Monday, May 11, 2009

Reading Journal: The Moonflower Vine

Jetta Carleton, The Moonflower Vine. Foreward by Jane Smiley. Harper Perennial 2009. First published in 1962. A "Midwest Connections" selection available at Monkey See, Monkey Read. $14.99.

Jetta Carleton's The Moonflower Vine was first published in 1962, two years after the publication of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The comparison is inevitable. Both are nostalgic novels of growing up in "simpler" and more God-fearing times, but which still presented a full range of moral complexities. Both novels are centered around good, honest, loving people. Both are rural Southern novels: one set in rural Alabama, the other in rural Missouri. Neither author published another novel. Both novels are American classics.

Matthew Soames, the father in The Moonflower Vine, stands on a much shorter pedestal than Atticus Finch. He's a farmer and school teacher, husband of Callie and father of four daughters. The novel begins in the voice of Mary Jo, the youngest daughter, but then shifts into the third person, telling in turn the stories of the other members of the family: eldest daughter Jessica, Matthew, rebellious daughter Mathy, dutiful daughter Leonie, and Callie. Each character is full of life, and admirable, and flawed. Carleton shows great compassion toward human weakness, and has a generous understanding of the presence of grace in human life. Like another of my favorite novelists, Kate O'Brien, Carleton is interested in the tension between the teachings of our faith and the actions of our lives. She's interested in the complicated, painful, disastrous, and redemptive ways of human love. Although my feminist sensibilities detected a troubling flaw in the last section of the novel, the note the novel ends on is otherwise gracious and perfect.

After reading Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September, I found Jetta Carleton's prose like a drink of cool water from a mountain stream. She's wry and plainspoken and poetic, with a distinct twang. The first section of the novel could almost be a duet between Iris Dement and Emmylou Harris. Beautiful and grateful and sad.

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