Two bloggers sent me here. First, Frisbee: A Book Journal showed me this evocative picture of Ruth Suckow’s house in Hawarden, Iowa.
An ordinary house, right? I grew up in southwestern Ohio, and I have seen this house many times. It is not a slum; these are not poor folks. These are people who don’t have a great deal but believe they are doing right and also doing all right. Frisbee’s reference to Bess Streeter Aldrich also got my attention, and so I found myself a copy of The Folks.
The other blogger, Following Pulitzer, has impressed me with his fair-minded reviews of the Pulitzer-prize winning fiction he is reading in chronological order. Each final post has a “Historical Insight” section, in which Following Pulitzer assesses what understanding the book gives us of the times — the author’s times, as well as the time in the novel (if different). He is reading these books looking for literary merit but also for a snapshot of what the Pulitzer Committee considered outstanding fiction at that time. (Ruth Suckow never won a Pulitzer, but she could have.) Why am I reading this 700+ page novel which is very much a period piece? I respect what Suckow is doing and the people she describes. Following Pulitzer has inspired me to look for historical insights into Midwestern America as it appeared to a perceptive writer in 1934. I break my comments into several posts.
The Folks is about an extended family in Iowa, apparently from about 1910 until the time of publication of the book, 1934. That is apparently, because the setting of the first section entitled “The Old Folks” is never clearly identified as to State or year. We are in a small town somewhere in the Midwest between Ohio and Nebraska. It is a time when horses are still in use and a relatively prosperous, but not wealthy, man is contemplating buying an automobile. World War I has not happened yet. I think Suckow has a comfortable assumption that the reader knows where we are and when we are without spelling it out.
Other things are not exactly spelled out either, but I can infer them because I grew up only one generation removed from the farm. The farm is where we came from and that is where value still resides. Mr. Ferguson does not want his wife to buy eggs because his brother-in-law will bring in eggs from the farm. This delay seriously inconveniences Mrs. Ferguson who cannot openly protest. She knows how important frugality is to her husband; she knows the eggs from the farm are superior; she quietly wishes she did not have to acknowledge these facts. At my grandparents’ farm, in the summer, I avoided eating my grandmother’s butter which was too strong-tasting for me. I didn’t ask for store-bought butter because it was unthinkable. Everyone knew my grandmother’s butter was superior to anything we could buy.
The generation that has left the farm for a more comfortable — and less strenuous — life teaching school or working in a bank continues with the same values of family and church: the less change the better. Frugality and “putting by” for the future are more important that present comfort. Lillian’s mother’s table is bare; she keeps her few embroidered doilies in a drawer because her father-in-law openly disapproves of any display.
Lillian’s husband, Carl Ferguson, grew up in town but with many links to the farm. He is the central character in the second section of the book, set after World War I: “The Good Son.” Carl’s life defines what it means to be a good son. He does well in school, leads the football team, is active in a young peoples group at the church, attends the local denominational college, marries the right local girl, and advances in a teaching career. To even flirt with another woman offends his sense of himself as a good person:
So anxious to do right! Oughtn’t something to be credited to him for that? — or did it simply make him out a fool? He richly pitied himself again. And he remembered how, when he was a very tiny child, he used to follow the folks about, pleading anxiously, “Carl good boy! Carl good boy!” But now Life was what he wanted — all that he had put aside in his pliant ignorance.
So we can see trouble ahead, but it does not end as today’s reader would expect. I think the author’s resolution is true to Carl’s character as we have come to know it and to his sense of his place in a particular community at at particular time.
For comments on the next parts of The Folks, click here.