Part V of Ruth Suckow’s Iowa-based novel, The Folks, is entitled The Youngest. The youngest of the four Ferguson children is Bunny, who had appeared without much explanation between Part I (three children) and Part II (four children). He is the unexpected addition, the one Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson could just relax and enjoy. Other children might complain,
But Bunny was always happy. When his mother thought of her youngest, a smile of fond contentment curved her lips. She could truly say that he was the one of their children who had “never caused them a moment’s trouble.” Coming late, he had seemed just to fit in quietly, with a mixture of affectionate youthfulness and queer, understanding maturity.
As my mother-in-law used to day, don’t praise the day before it’s over. The troubles with Bunny when they come are multiple: he marries without telling the folks, he chooses an undesirable bride, he is radicalized by her. The interest in the story is not in Bunny’s actions which, even in the context of the story and the times, are not completely believable. The impact comes from his parents gradual accommodation to his choices.
There was a new order of business to which he didn’t belong…. He was the old style of banker, he could now admit that freely to himself. An account to him was a trust rather than an opportunity.
What did moderately prosperous Iowans do when they retired in the 1930′s? Move to California, of course. So they try it. Daughter Dorothy (the pretty one) is there, as is Mrs. Ferguson’s wealthy sister. The road trip reminded me, ironically, of The Grapes of Wrath. Unlike Steinbeck’s struggling farmers, the Fergusons travel in comfort but, like them, do not know what they will find. Along with their own experiences, they have a sense of the struggle of others. For migrant workers, of course, it is the struggle against terrible deprivation, of concern with the next meal. For the Fergusons, it is learning that the daughter they had thought so secure is not, that banks at home are failing, and old friends are dying. This leads Mr. Ferguson to question what he has always known.
He was aware of a sense of change pervading everything, although it wasn’t a thing he could touch or locate. He couldn’t say how or when it had happened, but the old, simple surety seemed to be gone — the old bright, simple faith in the way things had started and were likely to continue. The church of his fathers was empty. Even his town, in which he had placed his trust, never doubting that it must follow a steady growth to a fine destiny, seemed instead to have come to a standstill.
The Folks is an account of three generations of a family who live in a particular place at a particular time. The strength of the book comes from the realism of this setting and the customs and attitudes it supports. The individual characterizations are somewhat weaker, although Annie Ferguson is a woman I can understand. As the children grow up and begin separate lives, she waits for her own to belong to her again. It never quite does, and she comes to know it is not possible, just as Mr. Ferguson now understands that the certainties of the past are not going to return either.