Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pulitzer Project: Lamb in His Bosom

This was kind of an odd book.  Lamb in His Bosom is a Southern novel.  It's set in Georgia, in the area around Jesup and Baxley on the Altamaha River, in the antebellum period following the forced removal of the Cherokee, Creeks, and other Native American groups from the southeastern United States. The book features an afterword by historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, which notes the book's unique perspective, that of the yeoman white farmers whose holdings were too small or too poor to support the use of slave labor. 

The book revolves around the life of Cean Carver, from her marriage to Lonzo Smith until the birth of her 14th child almost 30 years later.  (Cean is pronounced See-Ann.) When the book begins, Cean is apparently about 16 years old.  By the time she's in her mid-30s, she's described as having hair that is almost totally white.  (Life on the frontier was hard; Cean's mother is a hopeless invalid and totally senile by age 60.)  Of course, popping out a baby every other year, including two sets of twins, and then seeing 5 kids die (including one that's burned alive) would age anyone. Cean's family lives on what is considered the extreme frontier inland in Georgia, an area just being settled by white families.  Farms are pretty widely scattered, and the nearest town of any size is Darien, a city on the coast that takes about a week to reach by ox cart.  Once a year the men trek to Darien to trade surplus produce (lard, honey, cotton, wool) in exchange for the things they can't make themselves.  Cean's parents had moved to the wiregrass country from North Carolina around the time of the War of 1812, drawn by the promise of cheap land and a climate that made it possible to grow crops all year round.

I approached Lamb in His Bosom with a fair amount of trepidation.  I'd just had the horrible experience of reading The Store, another Southern novel, and wasn't too keen on reading more dialect.  I was also a little worried because the DeKalb County Library system owned a zillion copies of the book -- every branch seems to have two or three listed, and they were apparently all circulating.  Discovering that a book is popular isn't always a good sign -- Danielle Steel books circulate like crazy, too.  Fortunately, Lamb in His Bosom turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The dialect, which struck me as as more than a bit twee, wasn't as distracting as dialect sometimes can be.  The book was surprisingly readable.  How authentic the dialect used was is debatable.  Fox-Genovese praises Caroline Miller for her meticulous research and seems to believe that Miller did a decent job of capturing actual speech patterns.  I'm always skeptical when people make sweeping claims for things that can't be proven.  Still, Miller was from southern Georgia and lived in Baxley.  She's described as having spent many hours going out into the countryside and talking with old folks as she worked on the book, and the book was (and is) praised for its historical realism. Miller presents a rare glimpse into the life of yeoman farmers in the time period before the Civil War, the subsistence farmers who had to rely on family members for labor, working the land with oxen because they couldn't afford to buy horses or mules. 

Lamb in His Bosom is rich with details about folkways and superstitions, like applying cobwebs to a wound to help stop the bleeding.  Cobwebs in the rafters were considered good luck, probably for that perceived first aid value.  Miller describes Cean and her mother spinning, weaving, cooking, giving birth and raising children.  The men in the book aren't as fully fleshed out, undoubtedly because it was easier for Miller to talk with women about the old days then with men.  Similarly, one of the weakest sections of the book is when one of the characters leaves Georgia after hearing about gold in California.  His fate is recounted in a few thin paragraphs while back on the farm Cean's recollections of processing sugar cane and how the young folk would flirt with each other become almost lyrical.  Miller would have known personally how cane was crushed on the farm and the cane sap boiled; California was a place she knew only from books.

Not surprisingly, given both the time period when the book was written and the era when it is set, some of the word choices and sentiments expressed in the novel can be a little jarring to the 21st century reader.  Fortunately, those passages tend to be brief. 

Fox-Genovese makes one claim for Lamb in His Bosom that had me slightly baffled.  She asserts that the success of the book led the publisher to go looking for other Southern writers, leading inevitably to Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind.  She makes it sound as though Miller's novel was some breathtaking breakthrough, like no novels set in the South had achieved national acclaim before.  Given that The Store, written by a native of Alabama and set in that state during Reconstruction, won the Pulitzer in 1933 and Scarlet Sister Mary, set among the Gullah of South Carolina, won in 1929, it's an odd claim to make. 

Next up, yet another book by an author I've never heard of:  Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson.  I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that in this one everyone speaks standard English.


  1. I've been reading southern authors for will try this out..sounds like a good one..

  2. I am so impressed by your tenacity on this project! And that this book is still so well circulated.


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