Monday, July 2, 2012

What We've Got Here Is A Failure to Communicate

When I was a little girl I loved the Little House on the Prairie books. And I mean, I loved them a lot. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. One summer I dressed up practically every day in a long skirt that belonged to my mom and wore the bonnet that I got when my third grade class visited the one room schoolhouse at Greenfield Village and I just pretended, all day long, that I lived in Laura's world. I must have read each of the seven Little House books three or four times apiece. So it's not surprising that now, twenty years on from my days of prairie pretending, I find myself enjoying grown up stories of American prairie life.

Our sixth Pulitzer winner is The Able McLaughlins, by Margaret Wilson, and it is essentially a love story about Wully (short for William) McLaughlin and Chirstie McNair, who live with their respective Scottish-American families on the prairie in the "middle west" in the 1860s. Where exactly the "middle west" is located I'm not sure; at times I thought maybe Iowa, but at one point a character 'goes west' and then there is talk about him being in Chicago. So maybe it's Ohio? Somewhere with big wide open spaces. But I digress. Wully returns home injured from fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War and falls immediately (and I literally mean immediately) for Chirstie. He has to return to the service of the military to fulfill his commitment though, and when he comes home for good he finds Christie's behavior toward him greatly changed.

The reason for this change is terrible: while Wully was away Chirstie was raped, and as a result of the rape, she became pregnant.

For the record I would just like to point out how clear that statement was, because Margaret Wilson's circumlocution around the rape made it so incredibly difficult for me to figure out what exactly happened that I ended up looking up a plot summary on Wikipedia to make sure I was interpreting things correctly. It felt strange to continue so far into the story without fully understanding the single most important event in the entire plot.

When Wully confronts the rapist, Peter, he makes this vague confession of guilt, "Let me alone! It's not my fault! Take your hands off me! I never meant to hurt her." And then, "I didn't mean to get her into trouble. I wish I'd never seen her! I offered to marry her once-!" And that's it. From those statements Wully realizes what Peter has done and flies into a murderous rage, forcing Peter to leave town and never return.

Maybe Wully was a mind-reader, a particularly able McLaughlin indeed, because I still had NO idea she'd been raped until a few chapters later when he marries Chirstie and takes all the heat when it's revealed that she's already five-ish months pregnant. And even then there was still room for it to have maybe been just a little bit consensual - it's only until 100+ pages later that some significant, crystal clear details are divulged that make the rape undeniable. At any rate, Wully lets everyone believe that it's his child she's carrying, and that he seduced her before the wedding, and he takes care of her and accepts the child as his own son, and does a bunch of other amazing, chivalrous, generous, superhuman things that save all the people he loves from a terrible heartache and pretty much make him the Greatest Husband Ever. He is an exceptionally endearing character, and I wondered often during my reading if he was based on someone that Ms. Wilson knew personally. If he was, I hope she married that guy!

The characters are what make this book worth reading. My copy of the book is used, was hard to find and has a ton of type-O's - also, at one point a chapter just abruptly ends in the middle of a sentence. On top of the shabby editing, Ms. Wilson doesn't handle transitions from event to event very smoothly, and while I understand that in the mid 1920s authors did not directly acknowledge sex - let alone a violent rape - this book stands out as a singular example of a complete failure to euphemistically communicate a sexual act. And I have read my fair share of Victorian literature, where absolutely everyone is thinking about sex but it is never actually talked about. Given the book's weaknesses, I'm not surprised that it passed into obscurity. But if for no other reason than her invention of Wully McLaughlin, I'm glad that it's one of the Pulitzer winners.

The next two books on the list are So Big, by Edna Ferber, and Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis, both of which seem to be entangled in an Amazon shipping fiasco of epic proportions. So in the meantime I'm starting Early Autumn, by Louis Bromfield. The cover features a couple wrapped up in a passionate embrace, kissing.

A promising sign, to be sure.

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