Country People

by Ruth Suckow. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1924. 12mo. viii+205pp. $2.00.
IT is remarkable that the four most prominent American novels of the past twelvemonth have been writWen by women; devoted to the development of our middle West; and, three of them, primarily concerned with the soil. I recall The Lost Lady by Willa Gather, The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson, So Big by Edna Ferber and Country People by Ruth Suckow. I do not think this situation a coincidence.
To take for my instance Country People, the first novel of Ruth Suckow. It has been described by her publisher as ‘a simple and poignant chronicle of the dull and monotonous lives of a small community of farmers in Iowa.’ The only word in that careful statement to admit questioning is ‘poignant,’ but to remove it unconditionally, is to destroy the attraction for most prospective readers. The book has its poignant moments. Its story is the career of a German American farmer, August Kaetterhenry, in the midst of his twenty-four sisters and his cousins and his brothers and his in-laws (there were no aunts) and his parents and his children. Well, in so many lives there must be tragedy. But stretching between the ‘poignant’ nodes are lengths of terse description, faithful as an album, dull as an almanac. This is not unnatural where so many people with as many resembling lives are concerned.
The wonder is that Miss Suckow has been able to invigorate so comprehensive a chronicle. This she has done powerfully; the novel is direct, beautiful in its simplicity, and alive even when monotonous. And certainly the German temperament lends itself to monotony. It is sombre, deliberate, inarticulate — qualities which become impressive under Miss Suckow’s treatment. In her book there is no wit, no fun, but rather a grim humor that stirs pity. August’s wooing at the Celebration, the tantrums and telephoning of Mrs. Stille, the surprising arrival of the Kaetterhenry’s automobile are memories not soon forgotten. The death of Grandpa Stille is different, but in its way as exquisite as the Indian Summer of Old Jolyon. Country People, then, is the story of our awakening soil, a record of the past, told with all the sensitive observance of a native woman.
Women are singularly observant of the home life: it is their space, their kingdom, and they are sensitive to its every detail. The fact is
clearly evidenced in Miss Suckow’s novel, it is clearly evidenced in the work of her contemporaries whom I have quoted above. Each wrote with an understanding born of experience and sympathy. But if, as J. B. S. Haldane suggests in his imaginative Daedalus, the time shall come ‘when ‘human society will succeed in producing a stable organization in which the majority of the population is employed otherwise than in agriculture, animal-rearing, hunting or fishing,’we shall have our novels popularly and comprehensively devoted to urban and industrial life. We have some now, but they are seldom popular or comprehensive. Perhaps it is because such a time is already in stride that we have to-day such a quantity of bucolic literature—in memory of the passing of the old before the coming of the new.