In the Deep MidWinter
By Robert Clark
Half Moon Pocosin
Cherry L.F. Johnson
Academy Chicago Press
167 pp., $18.95
Flight of the Blackbird
Faye Macdonald Smith
352 pp., $23
The unmistakable feel of a time, a place, a way of life, as experienced by the individual heart, is something more often captured by novelists than by historians.
The winter of 1949-1950 is the setting for the opening of Robert Clark's first novel, In the Deep Midwinter. Train travel is convenient and comfortable, television sets are rare, futuristic-seeming phenomena, and divorce (if not quite a dirty word), still raise eyebrows.
The opening scene introduces Richard MacEwan, 50 years old, a lawyer from St. Paul, who is traveling west by train to identify the body of his brother, James, killed in what seems to have been a hunting accident.
Richard has always been the reliable brother, a solid citizen and happily married man with a 22-year-old daughter. James, his junior by four years, a stockbroker, was the family sportsman and playboy, with a long list of women who remember him fondly.
Sifting through his brother's papers, Richard discovers disturbing evidence of problems in his own marriage in a letter written to James by Richard's wife, Sarah. Meanwhile, Richard and Sarah's daughter Anna, the divorced mother of a two-year-old boy, is becoming involved with Charles Norden: "a nice young man, divorced, not too forthcoming, but with good prospects," as Sarah, sums him up.
Savvy, discreet, and attuned to the importance of keeping up appearances, Sarah is an adult in every sense of the word, unlike her daughter Anna, who is shy, gentle, unsure of herself, but imbued with a deep belief in the power of goodness and love. As Anna's romance with Charles Norden blossoms, happiness and security seem just around the corner - until something unforeseen tests the quality of their love.
The author of a biography of food writer James Beard and a mythopoetic history of the Columbia River, Robert Clark uncannily re-creates the atmosphere, manners, and mores of the Midwestern, early 1950s milieu: the architecture and furnishings of its homes; the speech, habits, and thinking of its inhabitants, their prejudices, their assumptions, and their need to reexamine their values and beliefs.
The novel's pace is slow but, far from inducing boredom. Its slowness allows the author to explore what's going on in the characters' minds and to portray both their inward mental states and their outward surroundings in such luminous detail as to draw readers into this world and keep them there. Clark's prose style, thick with far-fetched similes and metaphors, seems a trifle overrich at first, but ultimately works to lend resonance and weight to the story.
By the novel's end, the characters have learned much about forgiveness, compassion, and understanding, while the reader has a sense of having traveled through time and relived the vicissitudes of these midcentury lives.
An isolated cabin in the marshlands of eastern North Carolina is the setting of Cherry L.F. Johnson's Half Moon Pocosin. The story takes place in the 1930s, when the Great Depression has made the lives of these already-poor rural farm folk still more parlous and difficult.
A "pocosin" is a regional term meaning an upland swamp, and in this lonesome surrounding, the protagonist, Cindy, and her husband, J.D., labor day and night to make a living from their small farm.
They have a wood-burning stove, no electricity or running water, but they grown corn, tomatoes, squash, collards, and the big cash crop, tobacco. Eggs from their chickens, milk from their cow, and the occasional slaughtered hog supplement their diet. They have a baby daughter, Callie, who is the apple of her mother's eye, but who is not the son that her father would have preferred.
The story is told in the third person, from Cindy's point of view, and we are made to feel the hardship of her predicament. This is a young woman who dreamed of becoming a schoolteacher, who still loves reading and who would like to see something of the wider world, but who has very little prospect of escaping from the daily round of drudgery and loneliness that she has come to know.
Her parents, wanting what they felt would be best for her, pressured her into marrying J.D., who is, indeed, the reliable, hardworking young farmer with land of his own whom they see as ideal husband and father material. Unfortunately for Cindy, J.D. is also unaffectionate, unimaginative, unkempt, unsympathetic, and unappreciative of her.
Johnson's simple, clear, understated writing convincingly evokes Cindy's world. Her painstaking and poignant cataloguing of the many tasks and chores that make up a farmwife's day conveys both the satisfactions and the frustrations of this way of life.
As Cindy shucks corn, peels potatoes, washes the laundry in a tub, puts up vegetables, and feeds her baby homemade peach preserves, she experiences a growing sense of the presences of the past generations of women who once lived in this cabin and led the same kind of life.
Maybe, she wonders, they had some of the same feelings that she has: "Just because a woman was a good wife and mother and knew her place all the days of her life...didn't mean she never wondered sometimes about what might be outside her own walls...Maybe...they were all like her, like an animal in a fence that knows the grass is greener on the other side of those rails but is afraid it's not strong enough to break out..."
When Cindy has her opportunity to "break out" (which comes in the dubious form of an itinerant peddler), it seems all too likely that this, too, will not be the answer to her heart's desires. Johnson's sympathetic narration movingly conveys the quiet agonies of Cindy's dilemma and the stoical courage it can take to lead - or endure - a constricted life.
Mel Burke, the heroine of Faye Macdonald Smith's novel, Flight of the Blackbird,is a smart, good-looking, well-educated, upper-middle-class black woman living the good life in present day Atlanta. She has a great job, working as an executive for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. She has a wonderful husband (appropriately named Builder), who runs his own contracting/construction business, and a bright, 12-year-old daughter, Sasha, who gets excellent grades at the posh private school her parents have chosen for her.
One fine day - Mel's birthday, in fact - this picture-perfect world starts falling apart. Thanks to a declining economy and the national mania for "downsizing," Mel loses her job. As she searches - with growing desperation - to find another job, it becomes increasingly apparent that her husband's business is also in trouble.
An assignment he had been counting on is lost when his would-have-been client moves to another state. A loan from the bank, which once seemed to be in the cards, is not forthcoming. Bills mount: Sasha's tuition, payments on the mortgage and car, angry threats from Builder's unpaid suppliers and workers.
Smith tells the story of this family's many trials and tribulations in all-too-convincing detail, conveying not only the painful humiliations of their financial straits, but also the devastating toll that these troubles take on what once seemed a secure and happy marriage.
Although eventually. there is light at the end of the tunnel, Smith has given us an impressively unflinching portrait of just how much money can matter, especially to a family that has been using its affluence to paper over the unexamined cracks in its underlying structure.
Smith proves herself a sharply observant, sometimes funny, always down-to-earth chronicler of contemporary urban lifestyles and the panic that can lurk beneath glossy surfaces.
*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.