Thursday, October 3, 2013

 

Book Review

Cress Delahanty

by Jessamyn West

 
“Cress Delahanty” by Jessamyn West is one of those rare books that causes me to celebrate life. Mrs. West is a masterful writer. I read this book in the 1980s when I was teaching fourteen-year-olds and loved it. Now, having a granddaughter of that age, after reading it a second time, I revere it.

The reader experiences the growth toward emotional maturity of Crescent Delahanty from age 12 to 16 in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She and her parents live on a citrus ranch near Santa Ana, California. Not particularly attractive physically but highly observant and introspective, she is an only child awkwardly seeking social standing and peer approval. As she grows older, she learns indelible lessons about people and life that her supportive, usually perceptive parents frequently sense she is experiencing and strive to guide her through. These lessons are revealed through vignettes, selected occurrences that do not preach, do not explain, do not dramatize. We experience what Cress sees, hears, thinks, and feels. We adults, drawing on our own experiences, are permitted to infer what Cress has discovered for the first time. This is a coming-of-age novel in the best sense. No stereotypes here. Each experience is intelligently selected and sparsely, cleanly, and sometimes humorously narrated.

I will provide one example.

Late during her thirteenth year Cress is invited to stay over the weekend at the house of a classmate, Ina Wallenius. Ina wants to be Cress’s friend. Cress doesn’t particularly want to go. Cress had reached [precariously] the upper level of her high school’s social structure and Ina was at a lower level “reaching upward. A visit could put Ina up where she was, or just as easily put Cress down where Ina was.” Ina is somewhat peculiar in appearance and conduct. She lives with her father in a neighborhood of small houses built on a hill amid oil derricks. “A ratty little town,” Ina apologizes as the two girls get off the school bus to begin the weekend.

They enter Ina’s house. To Cress’s great surprise, the rooms are immaculate. Every household item is precisely placed. “Half a lemon rested in the exact center of a saucer, and the saucer had been placed in the exact middle of the window sill. The chairs, ranged around the set table, were all pushed under it a uniform distance.”

Cress meets Mr. Wallenius, who greets her and goes off to wash for dinner, which his daughter has carefully prepared. Before they eat, he asks Cress to read a chapter from the Bible, a daily occurrence in his house. He has selected a chapter that contained words that, elsewhere, “it would be very wrong for her to whisper or even think about.” The father asks Cress, “Did you understand what you read?” Not wanting to be tested, she answers that she hadn’t. Mr. Wallenius seems pleased.

He asks Cress, “Have you ever been kissed?” Knowing he doesn’t mean family kisses, she answers, ”No.” He tells her she is big enough. “I guess it goes more by age than size,” Cress responds.

Mr. Wallenius invites Cress to take a little walk with him while Ina washes the dishes. Feeling uncomfortable, Cress answers, “I wouldn’t feel right, not helping.” Mr. Wallenius says, “Washing them alone is a little punishment I planned for Ina. A little reminder. Isn’t that true, Ina?”

They go outside. The father warns Cress about rattlesnakes. He is carrying a long stick, tells her how he has killed a few. They come upon one of the sump holes in the neighborhood. Mr. Wallanius goes into the bushes and comes out with a live gopher snake balanced on his stick. “With a gentle movement, Mr. Wallenius laid, rather than threw, the soft, brown, harmless thing in the sump hole. Ignoring Cress’s pleas to spare the snake, he watches it fight to survive. “Sink—swim; sink—swim. … Up—down; in—out,” he repeats. “It’s dying!” Cress protests. She breaks away from him, flees down the hill, and walks the long distance home.

Her parents ask her why she has come back. “Homesick” is her answer. Does she want a bedtime snack? The chapter ends this way: “It sounded good, but Cress was silent. She sat down in her father’s chair and nodded yes to him, because suddenly she was too tired to speak even so small and easy a word.” Ina and her father and this experience are not referred to thereafter in the book.

I admire Jessamyn West’s ability to provide sensory detail in her narration almost as much as I do her selection and portrayal of her subject matter. She is not pretentious in her word selection; instead she is simple, direct and, most importantly, exact. Here are two examples:

“Mrs. Delahanty stood in front of the fireplace, close to the fire until her calves began to scorch, then on the edge of the hearth until they cooled.”

“It was only the smell of the oil—which was taste as much as smell—the sight of an occasional sump hole at the end of a side street, and the sound of the pumps that reminded Cress where she was. The sound of the pumps filled the air, deep, rhythmical, as if the hills themselves breathed; or as if deep in the wells some kind of heart shook the earth with so strong a beat that Cress could feel it in the soles of her feet.”

“Cress Delahanty” is not a novel that teenagers would especially enjoy, in my opinion. Oh, but what a pleasure it is for parents and grandparents to read! I can imagine them finishing each chapter thinking, “Yes, this is how it is” or “I can believe this. Such a good person being made stronger. Mankind needs strong, sensitive people.”