Susan Glaspell’s novel Brook Evans shares some themes with her more famous Fidelity, but she makes an interesting inversion in the plot. Still, the ultimate message is the same as in her earlier novel.
Brook Evans’s story begins with that of her mother, Naomi Kellogg, in 1888. Naomi has been secretly seeing Joe Copeland since his mother objected to their keeping company. They plan to be married in the fall, after the harvest.
But Joe is killed in a farming accident. Seeing no alternative but disgrace, as she is pregnant, Naomi reluctantly marries her other suitor, Caleb Evans, and leaves her beloved Illinois home for Colorado.
Nineteen years later, Brook Evans wants to go to a dance with Tony Ross. Not only does her father, Caleb, not believe in dancing, being religiously strict, but Tony is a Catholic and part Native American. Naomi sees Brook’s relationship with Tony as an echo of hers with Joe, and she is determined not to sacrifice her daughter’s life to worries about what others may think. Unfortunately, the disagreement with Caleb brings out the truth of Brook’s parentage, with unforeseen results.
In Fidelity, the heroine’s decision to grasp life by running away with her married lover blights her life. In Brook Evans it is the instinct to conform with societal norms that is blighting. Still, the ultimate message of both books is to follow your heart. Although I wasn’t so fond of Brook’s ultimate choice (or the perceived alternative) I found this novel thoughtful and so touching that at times I was in tears. Glaspell’s characters show several sides throughout the novel, so that at times you change your mind about them. This novel is another thought-provoking read from Glaspell.
Someone at a Distance
Like Olive Kitteridge, which this book reminds me strongly of, Anything Is Possible is a series of linked short stories. What links these stories is Lucy Barton, the main character of Elizabeth Strout’s previous novel. Each story is about a family relation of Lucy or a resident of her home town in rural Illinois, and Lucy appears as a character in one story.
In “The Sign,” Tommy Guptill, who was the janitor at Lucy’s school when she was a girl, goes to visit Lucy’s brother Pete. There he learns that Pete has long believed a terrible thing about the night long ago when Tommy’s dairy farm burned down.
In “Windmills,” Patty Nicely, a school mate of Lucy’s, is able to overcome an insult from Lucy’s niece and help her make her own escape from town. Patty also reviews her life with her gentle husband Sebastian, who has died.
“Cracked” explores the strange marital life of Linda Peterson-Cornell, Patty Nicely’s niece. Although Linda has married a wealthy man and escaped poverty, her husband has some disturbing pastimes.
In “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” Charlie Macauley, to whom Patty Nicely is attracted, is devastated to find out the truth behind his relationship with a woman. In an attempt to recover before going home, he goes to stay at a B&B. Later, we hear from the B&B’s owner, another relative of the Nicelys.
And so on. These stories are beautifully and perceptively told, evoking sympathy for even the most unlikable characters. As I was for My Name is Lucy Barton, I was caught up in the gentleness and empathy of these stories.
My Name is Lucy Barton
The Burgess Boys
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Lucy Barton grew up very poor in rural Illinois. She looks back to a time as a young married woman, living in New York City with her husband and two daughters and learning to write. At the time, she had not returned to her parents’ house since she went to college. Something horrible associated with her father is hinted at.
Much of Lucy’s story centers around a stay in the hospital, where for some weeks she has an undiagnosed illness. Her husband can’t bear hospitals, so he asks her mother to come. Her mother stays with her, never leaving her room and refusing to use the cot the nurses provide. During this visit, her mother tells her stories about people they both know.
For much of their lives, Lucy’s family has been outcasts. At school other children complained that they smelled funny. For many years, they lived in a garage with exposure to extreme cold and no access to running water. When she was a little girl and both her parents were at work, her older siblings at school, her parents would lock her into her father’s truck. One time a snake was in there with her. These are some of the horrors of Lucy’s childhood.
We can see that Lucy loves other people for the slightest show of kindness. We can understand why.
My Name Is Lucy Barton is an affecting story about a woman learning to deal with her own past and loving people despite it. The novel is also about becoming a writer.
Strout’s prose is wonderful as usual, picking out the little details of life that make her prose so convincing. I delight in Strout’s depictions of ordinary life and people.
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