Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sweet Sixteen

In 1934 Caroline Miller became the first Georgian to win the Pulitzer Prize with her novel Lamb in His Bosom. While it's better known than some other early winners, it's not widely known by modern readers. I'm not especially surprised at its relative obscurity, after all, Margaret Mitchell's epic 1937 winner, Gone With the Wind, was destined to outshine many of its counterparts for a long time to come. The Wikipedia entry about Lamb in His Bosom is 65 words long. The entry for Gone With the Wind is 10,665 words!

Set in rural Georgia, the novel tells the story of a poor family eking their living out of the land around them in the two decades leading up to the Civil War. They are modest people, God-fearing, largely uneducated, they don't own slaves (not because of a moral objection, but because they are poor), and they're mostly oblivious to the larger world around them. Their attention is focused on their land, their children, their chores, and their lifelong family drama. I enjoyed this book a lot. You should read it.

I've mentioned once or twice before that as a child I developed a profound love for Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. I fell in love with the characters of the Little House on the Prairie, and the straightforward style of prose that was so vivid, so clear and emotionally accessible. I was also intrigued by the description of a life utterly different from my own, a life without television or cars or even electricity, but still full of its share of entertainment, adventure, heartbreak, and joy. For similar reasons I found Lamb in His Bosom to be a compelling read.

The main character of Miller's novel is Cean (See-Ann) Carver. She marries Lonzo Smith and over the course of their lives together they have a LOT of children. Cean's primary role in life is as a mother to her children. She deals with many issues that still face mothers today, albeit they are now called by other names, notably:
  • Birth control: For a time Cean intentionally avoids becoming pregnant, although she believes that this behavior is wrong as it goes against God and does not honor her husband. When tragedy befalls her later in life she considers her act of family planning to be the grievous sin for which God punishes her.
  • Postpartum depression: After an especially difficult labor and delivery for her son, Cal, during which she was alone (alone!), she is rendered weak and feverish. In the immediate aftermath of childbirth, as she is laying in bed shivering and feverish, a mountain lion (which she calls a "painter") enters her house and she kills it to save herself and her infant. Miller writes, "Cean's strength came back so slowly that she thought never would she be well again. Some force of being, some core of courage, had gone out from her on that night when she had born a child, and killed a painter, too. She felt weak as water inside now, and cried for nothing. She was always crying, so that her face, homely enough with puffy eyelids and liver-spots on the thick skin, was homelier still now from crying.... She thought that if she could not get better she would surely die, and the baby with her; for she could hardly drag up from the bed to tend to him, and she had no milk for him."
  • To work, or not to work: Although Cean has many children over the course of her life, she dislikes working inside her home all day. While her husband Lonzo does not force her to work their crops as other husbands do their wives, she chooses to labor out of doors because she enjoys it and finds it rewarding.
These examples and others are powerful reminders that, although we are separated from the long dead by time and politics and race and geography and knowledge, we still have much in common with those who came before us, as we are all human.

Cean and Lonzo Smith are a fertile couple, bringing many children into the world during their marriage. (Seven? Eight? I lost count.) Some of them prosper, others perish. Some of the adult characters thrive, others die before their time. The cycle of human life and the simultaneous emphasis on both our incredible strength and terrible fragility is one of the most beautiful aspects of this story.

I could write a lot more about this novel, but I honestly don't want to spoil it for those of you that choose to read it. (And you should read it!) Although I'm hoping that some day in the future someone at HBO will discover this book and turn it into a 10 part miniseries event. Because it would be spellbinding.

The next book on our list will take us forward in time to the era of the Great Depression, it is Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson from 1935. It also marks the midway point of the only decade during which more female authors were awarded the Pulitzer than male authors. The 1930s saw six women honored with the prize, which contrasts sharply with the 1940s when only one woman won, and the 1950s when zero women won. I'm dreading the stretch of 1950s winners - not only are there no lady authors, but both Hemingway and Faulkner won the prize that decade. Eek.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

I really liked this book and am so glad you recommended it. It's easy to forget how labor intensive life was for the pioneers who paved the way for us in the USA. I am not so sure I would have been a survivor like the character Cean in this book. She was one tough cookie!