The Able McLaughlins

by Margaret Wilson. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1923. 12mo. vi+ 263 pp. $2.00.
THERE is a quality in the art of novel and drama not often exhibited by writers of a sophisticated age. When we see it on the stage, we call it ‘illusion.’ A brilliant example of it is the work of the Russian Players. Even a hardened critic forgets the theatre, its lights, its chairs, its dull neighbors, and lives for three memorable hours in a Russian palace or a Russian slum. The spectator is transported. The charm is more difficult to work upon the printed page than in the theatre. Yet the practised reader recalls certain hours when he was ‘transported’ — to the pavilion of Saladin, or the streets of distracted Paris with Sidney Carton, or to the cave where Gerard discovered the babe of his own flesh and blood. The power to work this wonder is not yet withdrawn from the earth. By a fortunate chance the three men set to award the Harper Prize for the best competing novel had a specimen of the exercise of that power hidden in their pile of seven hundred manuscripts. The readers of The Able McLaughlins will agree that the assigning of the prize must have been an easy matter.
Miss Margaret Wilson transports her readers to her scene on the prairies of the Mississippi Valley. Her characters are a group of Scotch Covenanters who settled there in the early fifties — eleven families of them, all connected by blood or by marriage. The local color of the first pages is delightful. The wild strawberries, the fleeing rattlesnakes, the tangle of grapevines, the prairie chickens scratching in the short grass, and the children lost to sight in the taller growth, all go to make a vivid picture. In an instant we are plunged into the heart of the Civil War by the arrival of the oldest son with a wounded foot, and we see the mother’s patriotism glowing against the passion of her love for her first-born. The part that religion plays in the daily life of these folk is thrillingly depicted. We eat and drink with them, and we pray and sing psalms with them. All this, however, is but the setting for the real tale — the piteous story of how the lovely Chirstie, a maiden all grace and gentleness and honor, had been wickedly outraged by the village scoundrel, and how the splendid hero had hidden her shame and sheltered her and her baby with his name and his loyal love. The plot is an old one, but it is fresh-minted by Miss Wilson’s skill. Every character is clear-cut. Every situation serves to show forth the conflict between hate and love. How to tolerate the presence of the loathsome criminal in the same world with his victim; how to punish him; how to banish hate — righteous hate — from the heart of man and wife happy but for that ugly shadow — these are the spiritual problems to be worked out in the prairie village. The final solution comes with a poignancy to pierce the hardest heart. Pity conquers hate, and the word which works the transformation is the first spoken sentence of the baby boy, as the whole current of the world’s love for its new-come children sweeps over this brave man and sweet woman, and bears out of sight and memory all that has been bitter and cruel in their trial.
The Able McLaughlins is a book to make a true American praise the Lord for the Scots that have found their home in our land, and pray that there may be more of them —‘able’ for tomorrow as for yesterday.