The Village Novel

IT is not inappropriate that, with spring in the air, we should have our attention called to some new novels, all dealing, in individual terms, with the life of the soil and the village.
A DECIDEDLY interesting first novel is With Trailing Banners, by Estelle Aubrey Brown (Little, Brown and Atlantic Monthly Press. $2.50). The setting is a village in northern New York, half a century ago, rigid with prejudice and narrow tradition. The theme is the escape of an independent spirit from false ideals and mistaken loyalties.
Merry Melton is portrayed first as a lively, inquiring child; then as a strong-willed girl, whose determination to get away, to learn, and to broaden goes down before her passion for a picturesque, coarse-fibred good-for-nothing; then as a woman whose fortitude and extraordinary sense of justice enable her to bear the sordidness and brutality of her life. The murder of I he gentle little dog with the broken leg is excellently chosen, I think, for the crisis that finishes the process of clearing Merry’s eyes and freeing her spirit and sets her trailing banner flying.
Mrs. Brown is not a past mistress of style. Her dialogue, however, reflects character clearly, and her narrative has the not altogether discredited quality of making one desirous to see what is on the next page, Her novel, it should be added, is not for those who like to think of youth In a village as an idyll scented with apple blossoms.
In his new novel, O. E. Rölvaag turns from chronicles of victory to a chronicle of defeat. Pure Gold (Harper, $2.50) has the same simplicity and directness of
narrative as the earlier novels. That it should have the same swing and sweep is made impossible by its theme — the most contractile of passions, avarice. Instead of spaciousness, we have here concentration and compression. It is as if the course of the story wound itself in and in to a small hard core.
The ironic title is admirable. Equal skill, I think, is shown in a vivid passage near the beginning that recurs again and again to one’s mind and emphasizes the misery of subsequent scenes. I mean the picture of the splendid young thresher, dominant among the rest: powerful, skillful, high-spirited, well-liked, full of promise — made for simple happiness and for unpretentious success. His helpless and, as it were, innocent deterioration in the hands of the masterful woman who marries him is the tragedy of the novel; for she, almost from the first, puts sympathy to flight.
To my mind, Mr. Rölvaag’s skill in developing character works automatically to the partial disadvantage of this book. He portrays so effectively the stunting, the cramping, and the terrible isolating of husband and wife by their passion for boarding that the dramatic events of the latter chapters, and the catastrophe, lose something of their force. The reader can face with perfect fortitude whatever may happen to the woman; and as for the pitiable husband, he has long seemed ‘like a dead man held on end.’
Emphatically, H. W. Freeman’s special talent as a novelist is his gift for making the background of his story a living part of it. As with his earlier novel, Joseph and His Breyjren, the thing that lingers in the mind after Down in the Vallry (Holt, $2.50) has been read is the sense of a bit of Fnglish earth and its power over the soul of a man.
There is a vast spiritual distance, though in time a distance of not much more than a year, between Everard Mulliver, a rather prim person well subjugated by his late mother, and the Everard who finds himself capable, at need, of biting a piece from the car of the village bad man. What has happened to Everard in the interval is that he has stumbled upon a tiny village of singularly dreamlike charm, has bought a cottage in a moment of unwonted impulse, and, from being a languid townsman, the rather aloof manager of an inherited business, and a complacently expert taster of tea, has become an impassioned (though only a week-ending) countryman.
Mr. Freeman’s humorous moments are not as a rule his happiest. The quiet satire of the opening pages rouses a hope that later is disappointed, for his comic rustics do not — or so I think — quite ‘come off.’ Nor is the transformation of the cool Mr. Mulliver to an agitated, amorous boy the real accomplishment of the novel, nor yet the desperate drama next door, in which he takes a hand to his own peril, but the soil’s conquest of a heart not born to the soil. This is recounted with authority and beauty.
Beside these three chronicles of farm and village life. Edna Ferber’s Cimarron (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50), a story of ‘Osage,’ pioneer settlement in the Oklahoma country, is like a loud shout. ‘Here was action, here was blood-and-thunder, here was adventure. Here, in a word, was Cimarron,’ says Miss Ferber, describing one of the artfully planned, theatrical entrances of her flamboyant protagonist. And the description may be taken over, word for word, for the novel itself; but it would be only a partial description. It would do justice to the immense vigor of the book, but not to its imaginative scope, or to the sense it gives of deep antagonisms between temperaments, generations, classes, races; of the sweep of time, the passing of the old and the coming of the new.
Yancey Cravat, or ‘Cimarron,’ is a half-magnificent, half-spurious figure, with his romantic nickname that keeps alive the legend of his past; with his mysterious comings and goings; his sentimentality, his shrewdness. his quoting of lofty poetry, his swiftness on the trigger; his preposterous theatricals, his courage, his burning passion for justice and tolerance. Sabra, his wife, though she is a Venable in revolt, is yet a Venable; though she has chosen to go pioneering with her tempestuous husband, yet she is full of Venable fastidiousness and rigidity. Hence her soul becomes a battle ground, and a resounding one.
This novel, the largest that Miss Ferber has attempted, is a triumph in the robust genre that is hers.