Monday, June 15, 2009

Pultizer Project: The Able McLaughlins

Well, I'm up to 1924. Margaret Wilson's The Able McLaughlins marks the seventh one* I've read since starting this project, and I'm beginning to think that Pulitzer winners are like Star Trek movies -- only every other one is actually worth spending time with.

The Able McLaughlins is a post-Civil War novel, sort of. The war doesn't actually enter into the story much beyond the fact one of the main characters serves in the Union army. The hero, Wully McLaughlin, is a hard-working Iowa farm boy, one of the older sons of a humongous family of Scottish immigrants who are establishing farms on the prairie, and grows up surrounded by a zillion aunts, uncles, and cousins. Apparently where one McLaughlin went, several hundred soon followed, so when one McLaughlin left Scotland to start farming in the midwest, he wasn't alone very long. The McLauglins are a lot of things -- honest, devout, incredibly fertile -- but communicative doesn't make the list. They do a lot of thinking and brooding, but actual conversations don't seem to happen very often.

Wully, for example, comes home from the war briefly, on an unofficial leave (he was captured by Confederates and escaped, and decided to come home to rest up for awhile before reporting back to the Union army), and while at home falls in love with the girl next door. As far as I could tell from the book, their interpersonal communications consist basically of them staring at each other, being instantly smitten by love at first sight when they both suddenly realize they're no longer children, and then Wully goes back to the military having decided that Chirstie (and, yes, I know all the names look like typos; I think it was part of the author's misguided attempts to add some folksy and/or ethnic charm to the tale) is his One True Love. A few months later the war is over, Wully comes home for good, and is dismayed to find Chirstie giving him the cold shoulder.

There are Reasons, of course, and a low-life villainous cousin lurking in the shadows. Once Wully blunders upon the truth he insists that Chirstie marry him immediately. His parents are puzzled and shamed by the sudden marriage (they believe Wully has been less than honorable), but eventually the facts emerge and his mother is able to be quietly proud of him again. Long before that point, though, the Reader finds herself losing patience with the incapable-of-speech McLaughlins and thinking dark thoughts about authors who persist in creating characters whose only function seems to be inspiring irritation in the audience.

Good points about The Able McLaughlins: it's easy reading, definitely much, much lighter than the first five winners were, and one of the minor characters (Chirstie's stepmother) does add some comic relief.

Negatives? It's not very good.

*I read Gilead (2004 winner) way out of order; otherwise I'm working my way up the list from oldest to most recent.


  1. I confess myself to like Victoriana, and I once read a novel written in the 1850s which discribed, "New York: It's Upper Hundreds and Lower Millions".

    It was very enjoyable (I was a teen at the time) and teeming with shop girls, swells, touts, Humble Persons and other Trades Persons, and even Negroes, some of which were escaped slaves.

    It was actually a pretty good read, liked it better than Dickens or even Poe.

  2. Some books are enjoyable no matter when they were originally written, and then there are the others. . .

  3. I didn't know you were doing this year by year. What a cool idea. I'm loving your reviews.

  4. Oh, I'm so close to obsessive-compulsive that year by year is about the only way I'd be likely to do it. Just pulling titles randomly would be too unstructured for me to deal with.


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