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Straightforward Tales

ISSUE:  Spring 1944

Liana, By Martha Gellhorn. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. A Dell for Adano. By John Hersey. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. Sunburst. By Mauricio Magdalcno; translated from the Spanish by Anita Brenner. The Viking Press. $2.50. Flint. By Charles G. Norris. Doubleday, Doran, and Company. $2.50. Golden Apples of the Sun. By Rosemary Obermeyer. E. P. Dutton & Company. $2.50. The Signpost. By E. Arnot Robertson. The Macmillan Company. $2.50, Winter Wheat. By Mildred Walker. Harcourt, Brace, and Company. $2.50.

A mong these first fruits of 1944, there is nothing which promises to make the year momentous in the history of fiction. But there are two excellent novels— “Winter Wheat” and “The Signpost.” And there are two more—”Liana” and “A Bell for Adano”—which make entertaining reading. Interest in the remaining three will probably be restricted to special groups of readers, for each suffers from sharp limitations. The seven books are so various as to admit of few generalizations: all undertake to tell straightforward tales; there is no blatant experimenting with form, little preciousness of manner; all are serious, sincerely concerned to communicate some truth of human behavior; and the conclusion of the matter is that, without regard to its degree of social grimness, each novel succeeds according to the measure of its skill in characterization and in structure.

Charles G. Morris’s “Flint” is a chronicle of the San Francisco Rutherfords, a dominating and domineering capitalist clan: of their melodramatic domestic history, and of their conflict with organized labor. It is ponderously written, in a prolix Victorian prose which is incapable of penetrating externals. Its characters have only a theatrical reality. Rosemary Obermeyer’s “Golden Apples of the Sun” is a picaresque fantasy. It has moments of charm, and to a reader with an unlimited appetite for whimsy it might seem entirely charming. Its prose is neat, though mannered; its affectation of gypsy terms is irritating. Mauricio Magdaleno’s “Sunburst” comes to American readers with the high commendation of Diego Rivera; its publishers suggest comparison with “The Grapes of Wrath.” But, compared to Magdaleno’s Otomi Indians, Steinbeck’s Okies seem genteel and prosperous folk who have fallen into a spell of hard luck. The Otomis have been victimized for centuries, in turn by Aztec overlords and Spanish landlords. Magdaleno’s story deals with the most recent and most outrageous victimization: at the hands of their own kinsman, a revolutionary demagogue whom they have received as a messiah. The book commands respect for its intense, bitter, disillusioned honesty. But, for all the author’s concern, his characters remain pallid, and inspire humanitarian pity rather than a profounder sympathy. The narrative, moreover, is awkward: sometimes tedious, sometimes confused. Completely satisfactory translation is probably impossible: turning Mexican colloquialism into American colloquialism results in the wrong kind of dissonance.

Both Martha Gellhorn’s “Liana” and John Hersey’s “A Bell for Adano” tell good stories, in rapid and interesting form. “Liana” is laid on the French island of St. Boniface in the Caribbean; it deals with a triangle composed of the wealthy Marc Royer, his beautiful mulatto mistress-wife, Liana, and her pure-spirited young refugee tutor, Pierre Vauclain. The dramatic and psychological implications of the set-up are evident, and Miss Gellhorn develops them competently. The three persons are roundly and justly represented. But there is an air of contrivance about the whole situation and setting, and not particularly fresh contrivance. John Hersey’s tale is an apologue, setting forth the beauty of righteousness as personified in Major Victor Joppolo, Amgot governor of a little occupied Italian town. Joppolo’s administration pursues its ingratiating and exciting experiment in democracy, until Joppolo is frustrated by the wicked and profane General Marvin. There are no moral complexities in this story of military occupation and government; Americans and Italians are sketched in clear, simple colors. Conceivably Mr. Hersey means to suggest that the fundamental political and social issues in this war of liberation are in reality very simple; certainly he means that no policy is more decent than the men who execute it.

“The Signpost” provides its English author, E. Arnot Robertson, with an opportunity for examining Ireland through the eyes of her protagonist, Tom Fairburn, an Air Force pilot on brief leave after being wounded and decorated. Fairburn spends the interval seeking spiritual stability in the village of Kildooey. There he experiences the sweetness and the desperately provincial unrealism of Ireland, against the mental background created by his participation in civilization’s struggle for survival. The book consists largely of talk: conversation through which runs a counterpoint of theological, moral, and social motives. Withal, the pleasant love affair of Fairburn and the events of village life furnish an adequate narrative frame. Miss Robertson’s handling of her material is as deft as one could wish, “The Signpost” is a sophisticated book, without brittleness; rather, its essential attribute is delicacy of understanding.

Of the seven novels reviewed here, “Winter Wheat” is the fullest and the most sensitively composed. It is laid in the vast, lonely wheat country of Montana—country which Mrs. Walker evidently loves as her heroine Ellen Webb does: to them it does not seem bleak. But “Winter Wheat” is much more than a regional novel. For one thing, Mrs. Walker never resorts to the exploitation of quaintness or idiosyncrasy; she consistently avoids the facile. For another, her preoccupation is with significant human character and conduct. These she portrays with a deep sympathy, clear-eyed and firm-handed. Ellen is the daughter of a Russian mother, who left violence and horror behind her at the end of the last war, and of a New England father, whose Vermont family had driven him to the West by its failure to accept his wife. Both parents are treated with a profound insight; and Ellen’s maturing consists in part of her coming to understand them. But the book is fundamentally concerned with Ellen’s own growth—in knowledge and in courage. Mrs. Walker tells the story with singular beauty of perception.


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