By Maureen Theobald
Editor’s Note: Kirkland’s A New Home was originally published in 1836. In 1953, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, of New York, reprinted the book in a hardcover edition. This review utilized that edition. Kirkland is sometimes referred to as the founder of Midwest rural literature, largely as a result of the publication of A New Home.
If there’s one thing I love more than an old homesteading novel, it’s one so obviously based on real events. This latest read, by Caroline Kirkland, was somehow more enjoyable knowing that the little town of Pinckney, Michigan, was the actual place where she settled with her husband and two children in 1836. I’ve read so many novels of settlers in the American frontier, most of them taking place on the central Midwest plains. Iowa and Nebraska’s climates were, and are, so much more extreme than Michigan’s. The moderate temperatures there seemed to make settling a bit more tolerable, at least as it is portrayed in A New Home. It made for more enjoyable reading, without as many traumatic, often tragic events. The flora and fauna were also very different than those of the central plains states. Her fascinating descriptions of the trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables that were native to the area were interesting and educational.
The back story of the Kirkland’s novel is also entertaining, considering it’s a thinly veiled account of the citizens of Pinckney. What Caroline often deemed endearing and innocent behavior of her many cohabitants in the tiny village, they would eventually see as a betrayal. Her letters, written to her family and friends back east, were eventually woven into the novel, and when the people of Pinckney discovered that she had written about them, they found the stories to be insulting and offensive. Hard feelings prevailed toward Caroline by the simple folk in the village. They felt as though she had mocked and ridiculed them, and most of them never forgave her. She and her family eventually moved back to New York, and she struggled knowing the people she had loved as friends in Pinckney, now thought ill of her.
Her stories, while under most circumstances would be considered almost boring accounts of a mundane life in very modest accommodations, come alive with wit and humor. Her quirky and complicated use of prose, while sometimes difficult to decipher, made for very interesting and entertaining reading. While she is definitely one of the most poetic writers I’ve encountered, I am not too proud to admit that oftentimes I would find myself rereading a paragraph once or twice in order to fully comprehend it!
How I would love to read a novel about the settling of my own home town, complete with interesting characters as in Kirkland’s tales. It makes me wonder if the residents of this area of east-central Michigan are aware of this book, and the woman who stirred up so much controversy when she wrote the stories of her neighbors and friends. I hope they are. What fun to read about people who may very well be ancestors of some of them!