Monday, July 2, 2012

Book #6: The Able McLaughlins aka Kissing Cousins

I was dreading reading this book at first because I thought it was going to be another plodding story about an infuriatingly silly American family. Clearly, I was prejudging based on the title which reminded me way too much of The Magnificent Amberson. I was dreading this book so much that I was trying to find excuses to skip it or even abandon the project entirely! Ha! However, Maria texted me a picture of the back cover of her copy and my interest was peaked. The exact content of my reply was: "Blah blah blah, farm, blah blah blah frontier, blah blah blah oh! Conflict of old world customs. Okay that part sounds promising."

Sadly, there wasn't much in the way of "conflict of old world customs" but that in no way meant the book didn't have plenty to offer in other ways.
For one, this plot was flat out and simply GOOD. I sped through this book like none other. Partially because I was reading it via a free trial for an online records service but also because I had a burning desire to know what was coming next in the story. My husband got a kick out of watching me read this one with all of my gasping, shouting, wet eyes, and laughing. Definitely not the reaction you would expect about the 1860s adventures of a large extended Scots family who immigrated to Iowa. I was pretty much expecting cows and kilts.

Instead, Margaret Wilson gave us an absolutely brilliant sketch of a painfully real family with all of their conflicts and joys. A few of these characters will stick with me for a very long time. In particular the main character Wully and his admirable parents Isobel and John. Wully is about as perfect as a man as Ms. Wilson could have written. He has all of the best qualities from both of his level-headed and responsible parents while still holding onto just enough of his innocent boyish ways to make him that much more lovable. It is important to note that Wully moved to America with his parents (and many many many siblings) when he was 10 years old. Despite his young age at the time of his immigration, he moved to rural Iowa in the midst of an extremely close knit family that more or less completely relocated itself from another town in Scotland. For these reasons, I can't say that Wully's story is that of a 1st generation American. He is very proud of his heritage and his idea of what it means to be an American doesn't seem to ever come into conflict with what it means to be Scots. He doesn't spend much time reflecting about Americanism or the differences between the old world and the new. The entire community seems engaged and well versed in political affairs and eager to exercise their right to vote as Americans. They seem to share the upper-class Victorian-American tradition seen in Age of Innocence of almost exclusively marrying their close cousins. Wully's "love" triangle (a crucial part of the plot) involves his first cousin on his mother's side and his first cousin on his father's side. Despite how odd that may seem to some modern readers, it is important to note that cousin marriages were extremely common and perfectly legal in the US during this time period. Of course cousin marriages were beyond common amongst the upper-class and especially European royalty who were wary of bringing commoners into the fold. The whole history of cousin marriage is actually quite interesting and conflicted. But in this story, we are shown the benefits of two family members being wed. The in-laws already know one other and are very quick and eager to support the new young couple in anyway they can.

Wully is one of the small handful of people in his community who doesn't seem to give much though to politics or government. His only motivations in life seem to be filial piety,  dedication to the country he calls home (by way of military service), a commitment to make something of himself financially, and an incredibly sexy obsession with protecting his own small family. If you have ever wanted to feel the wrath of a man on fire in defense of his wife and child, there are a few pages in this book that will send your heart racing!

Barbara McNair is also a character not to be missed. I don't even want to go into her awesomeness because I won't do it justice.

Ms. Wilson had a very weird quirk in her writing where she would casually speak about the future (in this case, 1923). She might make mention of a small deed done in the 1860s and then tell us what it what its significance would be for the character's children or grandchildren as adults in the 1920s. Or help her readers understand a bit of scenery by describing a barn in the context of what 1920s comforts it lacked. Contrasting the present with the past was also done quite a bit in the other novels, particularly in the nostalgic lamentations of the old fart in His Family. The Civil War and The Great War (WWI) seem to be really significant anchors for all of these Pulitzer authors. Each have been featured in these stories in the same frozen in time way that Kennedy's and Martin Luther King's assassinations were for our parents or how 9/11 is for my generation. I am curious to see what other non-war related events make a consistent appearance in some of the future books!

1 comment:

Maria said...

"I was pretty much expecting cows and kilts." Ha ha ha!