A Review of Laban Smith’s No Better Land (Macmillan, 1946)

By Paul Theobald

No Better Land is the story of a large Wisconsin farm family just after the turn of the twentieth century. The author, Laban Smith, was born and raised in Wisconsin and knew the subject well. Smith graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1932 and after teaching for just a year, he returned to the university and acquired a doctoral degree. He then taught at Stout Institute in Menomonie and, briefly, at Alabama’s Polytechnic Institute. During World War II, Smith served as a naval reserve lieutenant at a training base in Texas. During that time he began working on what would become his only novel. It was published in 1946. The record of what became of Smith after the war is very sketchy. An internet search revealed his name as a part of a special collection at Indiana State University’s library, books published by emeritus faculty. It could be that Smith completed a professorial career at Indiana State.

Abel Elliot, the main character in No Better Land, left his parents and siblings on the family farm in upstate New York to strike out on his own in the new state of Wisconsin. Through hard work and dogged perseverance, he established a successful farm. He then married a woman twenty years younger than himself. Marie Elliot would eventually give birth to nine children. Reflecting on his life in his later years, Abel told a daughter, “And then, when I had a good farm and a woman and some of you young ones, I began wantin’ what my pa wanted, and his pa, too, I suppose. I began wantin’ ‘em all to stay right here under my eye. I begun tellin’ you young ones there’s no better land nowhere but here.”

Life didn’t unfold the way Abel initially envisioned it. For one, he suffered from a debilitating eye disease and eventually went blind. As if that were not enough, he suffered a serious stroke that thereafter hindered his mobility. There were sons and hired men to carry on the work of the farm, however, and Abel made contributions as he could. As he grew frail, his vision for his kids changed. He softened, and tried to help them with the life plans they wanted to pursue. This sometimes brought him into direct conflict with his wife, who opposed her daughters marrying local farmers and wanted them, instead, to pursue a college education. The husband-wife conflict makes up a large part of the story, and it highlights and age-old dilemma for many farm families. Who should be allowed to acquire the farm? Who should be encouraged to leave? When Abel finally succumbs to pneumonia, not much has been settled, although he did purchase a house in town where his wife could live after his death. The reader is left to speculate about the fate of the farm itself, and that of the many kids.

I found a brief review of No Better Land online in the Kirkus Review. It wasn’t very complimentary: “All in all, a pedestrian, amateurish handling of a mighty dull story.” I find this sort of review to be all-too-common of early twentieth century reviewers, mostly college professors without a rural background, who were unable to understand the rural experience, and all-too-quick to condemn it as uninteresting and unimportant. No Better Land is, nevertheless, a considerable achievement for a first, and ultimately, only novel.

A Review of Edith Pope’s Colcorton (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944)

By Paul Theobald

Colcorton is clearly Edith Pope’s greatest literary achievement. It is an engrossing novel with a strong female protagonist—one who was compared to Ma Joad by a contemporary reviewer. The book delves into taboo subjects for its time, like interracial marriage, and the psychological burden of hiding partial Black ancestry from White society. Before going into more detail, however, I’d like to share a little about Edith Pope.

A native of St. Augustine, Florida, Edith was sent to Baldwin Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, for her high school years. She returned to Florida for college, attending Florida State. Her first book, a collection of poems, was published during her junior year. Her first novel, Not Magnolia (1928) was published just a year after graduating. From Florida State, Edith went back north and in 1931 she received a master’s degree in English at Columbia University. Edith’s first three novels were published under her maiden name, Edith Everett Taylor. In 1938 she married Verle Pope, who served for a time as a state senator in Florida, and as president of Florida State University. Some reviewers were confused by the name change, and when Colcorton was published in 1944, they thought they were reading a first novel. In all, Edith published six rural novels, three under her maiden name, and three under her married name. Edith enjoyed modest success as a novelist, and today there is a major thoroughfare in St. Augustine known as Edith Pope Boulevard. But like so many novelists who chose to write about the rural experience in this country, her work has long been out of print, and her reputation never garnered the acclaim it deserved.

Colcorton is an impressive novel. By all contemporary accounts, it narrowly missed receiving the Pulitzer prize in 1945 (which went to a WWII novel called A Bell for Adano). It’s the story of two children, heirs to a pre-Civil War plantation called Colcorton. The parents died young and, unbeknownst to the children, their patriarchal grandfather was a successful and rather large slave trader who was involved in a long-term relationship with a slave. That slave was a grandmother to Abby and Jared Clanghearne, although they never knew this. Abby was several years older than Jared and after the death of their parents, she eked out a living on the few acres left of the once large Clangherane plantation. Through hard work and dogged perseverance, she made enough to send Jared through college and law school. There is no happy ending to Colcorton, however. Jared marries, but is murdered after a night of drinking. His wife was pregnant at the time and Abby helps to raise the child. In many ways, Abby shifts from a life of toil to promote Jared, to a life of toil to promote Jared’s son.

There are many twists and turns in this book, and the characters are very well developed. Always in the background there is the secret partial Black ancestry that burdens Abby and Jared after it was discovered. Rural coastal Florida is almost a character in itself in this book. The countryside, and the ocean, are described in painstaking, and beautiful, detail.   Colcorton is an excellent novel and deserves the attention of contemporary readers.

A Review of John T. Frederick’s Green Bush (Knopf, 1925)

By Maureen Theobald

Frank Thompson’s love of his hometown and his father’s farm were overshadowed by his mother’s deep and passionate love of her son, and what she wanted for him. She knew how creative and intellectual he was, and she desperately wanted him to make the most of those God-given talents. Although the tension between them lasted a lifetime, he was able to come to a place of peace in his final days, knowing that she would ultimately want happiness for her only child.

Frank seems to struggle emotionally at times, not necessarily more than what one might expect, considering some of the circumstances that befall him. Indeed, he has concrete reasons for many of his struggles. But, at the same time, he has been fortunate. He was born into a well-to-do family as an only child, was privy to a good education, and had the opportunity to access higher education at the University of Michigan. As many people of privilege do, Frank often took for granted some of the luxuries he enjoyed. But because of an affliction he may have inherited, he was prone to bouts of depression. Fortunately, for him, he was able to work through these episodes, and with the passage of time and patience, he would come out of them to see clearly again.

The beauty of his home town, Green Bush, Michigan, was a recurring theme throughout the novel. On the shores of Lake Huron, his family not only owned a lovely farm, but also had a home in town, where Frank’s father owned and ran the local newspaper. Frank loved both, and when his mother sells them after the death of his beloved Dad, his bitterness towards her grew. She wanted him to continue his studies at Ann Arbor, ultimately leading to a professorship at a major university. He did enjoy his scholarly years, but the pull of rural life was stronger, especially when he falls in love with Ruth, a farmer’s daughter he meets when selling subscriptions in the nearby counties surrounding Green Bush.

When Frank’s mother dies after a period of estrangement between the two, he goes through another difficult phase struggling with the guilt he experiences stemming from their contentious relationship. Ultimately he grows content knowing that her decisions concerning his life, and what it should be, came from a place of sincere love and devotion.

The purchase of a small farm near Ruth’s family, along the birth of his daughter, proved to be the medicine Frank needed to come to a place of peace. Life was not without its setbacks, however. He was severely injured by a stump puller while clearing his land, which caused him to live with excruciating pain in his hip and legs for years, setting back his progress on the farm, as well as causing devastating financial burdens. That, and other issues, however, weren’t enough to tempt Frank into considering a job offer from the University of Michigan. He was held in high esteem by several faculty members, and when they offered him a full professorship, he knew in his heart what was most important to him. Ruth, baby girl Rose, and the farm would always be his first choice. They were his passion, his priority, and his much needed source of peace and contentment. Green Bush is a wonderful farm novel.

A Review of Jonathan Fields’ The Memoirs of Dunstan Barr

(New York: Coward-McCann, 1959)

By Paul Theobald

This is a broad, sweeping account of a rural family in Illinois, covering over 100 years and multiple generations. It appears to be a bit of a “one hit wonder,” since I can find no other published work by Jonathan Fields. Further, there is no biographical information shared, in the book or on its cover, about the author. There is a contemporary Jonathan Fields who seems to be an accomplished self-help, power of positive thinking, psychologist; someone who has published several books. But there is no indication that he is related to the author of The Memoirs of Dunstan Barr.

The story is told through the voice of the great grandson of Christopher Barr, who settled on the family farm after serving as a soldier in the War of 1812. This great grandson, Dunstan Barr, late in his life, ends the novel writing his memoirs, thus the book’s unusual title. At the outset, the reader learns that Christopher Barr left his farm to his son, also named Dunstan, and that this Dunstan leaves the farm to his son, also named Christopher. This Christopher leaves the farm to his son Dunstan, and at the novel’s end, Dunstan’s daughter, Sylvia, is pregnant and plans to name her child Dunstan, if it’s a boy. This family was very big on keeping family names alive.

After recounting the early family history, the story begins in earnest in 1890 when Dunstan is 20 years of age and attending a state university, studying agriculture. Over the course of the next 45 years, the novel is a psychological portrait of Dunstan Barr—his aspirations, motivations, disappointments, relationships, and family. In the telling, Fields provides an insider’s view of how American history unfolded locally, and how it affected the lives of Dunstan Barr and the residents of “Barfield,” the small Illinois town that is home to the large Barr clan. The name of the village was connected to the prominent role played by Dunstan’s great grandfather in its founding.

All of the larger outside forces, beginning with the Depression of the 1890s, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Depression of the 1930s, play a role in this story—but the book is anything but predictable. Nor does it sugarcoat the struggles of farm and small town life. There is joy in this book, but there is also misery. There is small-town gossip that does real damage to people. There is alcohol abuse, and attempts to swindle. War touches families in profound ways. For example, Dunstan’s oldest son dies fighting World War I (and his youngest daughter dies in car crash while under the influence of alcohol). There is also rampant speculation, and the dramatic rise and fall of fortunes in an unregulated finance environment. The Memoirs of Dunstan Barr exposes the genesis of a cultural shift during the first half of the 20th century, a slow but recognizable trend toward deriding small town life, and the farming life, as fundamentally backward, as the kind of life reserved for those without the gumption required to see the future and move to the city. Dunstan’s first love, a girl he met at college, eventually rejects him because he wants to be no more than a farmer.

For all of that, Dunstan Barr is a man of integrity. He’s the kind of individual that made farming communities strong, decent places to live and work. As Fields put it:

Dunstan Barr was born to lamplight; to absence of, or primitive, plumbing; to the familiar use of the horse; to the education of a one-room school; to the inborn belief that the farm was the base of life, the major way, and work an end in itself, with idleness tinged somehow with immorality; to a belief in the fundamental equality of men which did not for a moment overlook a scale of difference in ability; and to a real belief in freedom which permitted people to speak their piece, or work out their own destinies, as they saw fit (p. 261).

Dunstan Barr is a character very much like Wendell Berry’s Mat Feltner. A thoughtful, hard-working man devoted to family, past and present. The book is a literary look at American rural history and sadly it, like so many other first-rate rural novels, has been long out of print.

A Review of James Still’s River of Earth

A Review of James Still’s River of Earth

(New York: Viking Press, 1940)


Maureen Theobald

In James Still’s dark novel of the coal mining community on Little Carr Mountain, the bleak existence of those who made their lives there was obvious. Although the Brackstone family managed to avoid living in the mining camp a good share of their lives, they were forced to eventually move there when life on their small acreage became too difficult. Mother tried her best to keep a garden for the family of six, but between moles, grasshoppers, hungry birds, and drought, it wasn’t easy. In order to keep Mother on the farm and out of the mining camp she detested, Father walked the two miles there and back as long as he could, until it took such a toll on him, they were forced to move into Blackjack camp.

Although this story is one of hardship and poverty, the rich dialect of the Appalachian mountain folk makes the reading experience interesting and fun. Deciphering the conversations is somewhat of a challenge, but adds to the enjoyment of the novel. Eccentric characters come in and out of the family’s lives often providing entertainment, like Uncle Jolly, who provides humor on his surprise visits. Between his incarcerations at the county jail and state prison, he comes around just enough to delight the children with his wild tales of adventure, most of which include out-running the law at every turn. In spite of his attraction to trouble and breaking the law, he has a warm heart and is a loyal son to his mother, who still lives alone on her farm. When not in jail, he takes care of Grandma Middleton and helps run her place. Nasty cousins, Harl and Tibb Logan, force themselves on the family from time to time, frightening the children and infuriating Mother, but Father can’t turn away kinfolk, no matter how dark and dismal they are.

The theme of living off the land with an abundance of nature-filled descriptions made this story endearing to me. The deeply detailed struggles and thrills of making the most of what their rugged soil could produce, and the meager few chickens, cows, and wild animals they survived off of was fascinating.  Any story line that includes history, farming, nature and family reels me in and puts the decadence of modern life into full relief. Yes, oftentimes harsh, the issues that plagued our ancestors weren’t for the faint of heart, but the pristine lakes, rivers, and streams were the trade-off. Imagine a clean planet, where carcinogens and toxins weren’t destroying the air and soil. Imagine growing food in soil so pure that every nutrient possible could be absorbed naturally. Some would, of course, argue that “progress” has allowed for a much better way of life, but I would argue that ease, comfort, and greed are hardly sustaining qualities. As a result, I love disappearing into a world where the outdoors is as natural and beautiful as it once was, if even for a few short hours.

Ironically, the contrast between the pristine environment and the discovery of one of the worst eventual human polluters, coal, is interesting to me. I’m certain that not everyone would agree, and I’m quite sure the author had no intention of making such a contrast when writing the story of coal miners and their families in the late 1800’s. But these are things that jump out at me whenever I read these old, seldom read novels. There is much we can learn from them.

The Writings of Gene Stratton Porter

Although I’ve been a stranger to RLR for almost a year now, I’ve remained a devoted fan of Paul’s wonderful library. Each old novel I finish takes me to the next, and as sorry as I am for one to come to an end, I am equally as excited to begin another.

Within the last year, I made a discovery that turned out to be quite a precious treasure . A good friend gave us a box of old books from her Dad’s basement. I didn’t expect to find the book that would lead me on the most cherished literary adventure of my life.

An old copy of a novel by an unknown author caught my eye. The Harvester, by Gene Stratton Porter, sounded like a farm novel to me, so I opened it and read a few paragraphs. That was all it took. Two paragraphs turned into two pages. We were busy with outdoor spring chores, so I forced myself to put it back into the box, and told myself I’d try to remember it for road trip reading.

After devouring nine of her books, researching her life, and sharing my new-found love of this woman with anyone who will listen, I can say with certainty that I have discovered my all-time favorite novelist. As I read the first gem, The Harvester, I realized that there was so much more to this book than just a good story told with eloquence. Being a passionate nature lover, I found that her obvious knowledge of flora and fauna were inspiring. The main character is a “medicine man” of the woods where he lives, carefully procuring medicinal herbs, flowers, and plants, to sell to physicians in the surrounding towns. The factual information regarding how so many of these “natural healing” remedies were used in those times is fascinating to me. The vivid descriptions Stratton Porter uses of hundreds of beautiful flowers, and the details in the planting, grafting, harvesting and production of the actual drugs is amazing. With a heart-warming love story underlying, The Harvester soon became one of my top reads.

Paul decided to do some research into this Indiana author for me, and to date, he has managed to find every one of her books! Unfortunately, her life was cut short by a tragic auto accident, preventing her from writing more than the twelve novels that we’ve been lucky enough to collect. She was, in fact, killed in Los Angeles, where she was in the process of producing two films based on two of her novels. We have managed to procure the films as well, thanks to the wonderful technology of the internet!

I want to share my love of this beautiful author, not only her writings, but also her expertise as a naturalist, having lived all of her short life in an area of Northern Indiana known as “The Limberlost Swamp.” For all of you nature lovers out there, these novels are priceless.

Review of Unto a Good Land

Unto a Good Land, by Vilhelm Mobert

Review by Mark Munger

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954)

This second novel in the “Emigrant” series written by Swedish author, Carl Artur Vilhelm Moberg continues the story of a small band of Swedes who leave their native land for the United States in the early 1850s. Whereas the first novel in the series, The Emigrants, was entirely set either in rural Sweden or aboard the brig, the Charlotta that journeyed from Europe to North America with a cargo of pig iron and humanity aboard, Unto a Good Land is firmly set on the shores of the brash and newly constituted republic of the United States of America.

Moberg does a yeoman’s job of depicting the overland journey of Karl Oskar Nilsson, his wife Kristina, their children, and the divergent band of immigrants that accompany them from Manhattan to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, an isolated lumbering town located on the wild and scenic St. Croix River. The timeframe, as I’ve said, is the 1850-1851. Wisconsin, on the eastern banks of the St. Croix, has attained statehood (1848). Minnesota, which occupies the eastern banks of the river, is part of the Minnesota Territory, created in 1849 and destined for statehood in 1858.

The author makes the plodding, tedious, harrowing journey of the émigrés aboard river packet, canal barge, railroad car, paddle wheeled riverboat, and finally, on foot from Stillwater to Taylors Falls come to life, casting the iron-willed former prostitute, Ulrika of Vastergöhl as the foil to Kristina Nilsson’s motherly virtue for the majority of the trek. The cast of characters also includes Karl Oskar’s impetuous and truth-challenged younger brother, Robert, whose dreams of California gold fields make his dedication to aiding his older brother’s homesteading ambitions problematic. There’s trouble in the wind whenever Robert takes center stage in this familial drama but the tension between Karl and Robert isn’t overt: Moberg deftly creates his characters of whole cloth, giving them real-life motivations and actions, rather than instilling his creations with stereotypical feelings and emotions. This having been said, the tension between the brothers is palpable and real despite the cleverness of Moberg’s prose: you anticipate a break and indeed, it occurs.

The details that one would expect in a fine settlers’ accounting of felling trees, grubbing soil, and building cabins are well described and historically accurate. A childbirthing scene, where Kristina demands that Karl Oscar deliver the prostitute Ulrika to the Nilsson cabin to assist with the birth of their son, is poignantly tense and tender, with the reconciliation of the two women entirely believable and well wrought.

As he did in The Emigrants, Moberg spends much time chronically the faith of the immigrants, taking the prophet-like Danjel Andreasson from the heights of evangelical zeal to the depths of despair. Danjel fled Sweden under the threat of excommunication from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the national church of Sweden, for ministering to his flock without proper education or ordination. Moberg casts the itinerant pastor as a sort of modern-day John the Baptist or Martin Luther; a man so convinced of his direct connection to God that he forswears the rigor and organization of the state church to the jeopardy of his soul. But though the preacher discovers that he is free, once in America, to speak his mind and search for his vision of heaven, Moberg portrays Danjel as dejected, fallen, and unsure: it is a marvelous change in character that is entirely believable given the pastor lost his wife on the Charlotta, her body having been buried in the cold waters of the North Atlantic after being wracked with disease.

Unlike the first novel, which seemed to be inordinately preoccupied with, well, procreation, Unto a Good Land is far less titillating in its carnality and far more educational and interesting as a piece of historical fiction. Not that sex is necessarily a bad thing in a historical novel but here, Moberg puts the desires and physical intertwining of his characters in the background and lets their work ethic, spirituality, and interpersonal connections shine through.

A well-written and insightful story of Scandinavian immigrants coming to my “neck of the woods.”

4 and ½ stars out of 5.

Review of The Passion Never Dies

This Passion Never Dies, by Sophus Keith Winther

Review by John Henry

(New York: Macmillan Co., 1938)

The final act in the Grimson family trilogy, This Passion Never Dies, begins in the late spring of 1920 and ends in the late summer of 1923. Much like the previous novel in the series, there are two main plot threads of the story. One thread follows the aged and worn Peter and Meta Grimson as they struggle to hold on to the farm in Weeping Willow, Nebraska, which they now own. The second thread follows their third son, Hans, as he finishes college in Lincoln, searches for romantic love, and faces the trials of early adulthood.

World War One had brought boom times to Nebraska farmers, and the Grimsons, caught up in the prosperity, had bought their farm at high-times prices. Falling crop prices after the war and throughout the time of the novel makes every successive year a struggle for Peter and Meta to hold out against bankruptcy. Their two oldest sons, Alfred and David, have both married and left the farm. Hans is away at university much of the time. Karl leaves for California and truck farming; Frank for Omaha and business. Only the youngest son, Bryan, is left for farm work, and he wants to finish high school in town and work less on the farm. Without the fulltime help of his boys, Peter’s physical and economic strength wither away, year by year. By 1923, the farm economy is in depression. The result for Peter and Meta is predestined. Along the way: deeply unhappy marriages, the death of two wives, spousal abandonment, orphaning of grandchildren, alcoholism, stealthy big-city land speculators, heartless small town bankers, abortion, violent hailstorms, bankruptcy auctions, violent death, falling, falling farm prices, and sundry other calamities.

Hans, who graduates from the University of Nebraska as the story opens, is torn between his deep love for his mother and loyalty to his aging father, and the opportunity to return to the University and continue his studies in graduate school. Further, Hans experiences both the confusion of sex without love which ends in tragedy, and he also experiences the longing for a love which seems always beyond his reach.

For this book, Winther is able to nicely intertwine the two story-lines: the failing farm and confused young man. Hans’s conflicted romances drive him back to the farm where he loyally struggles to the end with his parents, but he always hopes to return to the University and his intellectual destiny. So the two stories work together and make a whole.

There is some very fine writing in this book. One instance concerns Hans’s search for an abortion “hospital”, located in the neighborhood of the Omaha meat-packing district, a frightening vision of a human-made hell, complete with tormented bodies and degraded souls:

“On each side were the tall, dark walls of the packing houses. The air was dead, motionless and heavy with the smell of decayed meat. The sidewalks were crowded with workers—there seemed to be hundreds of them. To Hans they were masses of men with no individual character to distinguish one from the other. They all wore aprons and they were all bespattered with blood. Their hands were bloody, there were blood stains on their faces, their aprons were dotted with dark, red clots. Flies were everywhere. There were millions of them crawling on the sidewalks, clinging to the windows and doorways, but most conspicuous on the men’s clothing. Every movement that a man made to light a cigarette or to make a gesture raised a cloud of flies. The men sat listlessly on the curbing or leaned against the walls of the buildings. They were tired, dull masses of human beings, apparently insensible to the hopeless filth of the street, and the unbearable stench. Hans saw only one man clearly. He was a Negro who sat flat on the sidewalk, his back against the wall and his legs stretched out before him. His eyes were closed, and the flies were crawling over his mouth which was open, his lower jaw hanging down loose, like an unlatched granary door.

On the other hand, there is some silly writing in this book, which usually occurs when Winther is describing Hans’ romantic episodes. An example:

“What are you talking about?” she answered.
“You. Your body. I want to look at it forever. Janice, I did not believe I could ever love anyone as I love you this moment. I love your feet, your ankles, that little dimple right there on your knee, this soft curve of your thigh which clings to the palm of my hand as though both hand and thigh had an individual, conscious love of their own apart from our consciousness.”

. . . Then she lifted her hands to his face and held it while she looked into his eyes. “Even our thoughts are united.” she said almost in a whisper. “You could not desire anything of me that I would not wish you to have before you could put your hope into words. These long weeks have taught me what life and death mean. I know what life is and I have experienced all that death is except its one boon, forgetfulness.”

To me this passage seems over-wrought. I can’t see that worldly and sexually experienced twenty-eight year olds would, at the moment of long awaited passion, speak to each other like this. I am, I admit, old, slightly cynical, and long-married. So perhaps I am forgetful of the follies of young love.

But the good writing and the workman-like writing strongly overbalance the weight of the few clunker sections in This Passion Never Dies. The pacing of the plot is usually exciting. The fates of the characters, especially the long suffering immigrants Peter and Meta Grimson, grasp the imagination. We know them. We come to love them as their sons loved and respected them. The Danish immigrants who left everything behind and came to this country, who worked honestly and unceasingly, who stoically faced tragedy after tragedy, and who never, never, lost hope in the promise of America.

Review of The Years of Peace

The Years of Peace, by LeRoy MacLeod

Review by John Henry

(New York: Century, 1932)

(Warning: Tyler Peck is an advocate of the South during the Civil War. More significantly he on occasion uses highly offensive racial epitaphs. His remarks are mildly censored by other characters in the book. And it is clear that the author himself does not endorse Tyler’s racism.)

The Years of Peace tells the story of two families who farm in the Wabash River region of western Indiana. The novel begins in the final weeks of the Civil War, just before Lincoln is assassinated, and ends ten years later on the last day of 1875.

The first family, Lafayette and Mary Ferguson, had come to the Wabash valley in the 1830s. They were not pioneer settlers but arrived early enough to become the most prosperous farmers in the Sycamore Creek neighborhood. Lafayette had once been a senator in the Indiana legislature and at the start of the novel is the Justice of the Peace. He is known as “the squire,” not only because he is one of the oldest farmers of the area, but more significantly because he has acquired great land holdings, buying up the land of his less successful neighbors.

The Fergusons have plenty of good land, a prospering farm, and sharecroppers and renters on their excess land. But what they don’t have are the human laborers to carry on with the farm work. Lafayette and Mary have only two children. Alan, their son, is off fighting in the Civil War, and after the war he will drift through the West, soldiering for hire or seeking riches in the goldfields, and drinking. Lucy, their daughter, is a strong and handsome woman. She works hard on the land and in the house. But she never marries.
This brings us to the second family. Tyler Peck is the young nephew of Lafayette. He is only nineteen in 1865. He was been prevented from fighting in the war so he can care for his widowed mother and work their farm while his two older brothers are off fighting. The Pecks are a well to do and “blue blood” Kentucky clan. Tyler is hot-tempered, impulsive, given to wanderlust, and sympathetic to the South, even as his brothers fight for the North.
Evaline Weller is from a poor, lower class family. Her father is known to drink heavily. But she is pretty and twenty and Tyler is attracted to her despite his mother’s strong disapproval. Tyler, after another argument with his mother and after an evening of drinking, proposes to Evaline. And though she doesn’t love him, Evaline wants to marry up and into wealth. She accepts Tyler’s proposal.

All this is the back story of the novel. As the novel opens, Tyler and Evaline have moved north from Kentucky and are working land for “Uncle Laf” and “Aunt Mary.” The story follows the two families as they build their farming empire during the ten years after the Civil War. But most importantly the novel is centered on the marriage and family life of Tyler and Evaline, who, despite their farming successes and the fecundity of their marital bed, have a deeply unhappy marriage. Tyler longs to escape to the west, or to war, or to adventure in South America. But he stays and instead finds his excitement in a long term and clandestine sexual liaison with a neighbor’s wife. Evaline’s heart grows harder, year by year, towards her husband, but she reveals her sorrows only in her prayers and her conscience, not to her husband, not to her diary.

The Years of Peace is a subtle and complex story of a decidedly “unpeaceful” marriage. The characters are all farmers and their day-to-day lives are ruled by the cycles of nature and the rhythms of farming life. Yet their psychological, intellectual, and spiritual lives are as developed as the inner lives of the characters in a Russian novel. They read Emerson and Goethe. They have heard of Marx and follow the revolutions and wars around the world through newspapers. They have nuanced political views. They experience anguish, guilt, and loneliness, and feelings of spiritual emptiness. But they also work the land. They hunt and fish; they put up preserves and patch their children’s clothing. They plow and plant, harvest and slaughter. They struggle against cold, drought, and thunderstorm. They feel the beauty of the sky at sunrise and sunset. They face the sudden pain of childbirth and the slow struggle of death.

On the surface, The Years of Peace is about farm families in a remote and rural countryside. At its core, it subtly portrays the complexity and depth of human life: the economic and political, the social and religious, the psychological and spiritual, the joy experienced in the beauty of nature, the satisfaction in hard work well done, and the sadness of two people who are bound to a common life, but not by love.

I’ll end with a passage from the book. The scene is the childbirth of the Pecks’ second child. Those present are Aunt Mary, the doctor, Tyler, and his laboring wife Evaline:

The room lightens towards noon. Yet the new life will enter by a shadowy door like the one by which it will one day depart. For although this woman survive, she must stand a while in the doorway of death, that the child may enter.

 Two hours ago she walked about. Now she is like one mortally ill or wounded. She lies under a sheet, for all the world like one of the men brought in from a battle, from one of those conflicts still raising a faint din away south, out of hearing. Should they die in their beds and she in hers, the sheets would have to be pulled up only a little to cover the faces.
Tyler sat with one hip on the edge of the bed, gripping Evaline’s hand; on the opposite sat Aunt Mary, holding the other hand. At the spasms of labor they pulled against her pull.

. . . . The face on the pillow was greasy with sweat and unutterably wan. The gray eyes stood out like two spirits separate from the face. Aunt Mary took time to wipe the full forehead, the cheeks and mouth.

. . . . Tyler wiped his sweaty hand and Evvie’s so he could hold better. The spread legs stiffened again. She grasped frantically for the hands to pull on, bit her lips till they trembled, let out her held breath in pitiful grunts.

The doctor ducked his head under the sheet. ‘Fine! . . . That’s it! That’s it!’ he encouraged, his voice muffled.

Tyler and Aunt Mary had to stand, Evvie pulled so.

Then in spite of her utmost resolve, and in spite of her prayer, she did cry out. A long-pent scream escaped from between her lips and teeth. She shuddered the whole length of her body.

Under the sheet Doctor Baker worked fast–he threw the sheet angrily out of his way. . . . And now a thin gulping cry pierces the warm blood smell, as if the new life called back an answer to that scream from the pillow. 

Review of The Old Ashbury Place

The Old Ashburn Place, by Margaret Flint

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Dodd Mead, 1936)

A small rural community in Maine is the backdrop for this moving novel. In it, Margaret Flint very capably chronicles the lives of the Ashburn family in the late 1800s. In a beautiful setting on the side of Pigeon Mountain, the hard working farm Ashburn family struggles with the common problems of agricultural life, particularly those associated with maintaining a small dairy operation. As is a common theme in many Midwest rural novels, the trials and tribulations of dealing with nature’s fickle moods is an issue the family deals with day in and day out. Although the severe extremes of hard Midwestern weather don’t exist in the more moderate climate of central Maine, farm families everywhere must deal with weather-related exigencies.
Pa and Ma work hard and raise to raise five children, three boys and two girls. The two older boys work the farm with their father, while the family hopes the youngest boy will concentrate on his education; and indeed, he eventually becomes the only member of the Ashburn clan to attend and graduate from the state university. The two girls grow into women with lives and families of their own, while the drama with Pa and his two eldest sons becomes the main focus of the story.

When Ma dies in middle age, Pa settles into a state of moderate melancholy for the remainder of his life, while tolerating the annoying, but helpful neighbor, Alviry. She insists on moving in to help the family with housework, child care, cooking, etc., however her true motives are in claiming Pa for her own. She accepts the roles she takes on with enthusiasm until she realizes Pa has no interest in her other than that of a hired woman. She stays on with the family, but her bitterness and resentment slowly grow.

Morris, as the eldest son, decides he should do what is expected of him and marries Elsie, a neighbor girl who wants nothing more than to be a wife and mother, and is content to settle into the Ashburn household, and become the “woman of the house.” With this event, Alviry accepts the fact that she has been “replaced”, and leaves in despair, finally admitting to herself that there is no hope for her in terms of a relationship with Pa. Elsie makes a good attempt at being the wife and mother that Morris deserves, but soon grows more and more dissatisfied, as her neglectful husband realizes he has no sincere feelings of love for the mother of his two children.
Charlie, the second son, works alongside his Pa and Morris. Women don’t seem to be a priority in his life, and he continues to be the good brother, son, and uncle to Morris’s two children. When Pa dies, the family is shaken, but they know they have no choice but to carry on, and the household dwindles to Morris, Charlie, Elsie, and the children. The Saturday night dances held in town are one of the few escapes most of the rural families can take advantage of, and it is at these dances that young men and women can sometimes find their only chance for romance. When Charlie is nagged into going into town with Morris and Elsie, he is pleasantly surprised to find that Marian Parks had grown into a lovely young woman, and although the little neighbor girl from over the hill was from a much wealthier family, he feels completely comfortable approaching her. He finds her “coquettish” behavior encouraging, and they enter what becomes over the years, a frustrating and painful relationship for Charlie. She comes in and out of his life when she visits “back home” from the State University, teasing him with her flirtatious personality, but departing each time with an air of aloofness and barely a “good-bye” for the frustrated and confused Charlie. To add insult to injury, Morris, too, becomes smitten with Marian, as she seems to enjoy seducing him on the dance floor. Not only does Elsie notice the attention that Marian gives to both brothers, she becomes spitefully jealous and hateful of all three. The drama that unfolds under the roof of the Ashburn household eventually leads to a sordid affair between Elsie and Charlie, and the eventual break-up of the once happy home.

The common theme of unrequited love that runs through the novel sets a tone of sadness that many farm novels seem to share. For instance, the process of settling into marriages that aren’t always based on sincere love, but rather a basic need for survival, is described quite often. The Old Ashburn Place is certainly an example of this. The need to raise large families to simply provide a “labor force” seems to lead to lives of “acceptance,” although not always contentedness.

The book did provide for me some of the enjoyment I’ve come to look for in most of these older novels. My love of nature is often the reason I find the most memorable part of these books to be the descriptions of the simple pristine countryside, the clean blue lakes, the icy cold streams that are safe enough to drink from, and wild berries and fruit free for the picking. As “progress” has eliminated many of these simple joys, and rolling hills have been replaced by concrete, it’s nice to know that we can let our imagination be entertained by saving and savoring these wonderful old books.