Saturday, March 19, 2011
Pulitzer Project: Honey in the Horn
Honey in the Horn won the Pulitzer for a novel in 1936. It's not a bad book, although it reads like an odd hybrid of Zane Grey and Mark Twain. The novel is set in the Pacific Northwest around the beginning of the 20th century. The first few chapters with their descriptions of frontier life -- rough wagon roads, everyone getting around by horseback or on foot, the movement of would-be settlers and migrant farm workers (e.g., hops pickers) by wagon -- had me thinking 1880s, maybe 1890s, but then about midway through there's mention of E. H. Harriman's automobile, which would make it the early 1900s. Harriman died in 1909.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around a teenager, Clay, who is the not particularly bright foster son of a local rancher/farmer who operates a stage station. Clay kind of blunders his way through lfe -- has good luck when he's not trying at all, but then gets to see things turn weird on a regular basis for no apparent reason, usually when he's trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He falls into a relationship with a horse-trader's daughter (she's the one in the bloomers on the cover), and spends 300 pages believing he needs to protect her. (He's wrong, of course.) Along the way, he encounters various restless Americans, all of them thinking the next big chance is going to happen wherever they move to next. He goes from his home ranch into hops-growing country, picks hops for awhile, and then ends up heading west to the Oregon coast near Coos Bay. After spending the winter there, he joins a group of disgruntled settlers who had decided the coast wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and were aiming to settle on the dry side of the mountains (eastern Oregon).
He then wanders east, doing various odd jobs along the way, and eventually ends up in northern Nevada. He and the girlfriend part company for a few chapters, so he spends his spare time obsessing about her. Eventually they're re-united, they vow never to part or keep secrets from each other again -- and right about the time he's realizing he's hooked up with Caril Ann Fugate, the book ends.
I'm not sure just what the point of Honey in the Horn was, or if there even is one. There is a distinct "there's no place like home" undertone to it, as Clay finds himself thinking on a regular basis that the one place he really wanted to be (the stage station) is now the one place he can never go back to. There's also a fair amount of mockery of Americans with their restlessness and get rich quick schemes -- Clay passes through a number of "towns" where someone has platted 40 acres of desolate sagebrush into a town-site, complete with a name like Appledale and lots labeled "opera house" or "mercantile," all in the hopes of suckering people into buying land there on the prospects of the railroad going through.
The novel is well-written. The language is colorful, the descriptions of everyday life in frontier communities is realistic, there's a fair amount of humor and good-natured mockery of human foibles, and there's no moralizing. Stuff happens, people have regrets, but life goes on. This wasn't the best of the winners I've read so far, but it definitely falls into the top half of the pack -- it was worth the $3 interlibrary loan fee.
Next up on the list for 1937 is Gone with the Wind. It's been quite a few years since I read it, but I think I'll skip over it anyway to 1938 and The Late George Apley. I loved Gone with the Wind when I read it in high school; I'd hate to read it now and be appalled by it turning out to be absolute dreck.