2 December, 2009

Book Review: The Moonflower Vine

Posted by alex in book reviews, books at 6:41 pm | Permanent Link

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.

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  7. 11 Responses to “Book Review: The Moonflower Vine”

    1. Mark Says:

      Your review does the book justice, well done.

    2. -jc Says:

      I’m not sure when peddlers quit visiting Southern farms but I recall a still horse-drawn wagon and excitement at the arrival. That would have been about 1952 or 53. I recall that the telephones there still had to be cranked to generate the voltage to ring the other phones on the line and a call was made to let other family members on adjacent sections (160 acres) that the peddler was coming.

    3. Tim McGreen Says:

      JC, where did you live, in Hooterville?

    4. Coup D'Etat Says:

      “Here, the act is private and creeps from Matthew and Callie‚Äôs estrangement. The peddler, being dark, foreign, and most likely Jewish,…”

      The two most popular names the southerners would use to describe outsiders/peddlers were “damned yankees” or “carpetbaggers.”

    5. Leviticus Jackson Says:

      The statement that both this novel and To Kill a Mockingbird were the only works of their respected authors is interesting. There has been a rumor afoot for many years that the real author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was really Truman Capote and that Harper Lee was the front person for his work. She was well acquainted with him so this is suspicion is not out of the question. The amount of adulation that this novel has received over the past 50 years is totally out of proportion to the quality of the work. It is only because of the book’s political tone and its appearing at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and its adoption by the educational establishment that it will never go away.

    6. steven clark Says:

      I’ve heard the rumors about Capote doing MOCKINGBIRD. Also, Lee seems extremely reticient about her work. I don’t know. Careleton only wanted to write one novel, and ran her own publishing house, and finally after many years began a second novel but died before she could finish it. The manuscript was said to be lost in a tornado.
      But like an old English prof of mine sais, a lot of writers would have been better off if they’d stopped at one book. He especially felt Heller (CATCH-22) was a case in point.
      MOCKINGBIRD is a propaganda piece. Say you question it, and check the raised eyebrows. A true test for liberals.

    7. Tim McGreen Says:

      Gregory Peck was a fine actor, but he was a typical anti-White Hollywood Limousene Liberal, so he was perfect for the role of Atticus Finch.

    8. Ein Says:

      I had always understood him to be a Jew who passed (very effectively) for an Anglo, and Hollywood used him for that purpose. I don’t know where I picked up that mis-information. There’s so much misinfo circulating around! On checking now, I see that he was not. He really was what he seemed.

      But he went to the U. Cal. at Berkeley in the 30s. Aparently, that’s where he got radicalized. Interesting to see that Berkeley was a hotbed of lefties and radicals even way back then. How these well-meaning idealists like him have been twisted around and used against their own people! How cunningly they’ve been exploited! I wonder how he’d like what he’d see in Berkeley now. He might be horrified and reconsider his position! As one of those scorned “old white men”, he’d certainly be out of place there.

    9. Mary O Says:

      WN — not!!!

      Having read lots of novels, I was surprised that I had never even heard of this one. I just finished reading it.

      Callie and Mathew are the parents, and this novel tells their story, and the story of their daughters, Jessica, Leonie, Mathy & Mary Jo.

      Callie was NOT raped. She has an entirely consensual fling with a passing Gypsy peddler, then seduces her own then-estranged husband to cover up the fact that she is pregnant with the Gypsy’s child. Despite this child’s atrocious behavior (blood will out), self-absorbed Mathew never suspects that the girl, Mathy, is not his own. In fact, she becomes his favorite child.

      [This part of the plot is cleared up in the last section, entitled “Callie.” If you don’t read the whole book, several incidents and the attitudes of the characters in the book will make no sense].

      The author may actually have been trying to get along with the Jewish publishing establishment by hinting that she maybe was partially a DNA-Jew. How politically shrewd of her!

      Callie observes that the Gypsy is an educated man echoing 1960s Sidney Poitier agit-prop which drummed out that “class [supposedly] trumps race.” Carleton is just delivering the same false message, but in a more artistic form.

      BTW: College is presented as the big Holy Grail even for girls in the 1920s & 1930s, which seems like chronological error to me. Even today, most normal parents would forgive their daughter for choosing not to attend college.

      In the book, their eldest daughter, Jessica, elopes with a hired hand at 18 (c. 1920), but she is soon widowed. Her parents gleefully scheme to put her right back on the career track (meaning college). She refuses, because she feels a calling to teach in her late husband’s community of under-privileged rural Whites. Later, she happily gets remarried to a struggling farmer from that same community. Her parents never understand & never forgive. College is just all, to them.

      Not that college isn’t a wonderful experience for those who are truly interested in scholarship; but this book just seems like more the same barrage of “everybody must go to college” propaganda line of the 1960s. The book was first published in 1962.

    10. Bob G. Says:

      Hello. I agree with the correct and intelligent Mary O. Callie was not
      raped. The Gypsy ran after her and they struggled, but he let her go,
      she found that her knee had been twisted as she fell, and she sagged
      against the man. It was, ultimately, a consensual sexual experience.
      Many, many people mis-read this part of the (great) novel.

    11. Mary O Says:

      To Bob G., I agree that this novel has some great aspects, but overall the structure of the plot is convoluted, and this represents a great weakness in the dramatic aspect, since as we have seen the reader is easily confused.

      For example, when Leonie ruins the little memorial service her parents had planned for her younger sister by inviting surprise guests, the reader suspects that Leonie is immature, superficial and jealous of her dead younger sister; perhaps even mentally ill.

      “But all them folk there,” said [Leonie’s mother, Callie], “and all that goin’ on. It should have been quiet and nice, just us, just the family.”

      Her voice sounded so strange.

      “Hush, dear,” said her father. “Dear love, don’t grieve.”

      “I can’t help it.” The voice rose in a soft heartbroken wail. “All summer she wouldn’t let us cry. ”

      When you realize that Mathie is the daughter of a Gypsy, and thus a threat to the integrity and honor of the family, Leonie’s attitude is more understandable. Leonie surely would have sensed the truth about Mathie at some level, even if she were not consciously aware that Callie had cheated on her father.

      The author also contradicts herself in certain places. For example, regarding Callie’s family, the Grancourts.

      “Whether [Callie’s grandfather, Hugo Grancourt] had once kept slaves and no longer knew how to function without them, or whether initiative had been bred out of him, no one knew …”

      Yet Callie herself is a highly energetic, hard-working farm woman, who cannot bear to rest from doing heavy chores even for one day. She embarrasses her husband by refusing to learn to speak with correct grammar or even to learn to read, despite her prodigious memory and quick wit. Her down-to-earth rustic persona is sharply contrasted with her husband’s dreamy scholarliness.

      Although Mathew never actually commits adultery; over the course of his marriage, he repeatedly falls in love with very sophisticated and educated young society ladies, as if they filled a need that Callie could not possibly fulfill.

      But if Callie were indeed the granddaughter of such a man as Hugo Grancourt seems to me that she would not feel so uncomfortable when the family leaves the farm to move into the town to help further Mathew’s career, and she herself would not lack for social ambition.

      Also, the plot borders on total implausibility in that Mathew, the prominent school principal, and eventually school superintendent, never suspects that Mathie is not his own daughter.

      Why must Mathie die so young and so tragically? Mainly it seems, because the writer has no clue what else to do with her. What if Mathie survived, and she and Ed had several children, and some of these children looked like Gypsies? We can believe that Mathie herself resembled only Callie, but eventually those Gypsy genes would reveal themselves. What if Mathew then realized that Mathie was not his own daughter? Would he abandon Callie for a society woman, closer to the type of girl whom he always got crushes on? Could he possibly forgive Callie? Would he stop loving Mathie, even though she had been his favorite child for so many years? We don’t know, because the novelist fails to explore such a situation in a realistic way.

      Similarly, when the eldest daughter, Jessica, elopes with a farm hand, to the complete humiliation of her parents, he too is sentenced to die a young and tragic death. The writer avoids the challenge of where to go with the bright young principal’s daughter who marries down social class.

      The writer does make some interesting social observations. For example, after Jessica elopes with the field hand, they blame themselves for being too strict with her, and restrain themselves from imposing the same severe rules on their younger daughters.

      The parents never realize that by inviting the young man into their home, appreciating his musical talent and treating him as a son; they encouraged the relationship.

      Similarly, Mathew does not like his student, Ed, but in his role as school principal, he relates to Ed as a father. Callie encourages Mathie to invite Ed into their home. Mathie and Ed eventually marry, and after Mathie dies, Mathew comes to respect Ed a bit more. His daughter, Leonie, then marries Ed.

      Not the rules which were imposed but rather the way in which the parents themselves related to these young men influenced the girls’ choice of husbands.

      [In a racial context, not explored in this novel, people who marry outside their race do seem to have parents who socialized with that race and invited members of that race into their home.]

      JMO: although the novel has many good insights, it fails to achieve greatness due to these flaws in the plot and contradictions in development of the two main characters.