Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review
"The Town"
by Conrad Richter
 
What distinguishes a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from well-written novels that do not win prestigious awards?  I would assert a deeper exploration into the psyche and behavior of the human species.  I would also suggest an undertaking of far greater depth and scope than the attention-gaining, quick-moving, character-conflict- resolution-end of story kind of novel.   I believe “The Town” meets these conditions.
 
I appreciated these three themes. 
 
The accomplishments that one generation achieves and the people who achieve them are too frequently discounted by people of succeeding generations tempted to believe, because their lives have been made easier, that they are more enlightened, superior.
 
Every child born of the same parents is different from his/her siblings, but all, usually, adopt the broad values inculcated during their upbringing. But there can be outliers that parents may never direct.
 
Great harm can be done to innocent children by cruel attitudes and acts of adults who adhere to rigid moral codes.
 
Intertwined in the revelation of these themes are two important characters: Chancey Wheeler, the youngest of Sayward and Portius Wheeler’s ten surviving children, and Rosa Tench, Portius’s illegitimate daughter.
 
Chancey Wheeler is the outlier of the Wheeler children.  Unlike his siblings, he is born with a delicate constitution.  He is sickly, physically weak, and seemingly handicapped by a weak heart.  During his first several years of life he is frequently carried to places in and close to the family house rather than be expected to walk.  Deprived of normal activity, he spends most of his time inert.  Much of that time he fantasizes. 
 
He resents his siblings’ robustness.  In his late teens he acknowledges the reasons for his dislike of them.  They were so sufficient to themselves, he thought.  That was it.  Nothing stopped them.  Any one of his people could go it alone, ask for no quarter, do without your help.  … If only there had been another in the family puny, lazy and cowardly like he!  Just the thought of having such a brother or sister, perhaps one even worse than he was, lifted him up, made him feel better.  But his mother wouldn’t admit he was puny or cowardly or anything else that wasn’t good.  He was strong as anybody else, she claimed.  … But nobody could make that much out of him, Chancey told himself, for none understood him save Rosa. 
 
He believes his mother resents him.  He convinces himself that Sayward and Portius are not his parents and he longs for the day when his real parents will take him away.  He tells fantastic stories – for instance, he rode in to town once on the back of a red cow – and insists that they are true.  As he matures, he resists doing menial work. In his middle teens he meets Rosa Tench and finds her to be an unthreatening, accepting soul.  Eventually, he leaves the home and start a career as a newspaper editor.  He is harshly critical of Sayward’s generation and of his oldest brother, Resolve, who has become governor of the state.  He steadfastly believes that his mother is cruel to him by insisting that he not be soft and lazy.  Eventually, Sayward blames herself for his shortcomings.  Where she made the mistake was letting a little sickness coddle him.  Had she brought him up rough and tumble like his brothers and sisters, he’d know how to call back worse names than he got, and then the others would be glad to leave him alone. 
 
He rejects everything Sayward values -- especially the virtue of hard work -- which he believes are old-fashioned, out-of-date.  In his late teens he and Sayward have this conversation.
 
This spring he tried every excuse to get out of working in the lot and garden.  When she held him to it, he cried out it was a disgrace.  She was thunderstruck though she tried not to show it.
 
“Why is honest work a disgrace?” she wanted to know.
 
“It’s all right for those who have to,” he told her.  “But you’re the richest woman in Americus and I’m your son and yet we have to go out and work like hired men in the field.”
 
It came to her mind to say, I thought you said you weren’t my son, but never would she cast that up to him.
 
“Work’s the best thing we can do, Chancey,” she said.
 
Caught up with fanciful notions of an enlightened society – justification to excuse his aversion to work -- he responds this way.
 
… progress will do away with all toil and labor in time.  … There’ll be no rich people and no poor people, just brothers and sisters.  And everybody will have security and happiness.”
 
Sayward answers.
 
“Making a body happy by taking away what made him unhappy will never keep him happy long.  The more you give him, the more he’ll want and the weaker he’ll get for not having to scratch for hisself.”
 
Chancey is an unsympathetic character throughout the novel.
 
Rosa Tench is the consequence of Portius’s marital infidelity with the town’s school mistress, Miss Bartram, who marries a local laborer, Jake Tench, prior to Rosa’s birth.  These events occur in Conrad Richter novel, “The Fields.”  Neither Rosa nor Chancey know of their blood relationship.  Mrs. Tench, following Rosa’s birth, becomes an isolate, never leaves her house, is slovenly, lives only to identify with characters in novels.  Rosa is an entirely different child than are her brothers, who are ordinary and rather crude.
 
We meet Rosa initially in a fascinating scene fairly early in the novel.
 
Portius, suffering a high fever, is being nursed back to health.  Rosa’s father, in a drunken state, wanting to prick Portius’s conscience, sends Rosa to the Wheeler house with a batch of flowers.  Sayward answers a gentle knock on the front door.
 
Her slender legs looked like they never belonged in that coarse gray calico dress she had on, and her white face had the singular shape of one of her blossoms.  Washed and rightly dressed and combed, she would be oddly beautiful, Sayward thought. Now the little girl just stood there, not saying a word.
 
Sayward gets Rosa to identify herself.
 
The sound of the name gave Sayward a turn.  For a minute she just stood looking.  So this was the child conceived in sin by the pretty school mistress who, they said, looked like a hag now, and would not set foot out of her house since the babe was born, nor would she wash or comb!  Why, the girl was no bigger than Chancey, though she must be a year or two older.  And now Sayward knew, with the feel of knife in her side, who the girl looked like.
 
Did the girl know it, too?  Her face quivered.
 
“I brought some flowers for Mr. Wheeler,” she said, very low, holding out her handful.
 
“I’m sure he’ll be much obliged to you,” Sayward told her, sober as could be, taking them from her, steeling herself, hardening her hand toward the soft clinging feel of those fingers,  Now how much did the child know, she wondered.  “Did you bring those your own self or did somebody tell you to?” she asked.
 
“My father told me.”  The girl’s eyes were like the most ethereal of wide slaty gray liquid curtains that threatened to be torn down.
 
Sayward recognizes Jake Tench’s intent.
 
just the trick Jake would play on some highly respectable bigwig …, send a bastard child to him with flowers when he was sick, but Jake would have to be might tipsy to play it on his own foster child and Portius.  Why, he had threatened death on any who told Rosa that she was not his own, or so she heard.
 
Sayward has to leave to tend Portius.  She instructs Rosa to sit just inside the front door to wait.  When Sayward returns, Rosa is gone.  Her daughters Huldah and Libby were at the door.
 
“Where is she?” she asked them.
 
“Do you know who that was?” Huldah leered at her.
 
“Of course I know.  What did you do to her?’
 
“We didn’t do anything,” Libby said.  “We just looked at her, that’s all.”  But her face said, “We sent her home a flying.”
 
“I can imagine how you looked at her,” Sayward said sternly.
 
This scene foreshadows Sayward’s difficulty accepting Rosa’s existence and the Wheeler children’s and Porticus’s rejection of Rosa throughout the novel.  It also foreshadows Rosa’s victimization by her mother, Jake Tench, and others in the community.
 
By accident Chancey and Rosa meet in town.  They discover that each feels estranged from their families.  Rosa takes Chancey for walks in the woods to enjoy the beautiful isolation of nature that she craves.  Chancey sees in her a sanctuary from his feelings of inadequacy and the resentment he feels toward his mother and siblings.  They grow older, continue to meet; their meetings become know to their families; they are forbidden by them to meet.  Portius has the sheriff warn Rosa and Chancey of the consequences of their continued meetings. After a subsequent meeting, Rosa’s mother says awful things to her.
 
“Don’t all right me, Miss Rosa!  If you don’t want to tell your own mother, I can’t make you.  But don’t tell her either, when the law brings your sin out in court.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Never did I dream I would have a daughter such as you!”
 
Their meetings are not sexual, as the public and family members suspect.  Each provides the other emotional release.  Unlike Chancey, Rosa is a sympathetic, almost beloved character.  We respond to her anguish when she looks through the windows of the Wheeler mansion and marvels at the advantages the Wheeler children have compared to what she must endure.
 
Wasn’t it the saddest thing in this world that you always had to be yourself, that you couldn’t be somebody else, that never, never, never could you be the person you most wanted to be?
 
I was furious at the outcome of her conflict.
 
I valued also other aspects of this novel.  For instance, the story, covering many years, mirrors real life.  Tragedies occur, challenges must be met, characters age, children are born, “progress” happens.  At the end of the novel the town is nothing like what the land had been when Sayward, a child, was brought into the deep forest by her father and mother at the beginning of the novel “The Trees.”  All three of Conrad Richter’s three novels about the Lucketts and Wheelers have an authentic feel about them that causes their readers to believe such a place existed.