Book Review: The Moonflower Vine
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THE MOONFLOWER VINE, reviewed by Steven Clark
The Great Missouri Novel
In 1962, Jetta Carelton’s THE MOONFLOWER VINE was published and immediately praised. One critic compared it to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which had just been published and like this novel, was the only work of its author. THE MOONFLOWER VINE was loved and revered, then went out of print. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD , as we know, is probably taught more in schools than the Bible. THE MOONFLOWER VINE was re-published this year and has again been praised and gotten a new and enthusiastic crop of readers.
It is a moving story of the Soames family; Matthew, Callie, and their daughters Jessica, Leonie, Mathy, and Mary Jo. Set in the Ozarks near the Little Tebo river, it runs a historical time line from the late 1800’s to the 1950s, depicting the tensions and pleasures of a family. Mary Jo, the youngest and an autobiographical version of Carleton, arrives in her sports car from New York, ready for a summer vacation with the family. Jets fly overhead from a nearby air base. Her nephew will soon join the Air Force, and there is uneasy talk about the Korean war. All of the family, especially Callie, look forward to seeing the Moonflowers bloom at night, and plan to collect wild honey on the last day of vacation. But the preacher shows up. A local farmer was murdered by his son, and the preacher asks the family to come to the funeral, as the old man has no one to mourn him. There goes the vacation. Matthew is especially annoyed, but he is a school teacher and has his social obligations. The family grudgingly appears at the funeral, but the church is packed. The murder has become a celebrity event, so after making an appearance, the family hurries off to watch the Moonflowers bloom.
Each member of the family has their own section of the novel. Jessica’s running off with a hired hand, Matthew’s frustration between being a teacher and farmer. Mathy’s wildness in marrying Ed, one of Matthew’s most troublesome pupils who, after becoming an aviator, takes Mathy up with him, crashes, and she dies. Callie, an uneducated woman who cannot fathom Matthew’s love of learning. All of this is weaved with a humanity and compassion of a world close to the soil, like a Willa Cather novel, a Blut und Boden world where nature and blood intermingle. THE MOONFLOWER VINE captures the speech of Missouri and its rhythmns. Reading it, I was reminded of my grandparent’s world. I could once again smell their kitchens, hear choping and sawing in the back yard, and the summer heat that forced you to sleep on the porch. Also the hymn singing that everyone knew by heart.
Carelton’s language and imagery is immediate and powerful:
“The little chunk of ice wept steadily into the dust.”
“The minister was an old man, dry and thin as a page in the Bible.”
“Already the leaves, yellowed by the dry summer, had begun to fall, and the locusts scraped and droned,
crying wearily that all, all was lost.”
“The meek shall inherit the earth, but no one promised them heaven.”
“She knew that kind of woman. Men caught them like spring colds. But they didn’t last.”
The love agonies of Matthew’s daughters reads like an earthier PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at times, but romance here is looked on with a farmer’s unrosy eyes. Lovers fail. They die. People can’t communicate their deepest longings to those they love. Women may choose lovers poorly, but they accept their responsibilities and go on with life. Even as Matthew’s girls leave the farm, a part of them always stays behind.
The greatest tension in the book is Matthew’s longing for Charlotte, a young woman visiting from St. Louis. It mirrors a problem throughout his life, longing for younger schoolgirls whom he can talk literature with, unlike his illiterate wife. His mind always wanders:
“And it appalled him. This habit, disease, this aptitude of his, which was his secret joy, was also his anguish.”
Carleton captures an older man’s sexual longing and frustration very well. The contrast between Callie and Charlotte reminded me of Murnau’s film SUNRISE, where an equal struggle between city and country life was presented. Matthew, frustrated by his hopeless romance of Charlotte, wakes up in the night and wanders his fields. He finds Callie in her white nightgown, searching for him, and she forces herself on him. Charlotte leaves for St. Louis. Callie becomes pregnant with Mathy.
This is recalled by Callie in her old age, and when Matthew left her alone on the farm while he courted Charlotte, a peddler came to sell his wares:
“But his hair and eyes were black, and there was something about him that marked him, if not as a gypsy, as some sort of foreigner.”
The peddler is eccentric and charming as he tries to sell Callie ribbon. He cajoles her into giving him breakfast. Lonely without Matthew, she appreciates his company, but there is something unnerving about him, the way he probes her and jokes back her uneasiness. He leaves. Later, Callie searches for a missing hen. In a thicket near the house she comes upon the peddler, shirtless and asleep. He wakes and, smiling, advances. Callie tries to run, but he rapes her:
“‘Don’t cry,’ he said. ‘Let’s be happy together for a little while. You will like me-I am clean. I won’t give you a disease. I am careful. Stay with me,’ he said, and his whisper roared like a seashell held against the ear.”
Callie runs home sobbing. She dares not tell Matthew: isn’t it partly her fault? Her anxiety eats at her until she seeks Matthew alone in the field.
A rape also takes place in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the novel THE MOONFLOWER VINE is often compared to, but in that book the rape is used as a propaganda tool to reflect on black/white relations. Here, the act is private and creeps from Matthew and Callie’s estrangement. The peddler, being dark, foreign, and most likely Jewish, would cancel out THE MOONFLOWER VINE’S immediate popularity with the publishing world.
Callie’s rape resonated with me because when I was in college I worked at the State Historical Society, and one of my jobs was to prepare old newspapers for microfilming. Reading through these rural periodicals, I was struck by the amount of rapes and assaults reported on single women, especially alone on farms. Many times it was done by blacks, who confessed and were usually hung, but there were other men, usually drifters and outsiders who were caught and dealt with in a similar way. Callie’s rape isn’t just a metaphor for a couple’s isolation, but a retelling of historical fact. This is far less propagandistic than TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Carleton’s storytelling is more compelling than Lee’s and less manipulative. I think of an incident in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD where a mad dog is seen on the street, and the sheriff approaches the liberal lawyer, Atticus, to help him kill it because he’s not sure he can shoot the dog with a rifle. So a tense moment is built up as Calpurnia, the black housemaid, warns people not to come out, Atticus tenses up, carefully aims, and pow! I thought, huh? With a mad dog all you do is whip out your .38, go bang! and it’s over. I thought this entire scene was manipulative and designed to show Atticus not just as a liberal, but one with a gun. THE MOONFLOWER VINE has no scenes like these. It is a FELT , organic work.
Much like when Leonie feels ignored because of Mathy’s death. She wants to push over her sister’s tombstone, and decides to escape to Kansas City to live it up, but her rebellion becomes comic. Her big adventure in the city ends in Ed’s apartment, for Ed has moved to KC to get over Mathy. He finds Leonie’s attempts at sinning humorous, but he also begins to feel an affection for her that will lead to their marriage. Matthew, who blamed Ed for Mathy’s death, becomes reconciled to this as he hears a returned Leonie play her accordian, ‘A distressing sound, like someone trying to laugh through tears.’
The novel has a quiet, strong beauty of relationships, and I’m reminded of the movie RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, where the independent nature of the southerners is disturbed by war, and they become outsiders, yet retain their humanity and independence. Yet there is a sad, tragic nature to life, as Callie, in her old age, observes:
‘Maybe that was the way it went, that all your life you heard the singing and never got any closer. There were things you wanted all your life, and after a while and all of a sudden, you weren’t any closer than you were and there was no time left.’
I thought this a beautiful, strong novel that reminded me of an independent America long past. I really liked it.