Monday, February 7, 2011

Pulitzer Project: Now in November

Now in NovemberEver read a book and have a "well, just how am I supposed to describe this one" reaction? That's what Now in November, the 1935 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, did to me. The writing is lovely, lyrical, but the plot line is one long exercise in proving that just when you think things can't get any worse, they do.
The story focuses on a family that has moved back to the family farm for unspecified reasons, although there's a general impression that whatever business the head of the household had been in previously had failed. The farm had been in the Haldmarne family since the Civil War, but it had been many years since any Haldmarnes had lived there. The property had been rented  to tenant farmers, and then just allowed to be fallow until the current generation of Haldmarnes found themselves forced to use it as a safety net -- and it's a safety net with holes. It turns out the land is mortgaged, so the family has to worry about selling enough produce or livestock to keep the bank at bay.

The narration is from the point of view of one of the family's three daughters; she makes it clear while describing their move to the farm that, although her father had done farmwork, the work is still more than one man can do by himself, but he doesn't want his daughters helping, so, on top of his other worries, he has to figure out how to pay for a hired hand. He manages to find hands locally who are willing to work for room, board, and shares (a portion of the proceeds of whatever crop they manage to sell), although that arrangement is rife with uncertainty, too.
"Much of everything, it seemed afterward, was like that beginning,--changing and so balanced between wind and sun that there was neither good nor evil that could be said to outweigh the other wholly. And even then we felt we had come to something both treacherous and kind, which be could be trusted only to be inconstant, and would go its own way as though we were never born."
Still, the family apparently muddles along for about ten years. The craziest sister graduates from high school and then gets a job as a school teacher at the local one room grade school; the other two sisters remain on the farm helping their parents as best they can. Money's tight, but they're managing until drought hits. It's the third dry year in a row, and the worst yet. Crops wither in the fields, the price of milk being paid by the local dairy drops, things get worse and worse.

Things end badly, of course. Their homecanned produce spoils because the rings were cheap and didn't hold a seal. One of the neighbors falls, breaks a hip, and becomes bedridden and senile overnight. Another, a tenant farmer, ends up evicted because he's unable to pay the rent. Two of the sisters fall in love with the hired hand who, naturally enough, is in the love with the third one, who views him only as a friend. The crazy sister, the one who had been bringing in some money by working as a schoolteacher, loses her tenuous grasp on reality and slashes her wrists. (And even as they fishing her out of the watering trough in the sheep pen, the narrator is wondering how they're going to manage without her income.) Their mother is horribly burned when a grassfire threatens the farm buildings. And so it goes -- one calamity after another. Beautifully written, and incredibly depressing.

Next up, Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis -- another book and author I'd never heard of prior to starting this project.


  1. I think I can avoid reading a depressing book, the news is bad enough.

  2. There are some books where it seems like the whole point is to make the readers think their own lives are looking pretty damn good after all, at least compared to the characters in the book. I think Now in November qualifies for that category.

  3. I felt like "Angela's Ashes" and "Tis" were in the same vein. When the best thing that happens to you in 20 years is that your family finds a rotting sheep's head to eat... I don't really get into reading sad books or even watching sad movies or TV. It brings me down, man.

  4. I'd rather read a good mystery..or a lovely book by James Lee Burke..

  5. Depressing enought just reading the synopsis! Good for you sticking with it.

  6. Oh, well I've always thought my life was pretty damn good, and interesting, even the times I lived under trees while starting some new adventure. I've never lived a day that I didn't think was interesting, and sometimes full of lessons.

    Life is about lessons, and they never stop coming at you so it's wise to learn them so they don't bury you under a ton of them that your haven't learned.

  7. I stick to history. when I need something depressing I read William Blum or Noam Chomsky.


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