I did a mediocre job of reading this book, starting and stopping, despite being very impressed by it, and then I was running around and didn’t write it up. Lame. So there will be general impressions and broad strokes for the record, nothing of much value, and this fine but somewhat fragile book deserves better. There aren’t a whole lot of places to go with Stafford beyond this, although there are a bunch of stories–like Cheever (and how many others?), her Collected Stories won the Pulitzer, and probably tell the tale of her career development and accomplishment best. As I mentioned in prefatory remarks, there’s an earlier first novel, Boston Adventure, which seems to have put her on the map (along with some early stories, I assume).
The primary general impression in reading this book and getting introduced to Stafford’s work is that she is an extremely talented writer, one who seems to have abundant natural gifts. Her prose is rich and thick and graceful, leaning towards postmodern excess but holding back and occupying a unique and peculiar space. Her talent and use of language rejects spare realism and cold analysis, and aims at richness of description and insight. There’s not a trace of narrative minimalism in this book but she’s not over the top either. My impression is just that she’s a great writer, the real thing, some one who has a voice and a flow of words and a view of the world.
There might be some question of her having a story to tell, and I’m curious to see what her favored topics and themes might be in the stories. This is a fascinating–again, the word that comes to mind is rich–brother and sister coming of age story, a mid-20th century version of the Mill on the Floss that looks back at childhood in the 30s and 40s. Its style is modern and lyrical, liberated by writers like Woolf and Cather of the realist and 19th century trappings of George Eliot, but its narrative drive remains clear: it’s never oblique or obtuse.
Cather bears mentioning, along with, I suppose, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, who are closer contemporaries, but I don’t know their work very well. Cather notably found a ready landscape for modern fiction in the far west, gravitating beyond her roots in the prairie. And this is a Western book, one that might not get much recognition in the genre. I was shocked, I must say, to discover that the lengthy opening section has the extremely rare setting of rural Los Angeles, and so it should be considered as Literature of California (and LA) as well–maybe it is; what do I know? Up until the war and midcentury there was an agrarian life all around the urban core of Los Angeles, and I was genuinely surprised to see how this book captures it, and from the point of view of a pair of children. It’s extraordinary. And what’s even more interesting is how Stafford portrays the pressure of old-fashioned and Victorian manners and finery trying to maintain a foothold in the dry and sun-drenched landscape. It’s as if there’s no sense whatsoever of the explosive growth that’s going to hit the region, only that the 19th century mores are wildly inappropriate, and need to go back to the East coast and Europe, where they came from and are more securely embedded.
Brother and sister Ralph and Molly, never comfortable with their proper mother and superficial older sisters, are drawn to the Western simplicity of their grandfather and Uncle Claude. Going to live the ranch lifestyle in Colorado with Claude provides a working existential blueprint for young Ralph, who finds himself growing slowly into a man. But Molly, much like Maggie Tulliver, never fits, although she’s much more comfortable in the spare and simple ranch world. Stafford raises all sorts of gender issues with great subtlety and style as her story progresses.
A comparison between this book and Mill on the Floss is easy pickings, and would be a great assignment. I’m tying to think of other brother and sister bildungsroman, and can’t come up with anything off the top of my head. Stafford makes a dark and searing twist on the infamously problematic conclusion of Mill, one that captures both sadly and beautifully the point of the novel, with great power as well. Reading it against To the Lighthouse wouldn’t be a bad exercise either, and it would stand up well and better than most books in the comparison. It’s a dark vision of women and the West, and I’m eager to read what others have to say about this book and to learn more about Stafford. I knew enough about her, and her disfiguring car accident and severe alcoholism, to know that she came by the pessimism and despair in this book honestly.