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The Living and the Dying

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

On a Darkling Plain. By Wallace Stegner. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. River of Earth. By James Still. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50.

At this point in their careers as authors, James Still and Wallace Stegner have much in common. Each has one book and something of a succes d’estime behind him. Their second volumes represent more ambitious undertakings than their first: for Mr. Still, “River of Earth” is a first novel, but it is marked with the same sincerity, vividness, and craftmanship that distinguished the poems in “Hounds on the Mountain”; Mr. Stegner’s “On a Darkling Plain” is a longer, subtler story than “Remembering Laughter,” but it shows the same conciseness in structure, the same clarity and objectivity that won for the earlier book the Little, Brown novelette prize in 1937. Furthermore, “River of Earth” and “On a Darkling Plain” bear a close relationship to each other in theme, although they differ greatly in approach. Mr. Stegner writes of a man who has run away from civilization and tries to recover some feeling of harmony with the world by living alone on the bleak prairie of Saskatchewan. Mr. Still’s novel is about a mountaineer family in Kentucky; his purpose is simply to reproduce for us the texture and the pattern of their lives. The theme of the novel is enunciated by the mountain preacher who asks his congregation: “Oh, my children, where air we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying—the living and the dead riding the waters?” And all that Mr. Stegner’s hero learns after his attempt to live within and for himself is that the living and the dead are part of him, too, and he part of them.

“River of Earth” is a simple, unaffected book, as clear and limpid as a quiet stream. It has so little movement that it can hardly be called a novel. It is little more than a collection of short stories and sketches, dealing with the same characters, telling a more or less connected story. The narrator is a boy of seven, who tells his story without adornment or elaboration; the chapters resemble static pictures—like a lantern slide series. It is done without sentiment, without insistence. It is as if the author has said, These are my people and this is how we lived. We see the Baldridge family struggling for subsistence on mountain farms when the coal mines are shut, living in squalid mining camps and eating well when coal is needed “at the Lakes”; the children playing their riddle-games and listening to recitals of family lore; the old grandmother complaining that she would like to see all of her children once more before she dies; the preacher, burying a young child, querying the Lord: “Can a leetle child enter the Kingdom of Heaven?”; the mother longing for a home away from the dirt of the mines, the father insisting on earning his living the way he always has. Oppressed by poverty and limited by ignorance, these people play out the drama of life and death without overmuch sorrow or joy. One gets from the book a special flavor of the Kentucky mountain life, and a feeling of the continuity of life lived without questioning, without introspective seeking for truth and absolutes.

The hero of “On a Darkling Plain,” on the other hand, is an intellectual, a sensitive, articulate man who reads and writes poetry, a man seeking a meaning for what he does. He is unable to accept life simply, to take what is offered as what ought to be. Spiritually bruised by the horrors of war in the trenches and shocked by the callous brutishness of his civilian friends, Vickers leaves his comfortable home to take a homestead in Saskatchewan, where he hopes to be left alone as much as possible. But even a sod hut cannot be built without some kind of help and at least a few tools, so he is forced to ask his nearest neighbor, Sundstrom, for aid. Sund-strom’s growing daughter, her heart and mind touched by the romantic figure of the soldier returned, sends to a mailorder house for curtains for his shanty, and bakes a cake to carry to him over five miles of prairie. The girl’s eagerness to know him he cannot ignore entirely, and he even arranges a code whereby they signal to each other by smoke-fires and heliograph. Thus Vickers’s re-education begins at once: in spite of his revulsion at the ignorant armies that clash by night he cannot refuse help that is needed; he cannot renounce his human heritage.

In the hands of Mr. Stegner this is a powerful, beautifully told story of a man’s reorientation in life. The novel proceeds with sustained pace, like a good moving picture. And like a good moving picture, its full impact is both emotional and intellectual. Adept in the swift realization of characters and scenes and in the projection of mood, Wallace Stegner has with two short books proved that he can write forcefully, with depth and imagination.

It would be inaccurate to speak of James Still and Wallace Stegner as “promising” young writers: they have already given us evidence of mature and controlled talents.


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