Friday, November 1, 2013

Now in November Rain

In the 1930s, six women were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction - more than in any other single decade. (Especially the 1950s when every award went to a man.) Josephine Winslow Johnson was the fourth lady of the decade to take home the prize, in 1935, at the tender age of 24. Now in November was her first novel. It is the tragic story of a middle class family that returns to a long-forgotten farm to attempt to make new a life after the Great Depression has driven them into poverty. It is perfectly written, quietly yet powerfully feminist, and is a beautiful - if sad - story of what it meant to be a Depression-era woman living in poverty.

The novel opens with our narrator, 24 year old Marget Haldmarne, reflecting back on the past decade of her life spent working on the family farm. The book's title is taken from the novel's first line:

"Now in November I can see our years as a whole. This autumn is like both an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with the blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now. It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it."

I don't know if you've ever had a particularly long year, but I've had two in my short three decades, and neither of them felt so long because they were full of joy and happiness; rather, they were the two hardest years of my life. With the first three sentences Johnson sets the somber tone that is maintained throughout the course of Marget's story.

The middle child of a set of three sisters, Marget is the self-described plain one. She is quiet but observant. Her ability to see and appreciate the beauty of nature - a characteristic unique among her family members - is what allows her to muster the strength to continue on in the face of great adversity. Perhaps she is so keen to find beauty in the outer world due to feeling such a great personal lack of it. Her sister Kerrin is only one year older, but from her introduction she is vastly different from Marget. Wild and red-haired and beautiful, she has violent emotional outbursts at age fifteen that continue into her mid-twenties, where they have significantly more serious consequences. The youngest sister, Merle (whose name I pronounced "murr-lee"), is the most well-rounded. She is sweet-tempered, outgoing, and attractive. She is also the most beloved by their father. Marget loves and is protective of her younger sister, but both younger sisters fear and occasionally hate Kerrin.

Johnson crafted a novel that is especially sensitive to the way young girls become women, and the kind of women they may become. The Haldmarne sisters represent different options, and their mother represents yet another. Mary Haldmarne spends the duration of the novel silently enduring whatever comes her way, almost always without speaking. At one point Marget observes her mother:

"But Mother sat there very quiet. ... But even in the moment when she saw that this, too, was uncertain and shifting ground, something she always had - something I didn't know then and may never know - let her take it quietly. A sort of inner well of peace. Faith I guess it was. She stood a great deal and put up with much, but all without doubt or bitterness; and that she was there, believing and not shaken, or not seeming so at least, was all that we needed then to know."

This novel is feminist in the way that Jane Austen's work is feminist - gently. While Austen's novels are famous for ending with marriages, the reader is always aware of how differently things could have turned out for the heroines had those engagements collapsed prior to the wedding days. The Austen women often narrowly escape a life of terrifying poverty. Austen's own life story is a cautionary tale as well, and is perhaps the impetus behind her tendency to imagine happier endings for her characters. Now in November is slightly more overt. Both Marget and Kerrin fall in love with a hired farm worker, Grant, but he is in love with Merle. The word "marriage" is never once used but always implied. After Grant has turned down Kerrin (loudly) and Marget (quietly), they each handle their heartbreak in their own ways, as you'd expect them to. But when Merle turns down Grant it is perplexing. He could be her chance - her only chance! - to escape a life of endless drudgery. And yet she does not love him, and remains true to herself. The Haldmarne sisters' individual and collective experiences with Grant say a lot about the limited choices that women had at the time.

Now in November is yet another early Pulitzer winner in which farming and its related themes play a prominent role. Seven of the first seventeen winners, The Good Earth in particular, relate prosperity to man's ability to wrench it from the uncooperative soil. In Johnson's novel, set during the Great Depression, the drought that brings the family to its ruinous end is clearly a metaphor for the broader economic and political climate of the time. It is a very sad novel. But you should read it, if for no other reason than to take in the beauty and truth of passages like this:

"Hate is always easier to speak of than love. How shall I make love go through the sieve of words and come out something besides a pulp?"

And this:

"...but it's the silence that's really madness, the holding quiet, holding still, going on as if everything were the same."

And finally:

"But there is the need and the desire left, and out of these hills they may come again. I cannot believe this is the end. Nor can I believe that death is more than the blindness of those living. And if this is only the consolation of a heart in its necessity, or that easy faith born of despair, it does not matter, since it gives us courage somehow to face the mornings. Which is as much as the heart can ask at times."

Someday I will read more of Johnson's novels. For now I've got another 69 Pulitzer winners to get through.

Funny story: The night I finished reading Now in November, I stayed up late after my tall boyfriend had fallen asleep. At one point he opened his eyes, saw that I was still engrossed in the novel, and murmured, "Did you know that it's hard to hold a candle now in the November rain?" And then he promptly rolled over and fell back to sleep. I love him for so many reasons - he lets me keep the light on to stay up late reading, he carefully and thoughtfully proofreads my blog posts when I ask him to, and he knows the words to every song ever written. Now crank the volume and rock out!

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