Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review
"A Circle of Earth"
by Patricia Weil
 
I have to go back years to think of a debut novel I have enjoyed as much as Patricia Weil’s “A Circle of Earth.”

First of all, this novel is excellent because Mrs. Weil knows people. Her characters are fully dimensional, authentic, neither entirely exemplary nor contemptible. We identify easily with them; and as with real people we invest our emotions and cast judgment.

Two married couples dominate the novel. Henry Gray marries Lillian McClinton, a dainty young woman a step or two above him in class. An empathetic person with an inquiring mind, restless by nature, Henry is forced by his father to do supervisory work at a cotton mill. Later, to support Lillian and his young family in the manner he feels they deserve, he buys a quarter ownership in a saw mill, in both instances stunting his potential intellectual growth. As his economic difficulties mount, he takes to drinking. We discover that he is an alcoholic. Emma Swann, a trusting innocent raised with compatible sisters by loving parents, protected, as if in a cocoon, from the harsh realities of Alabama life before 1914, is persuaded by Ralston Griffen, an unfeeling, self-absorbed, controlling young man, to become a rural farm wife and mother. Henry and Emma must deal with their deteriorating marriages, the economic hardships of the Great Depression, and the consequences of their own human failings. Indeed, the stories of Henry, Emma, and their spouses illustrate adroitly the universal truth that a person’s life is shaped always by time, place, parentage, the actions of other people, chance, and that person’s strengths and weaknesses of character.

In the novel’s first two chapters the author captures easily our interest by having Henry and Emma look back upon their lives from the vantage point of decades of experience. We are given glimpses of moments of crises that cause us to want to know everything about their experiences. For seemingly the first half of the novel Henry and Emma are featured in alternate chapters. The momentum of their stories accelerates. Emma’s basic conflict is resolved before Henry’s. The last several chapters are a satisfying denouement.

I was especially impressed with Mrs. Weil’s knowledge of her subject matter. Here are two prime examples.

Ralston Griffen has taken his innocent, young bride to the farm he has purchased. The previous owner has let the land go unattended. Ralston and Emma must harvest the corn and cotton crops, entangled by coarse, wild vegetation. “It was angry work, this work of ripping up and pushing apart that Black Belt soil, which was weighed with clay, netted with roots that drove deep, like knots of twine. He had worn out and replaced a plow point well before half of the rows were finished. Then had to go back over each foot of the fields with a harrow—between the furrows, the high grass had only been flattened, not pulled up. He began over the corn, matted with thick plants. Like the sour Jimsonweed that grew up to his shoulders. The rows were crisscrossed with thin, tickly grasses, in places scattered with morning glory.”

After Ralston abandons Emma and their children, Emma’s demeanor changes. “The children missed their leisure, the long Saturdays of baseball, train watching, the lengthy hikes to the places that were good to fish or swim. But more than these things they missed their mother. Nettie, especially. In the past, among themselves, they had joked about Emma’s carrying-on, all the little nonsense things—and the teasing. They didn’t understand that they relied on those things. There was no joy now in Emma. And, for the children, everyday life had thinned down into something gray and flavorless. When Emma tried to force the old humor, it was worse, somehow. The children felt the strain.”

To tell a story that spans at least 60 years, an author must narrate by “telling” much more than by “showing.” A skilled writer like Mrs. Weil does this clearly and intelligently. Here is an example.

From childhood Henry’s older brother Drefus had been his mentor and protector. Early on, the author writes: “There’d be hearty hugs and back clapping. And the two men would settle in the living room or on the porch, where they’d talk and smoke, sometimes far into the night. One or the other would produce a bottle. … Then Drefus would elaborate in great earnest on the subject of where he had been. They laughed out loud in the talk. Both were long-bodied men; both tended to draw up a leg as they warmed to a subject. Drefus was in love with flight—of Birmingham, Memphis, Mobile, New Orleans. Of train stations late at night, the goings and coming of strange, city people. His stories were the wonder and Henry the audience—it had always been that way. But the self-importance of each man was most warmed and gratified in the company of the other.”

“A Circle of Earth” is more a story of thoughts and emotions than action and dialogue. Mrs. Weil’s subjective narration is never dull; it is insightful and emotive. The scene that portrays Ralston’s return to Emma and the children, in which very little is said, is outstanding. Here is a brief excerpt.

“He had come back, it was true, to seek her out. And although Ralston had gone over the prospect of this hoped-for reunion again and again in his mind, it hadn’t occurred to him to prepare what to say. Nor had it occurred to him that there would be any special awkwardness—that when the moment came, he might not know what to do. …

“Come back. He had come back. Still, there was nothing to say. Emma didn’t move in her chair. But her feelings, now jarred loose, careened in opposing directions. The children. Safe. They would be safe again. They would no longer be hungry. But he had deserted them, left them to get by any old way that they could. His own blood—wife and family. There was also anger in the wild rush of feelings. And the shame of it. Bruising. She would never get over it. Emma’s emotions were crazy, in their sudden release. For so long it had been there: the dread that tugged at her mind like a tiny, malicious bite. Fear of the hunger. The cold. The mortgage money. The crops. All of it. But it was over, now. He had come back. For a few moments the welter of relief and long overdue anger jammed inside Emma. Then she was overcome by it all.”

There are many scenes in this novel, mostly serious and some light-hearted, that captivated me. These included the scene of Ralston’s return, the scene of Ralston’s courtship of Emma, Henry’s sessions with his psychiatrist, the scene in which Henry begs for food during a brief stop of “riding the rails” with Drefus, the brief, tender scenes that reveal Emma and Lillian’s growing friendship, and a scene in which Lillian converses politely with two senior high school boys that, on a lark, had come to her dilapidated house to check out Lillian’s attractive, easily humiliated, freshman daughter Elizabeth.

Finally, I compliment Mrs. Weil for her excellent use of sensory detail. Her characters always have presence. She employs imagery effectively in brief scenes like this one.

“At not quite 6:30 on a Sunday morning, the sound of the telephone woke Henry. The ringing was strange to his ears, and he lay for some time resisting it, sleep-soaked and perspiring. Night had brought no relief from the early heat spell that had lasted for more than a week. He and Lillian had tangled themselves in the bed sheets, which felt damp to the touch.”

And she employs imagery beautifully in lengthier passages.

“And how good it was to be out! … Henry stalked the old alleys as a schoolboy would do, senses alert for small discoveries. He passed carriage houses converted to garages, some with fraying buggies, discarded toy wagons or hobby horses that had once belonged to children as old, now, or older than he. He caught all the cooking smells from breakfasts and dinners, the sweetish stink of garbage, the sunny odors of soapsuds and warm grass, newly watered. He listened to the carryings-on of cooks and delivery men, the shrieks of children unsupervised behind houses. He occasionally overheard quarrels from anonymous upstairs windows. These were the smells and sounds of days going by, simple days in the everyday lives of people.”

“A Circle of Earth” is an outstanding novel.