Guest Author Patricia Weil
Synopsis of “
A Circle of Earth tells the story of people whose lives were shaped by the limitations of circumstance. Both main characters come of age during the years of the Great Depression. Their story lines cross first circumstantially, when Emma witnesses the loss of Henry’s home. Later, the story lines intersect again through the marriage of the characters’ two best loved children.
Emma is an innocent, the product of a simple piety that no longer exists in the world that most of us know. Her marriage is not a love match. She has been singled out and chosen, much in the manner of a necessary life commodity. Her husband, Ralston, a small farmer, is a man who has been emotionally limited, even damaged. Ralston’s idea of marriage precludes intimacy. A determined and driven worker in his occupation as farmer, in his own time he pursues a petty rural debauchery. Emma's close relationships with other women, her gratification as a mother, form her world.
Henry is an ardent character. We first see him as a young adult in love with the world and its possibilities, which for him will be cruelly limited. Henry has a deep love for the natural world, for his wife Lillian, his brother Drefus, as well as a strong but thwarted love for learning. The relationship between Henry and his genteel wife, Lillian, is as companionable and tender as Emma's marriage is stark. Unlike Ralston, Henry is a loving and playful father. Lillian becomes aware very gradually, as we do as readers, that Henry is an alcoholic. Victim of this common disease, he is also victim to forces beyond his control--the worst years of the Great Depression. His family life cannot withstand the circumstances into which it is forced: that of being moved into a flimsy shotgun house at the farther edges of the town’s white slums. He and Drefus resort to "riding the rails" for much of the Depression. It is several decades later, during his stay in the state mental hospital, that he forms a deep attachment to a young psychiatrist who, without being aware of it, acts as a catalyst for Henry's self-reclamation.
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I know the world of this novel; I grew up in it–in
My Master’s degree is in English, this choice being made for the love of writing. I was a good bit torn between literature and psychology. I have spent most of my professional life as an English teacher. I retired early and pursued the other love, by becoming a certified Life Coach. My greatest pleasure in this area is teaching classes in stress management, which I often do on a pro bono basis.
My love for literature remains unchanged. Someone has said that literature contains “the best of what’s been thought and said in the world.” I agree with that.
… There were his children. There was Lillian. The building was swinging apart. Sheets of water cut through it. It was dark. He was losing them.
The dream ended.
And recalling it, on a bright and safe June afternoon years past that place in time, Henry was shaken – though the nightmare had left him altogether while he was with the boy. He’d had none of that odd, faraway feeling that trailed around after a dream like that one. They had been crawdadding at the trestle pond on Highway 80. That afternoon Henry had done nothing more than watch Rallie safely inside his daughter’s house after their expedition. Betty Kate and Frank had the old Skinner house, just blocks down from Henry’s own room on
The afternoon was coming to a close – people were just beginning to return home from work. Henry didn’t acknowledge the fact that his comings and goings to his daughter’s house were sometimes contrived to avoid meeting Frank “Buddy” Griffen. The important thing that afternoon was that he needed some time. That matter of the dream required a good thinking about. …
He smoked. He thought of David Levy and felt a little better. Henry had never understood Levy’s reactions to his dreams – he had few enough of them, as it was. For some reason or another, Levy always seemed disappointed in Henry’s dreams. He’d ask him questions that didn’t seem, to Henry, to apply. But now Henry smiled, thinking back on it. He could see the young doctor lifting his head in a quick nod, maybe lifting a finger. It was Henry’s signal to go on talking. He was instructed at times to go on talking, no matter what came out, no matter how crazy or off the subject it sounded. Just keep talking – Levy stressed how important that was. …
And Levy was right. Dreams had a way of telling the truth. He had, after all, lost her; he had lost all of them, except Betty Kate. It was decades back that he lost her – he couldn’t have said, even now, exactly when it had been that he knew it was so. Long before that gray morning in’32 when he had walked over from Strayer’s, out of the heart of the town and into
East Clanton. This
after having made himself as presentable as possible, coming on weeks or more
of riding the rails; his mouth tasting salty from brushing his teeth too
hard. He had crossed the railroad yard,
the fan of spreading tracks, and entered the back yard of the shotgun house:
knowing before his foot even hit the back stoop. Knowing that she had left not just the house
but had left him, Henry.
His eyes were immediately drawn to the cardboard box placed so intentionally in the doorway, between the two rooms. Mute. Confirming everything.
… It had taken him hours, only, to locate her. She had opened the door, not thinking, absent-mindedly not looking through the door pane. So that when she opened the door, Henry stood just inside the threshold, his body blocking the door.
“You will not come into this house!” She fairly spat the words at him, Lillian did.
But of course he would go no further. It was the habit of his lifetime to obey this diminutive person. Her voice by itself would have stopped him. Not like Lillian – not Lillian’s voice. But ragged, almost gravelly. That quickly she had worked herself into a fury, her chest moving as though she’d been running. She was fierce -- he would have never thought her capable of it. …
… On reflex he stepped back from the door, and Lillian closed it. She was no longer his wife.
… Henry chuckled to himself as he walked, thinking back to the boy and his crawdad fight. Henry had never, until now, had a boy, only daughters. Rallie, Betty Kate’s boy. Henry had been surprised that she had agreed to name him Ralston, after the old man. He was a mean one, all right, the old fellow. But Henry thought fondly of the farm woman Emma who was his wife.
= = =
Emma moved slowly that afternoon – which wasn’t her way. It was her habit to be in motion, and she moved with the directness of a schoolgirl, a little heavy on her feet; hurrying. On the day of the Letter, Emma had to make herself move against her will. She would like to sit inside her kitchen, just sit, pull her arms in around her and think. …
… Time was when the world seemed to move past, outside Emma, like a thing she could reach out and touch. Now, the world moved from the inside, out. She was the mother. She was the source. The world depended on Emma.
The worktable where Emma sat was crowded with cooking things. Now she lay the letter down among them, the pencil marks already rubbed down to something like faded ink. For a second time, her attention was caught by the voices of her children. She felt wealthy in her children … Nettie was her oldest. … There was Ralph … There was Ned … Billy, the youngest … But Buddy – there was her oldest son, Buddy. When Emma thought of him, a smile started behind her eyes and that didn’t quite make it to her face. … He was a handsome boy – everybody bragged about Buddy. …
… Ralston was twenty-two when his formal wedding photograph was taken. At that age a handsome man in an unlikely sort of way. Dark, thin-lipped, with a sharp, slightly hooked nose. Most people could see that in Ralston Griffen there was something that was not altogether friendly. But he was courteous – it didn’t draw comment. Ralston joked easily enough, amused himself among his cronies; with his buddies there was a certain cockiness about him. That summer of 1914, when he first became interested in Emma Swann, he’d been more than usually satisfied with himself. He’d done some traveling around the state, and had bought a farm in central
for, as he
bragged, little more than back taxes. He
had found the farm; now he needed a wife to go with it. … And
in this regard the Swann sisters had been the first to come to mind. … He
would have Emma, the middle sister. … Alabama
Emma had known that on the evening of that particular dance, something was bound to happen with the Griffen fellow, what with the way he had taken to staring at her. And she looked forward to basking in the little sun of a woman being openly courted. But Ralson had worked it out differently.
… For the longest time, he refrained from dancing … He paid no attention at all to Emma. … Ralston singled out a certain Jane McGowan, a pretty girl in an anemic sort of way, and danced exclusively with her. …
… The pace of the music increased. The players whipped into a polka, a fast one. … He led Jane McGowan into a whirl of a polka so fast that within the first rounds the other dancers stepped back. … It was an act of splendid showmanship. Emma and her sisters tried to look anywhere but in the direction that everyone else was looking. Emma was properly mortified.
But then there had been a change, when the main fiddler had begun a slow, whining waltz. Ralston walked up to her.
“Emma.” He held out his hand – it would have been proper to call her Miss Emma. Certain onlookers were suddenly curious.
The evening was a jumble, from that point – Emma was not her right self. She was over self-conscious, flighty. She made conversation that was silly. Through every minute of that evening, with or without him as partner, Emma was aware of exactly where Ralston was. And uneasily. He had a kind of look about him. His eyes jeered, or they dared her – something, she didn’t know how to say. …
It was late when the dancing came to an end, but the night air was still thick and hot. Ralston’s voice was a little startling in the sudden quiet that followed the music. “Emma, you go ask your folks if I can drive you home.”
Ralston never properly proposed to Emma. Possibly it was an oversight. He took his success much for granted. And as it was, his behavior on that evening had resulted in the very effect he had counted on. Emma had been made unsure of herself. …
It was a poor conversation they had on that slow wagon. And Emma Swann couldn’t know that this paucity would be a fact of her life with the man who was sitting beside her. As she saw it, there must have been something she wasn’t doing right. …
For his own part, Ralston would have been content to drive without talking unless something in particular occurred to him. Thoughts of the farm absorbed him. He didn’t stop to think that the pictures so full in his mind were blank and silent to Emma; so that for him there was no suddenness, not even a break in thought, when he abruptly spoke out, “Got us a nice place, Emma. Think you’re gonna like it.”
Well then, it would be all right. … The world was a place that suited Emma after all.
It would happen to her, Emma. She would be married. Emma smiled. She was going to be the first.
= = =
… No one approved of the business of Yankee investors – that topic would bring up the usual rounds of complaints. Most people would be likely to guess that the mark of the beast was the dollar. Or it would be alcohol. In 1914
dry. Henry had no clear thoughts worked
out on the subject – he fancied the words, the mystery of them. But a picture came into his mind, a thing
that troubled him. The children that
worked at the mill, that little sharp line on their foreheads. And the men and women, some of the faces stupid
with malnutrition. The mill owners were
greedy. Greed. He’d decided. Greed was the mark of the beast. Henry thought of the cotton mill where his
father worked as manager – it was at its worst in hot weather, which had just
recently passed. He would be expected to
fill his father’s position, once Mr. Gray decided to give it up. As a sort of unofficial under manager, he had
to meddle with everything – be alert for injuries, signs of heat exhaustion,
all manner of detail. The worst of it
was that among the brothers his father had singled him out for the mill. An honor.
That he was the chosen one. Of
his own accord, he’d have never set foot in the place. It was the single and painful bane of his
existence. His plan was to escape it at
the earliest possibility. He was well
aware, though, that without this position at the mill, he could not have
proposed to Lillian. He couldn’t have
asked for her hand, while still walking behind a plow. Lillian required more than that. Alabama
= = =
Emma’s heels made a loud, hollow sound, as she began down the aisle to join Ralston. The pianist handled The Wedding March a little clumsily. Down toward the front, to one side of the pulpit, Ralston stood, hands clasped properly in front of him, with eyes so unnaturally blank, he appeared to look through the walls of the building. His hair was still damp. He wore a new suit, very formal. The change startled Emma. And for a moment her attention came to a halt at the sight of him. She didn’t know this dark, strained-looking person. And that wasn’t supposed to be. If inclination had been all that mattered, she might have turned then and walked just as easily back out of the church.
On the following morning there was an awkwardness between the two of them. … Both felt an urgency to be on their way, to make good time. … Beyond this farm lay new, open miles and the towns of
Now Emma’s sense of adventure returned to her. And Ralston’s good humor. …
… The wiregrass roads were deep in sand throughout the summer. The wheels of the wagon fell into the ruts beneath, making it difficult to steer out again. As the morning brightened, they entered stretches of pine woods, where the mosquitoes were vicious. Ralston swatted and slapped. Emma was unexpectedly shy about dabbing oil of citronella on his neck, his ears and forehead.
The afternoon fell into a heat-soaked lull. She couldn’t have said exactly when the trouble began. Emma elbowed Ralston, hard – hard enough to cause him to look over at her with astonishment, to see her swallowing as though she were about to be sick.
“I want to go home.”
“I want to go home!” And the outburst of tears began. What had she been thinking about, Emma asked herself now, coming off like this, with a man who was little more than a stranger? This thing she had done – it had been a mistake. She hadn’t thought long enough. She had moved under water. Now, she surfaced, and the reality of it washed over her. The weeping became ragged. Emma’s face had broken out in fierce red blotches.
“What do you mean, you want to go home? We got a farm, now, Emma, our own place.” It would have been more appropriate to point out that they were married. But the word “married” would have been too new and too foreign to Ralston’s tongue. And in some way too intimate. It would have referred, unavoidably, to the events of last night.
Emma actually didn’t hear him. Her speech was stupid. “But I never thought –.“
“What do you mean, you never thought?”
“I just didn’t, that’s all.”
Ralston had no answer for this. He didn’t know what to do with a weeping woman – it embarrassed him. He looked at her. She didn’t look back. He might have patted her a little on the shoulder – but that wouldn’t have been quite the thing. Another type of woman he would have jollied. But his mind made no parallels between Emma and that type of woman.
“You’ll like it when we get there.” It was a feeble response.
But Emma had quieted down. Because there was nothing else to do. And because she was quiet from simple amazement.