so that he can invest in a ranch in Colorado. Claude manages the farm ably, but he gets no joy from it and his restlessness only deepens.

His need to belong leads him into an ill-fated marriage to Enid Royce. No one wants Claude to marry Enid, not his friends, not his father, but none of them utters a word of warning or caution to persuade him otherwise. Prior to their marriage Claude is feeling lonely and dissatisfied, but he is young and has no prior experience with love and so he manages to bury these feelings with some very misguided beliefs about what happens to people once they are married:

"Everything would be all right when they were married, Claude told himself. He believed in the transforming power of marriage, as his mother believed in the miraculous effects of conversion. Marriage reduced all women to a common denominator; changed a cool, self-satisfied girl into a loving and generous one. It was quite right that Enid should be unconscious now of everything that she was to be when she was his wife. He told himself he wouldn't want it otherwise. But he was lonely, all the same."

Um, no. No, no, no.

I found Claude's marriage to Enid particularly tragic. At first she seems like a quiet, reserved, devout Christian girl, had she not chosen to accept Claude's offer of marriage she would have gone to China to join her older sister in missionary work; however, on their wedding night (spent on an overnight train to the honeymoon destination) she asks Claude to let her sleep alone in the state room and he spends an uncomfortable evening in the dirty smoking car. The next morning she is painfully oblivious to how much she wounded her new husband. It only gets worse from there.

This book was published in 1922, so of course there is no direct discussion of sex, but as time passes it seems that perhaps Claude and Enid go several years and barely embrace each other, let alone actually consummate their union. Claude's longing is not of a base sexual variety - for he longs to find a real companion, a wife with whom he belongs, with whom he fits. The bitter disappointment he feels when he realizes that Enid is not the woman for him is tremendous. For my own part I also felt regret that he was never able to find a woman to share his passion - both emotional and sexual. I'm confident he would have been the best kind of lover. Enid really missed out. The lessons here: 1) Don't marry the wrong person; 2) Really spend time getting to know someone before you marry them so that you can avoid item #1; and 3) Once you've gotten to know someone, don't expect him or her to turn into a whole different person just because they are going to marry you.

Eventually Enid goes to China to care for her missionary sister who has fallen gravely ill. With his wife now as physically absent as she was emotionally absent, and America's entrance into the First World War imminent, Claude enlists in the military, eager to fight for a cause he can believe in. I don't want to spoil the ending so I'll not say much about the final chapters of the book, but suffice it to say that Claude finds himself fighting in France and for the first and only time in his life he is where he belongs. I read the final two pages of the book three times in a row before closing the cover.

One of Ours is the longest of the novels so far and I listened to substantial sections of it while driving, courtesy of LibriVox. If you are a fan of audiobooks and/or you like things that are free, you should definitely check it out.

The next book on the list is The Able McLaughlins, by Margaret Wilson, and it is about Scottish immigrants in the United States in the 1870s. When I told The Boyfriend about it at dinner he said, "Is it about the Highlander? About Connor MacLeod and the MacLeod clan?" Definitely not. Of the five books read, the two written by women are far superior to the three written by men, so let's hope that trend continues. Girl power!  

Note of interest: There are all sorts of references to a "vegetarian sanatorium in Michigan" at which Enid and her mother spend summers. This led me to do a little bit of research and I found out some very unsettling facts about John Harvey Kellogg, the co-founder of Kellogg cereals in Battle Creek, Michigan. He believed that meat enhanced sexual urges (and sex is dirty!) and was an advocate of a vegetarian diet (which I find hilarious because I know a lot of vegetarians and they all love to get it on). Also, he believed that masturbation was super duper extra terrible and evil and basically proposed all kinds of 'techniques' for genital mutilation to discourage it, including stitching up foreskins with silver wire (ouch!) and burning clitorises with carbolic acid (ouch!!). No, seriously. Think about THAT the next time you eat a bowl of Corn Flakes. Interested parties may want to check out some of these links:


Emily said...

I love when a fictional story weaves some historical factoids the "vegetarian sanatorium" here or the paralysis from drinking some kind of refined alcohol during prohibition in Water for Elephants, oh, not to mention the whole traveling circuses/sideshows from that era. I may need to read some of these a good story with some factual historical basis.

Maria said...

Emily I think you would enjoy this book a lot. Let me know if you end up reading it!

Louise Treadwell said...

Emily, if you love historical factoids then you definitely would enjoy "One of Ours" and really most of the books on this list. Each one was peppered with them, some quite heavily! That has been the best part about this challenge to me: That these facts have been included not to instruct us, but because they would have been very standard and familiar to the contemporary readers. It really is like time traveling!

Louise Treadwell said...

It just occurred to me that there was only ONE person who did openly try to dissuade him from marrying that girl. HER FATHER. If a girl's own dad thinks she will make a miserable and sorry excuse for a wife, maybe you should listen, eh?

Maria said...

Oh I forgot about that! You're right. Also, when Claude is preparing to depart for the war there's that line about how Mr. Royce "felt his womenfolk had no heart" - or something like that. I found that to be very poignant, Enid's father reflecting on how cold she and her sister and her mother are.