OF the several hundred novels harvested this autumn we have picked out three for the special attention of that experienced reader, Dr. R. M. Gay of Simmons College.
In Beyond the Blue Sierra (Morrow, $2.50), Honoré Morrow has written history rather than fiction, giving life and suspense to incidents which, as far as I know, have hitherto been narrated, in English, only in rather bare outline. It is the moving story of the heroic march of a band of colonists from Mexico through what are now Arizona and New Mexico to the Bay of San Francisco, where they found the first mission in that historic region. All of the major characters are historical: Juan Bautista de Anza, Don Antonio Bucareli, Father Garcés, Father Font, Galvez, Rivera, and a dozen others, were all real persons; and the novel follows the fortunes of Anza and his devoted band, his successes and tragic disappointments, faithfully, as far as all important incidents are concerned.
Anza’s skill as a fighter against the Apaches; his dreams of colonization; his relations with Ana, his wife, and with Father Garcés, the heroic friar who was also a great discoverer; and particularly his friendship with the Viceroy, Bucareli — all are described with quiet vigor and dignity, against a background of stark desert, gay Mexican cities, and lonely missions. I have no way of knowing whether the author’s interpretation of events is authoritative; but her book gives the impression of being founded on first sources, and no one can read it without an increased understanding of how the Spanish missions were established and, perhaps, of why they contributed so little to American civilization. If all the colonizers had been as enlightened as Anza and Bucareli, the history of Spanish California might have been very different.
Rose Macaulay’s The Shadow Flies (Harpers, $2.50) is another piece of historical reconstruction, but as different as possible from Mrs. Morrow’s. Here we are transported to the fourth decade of the seventeenth century, when the Puritan rising against Charles I was gaining head; and the complex politics of the period form a lowering background to the story. The latter, however, moves in quiet places, Devonshire and Cambridge, and deals for the most part with quiet people. All of the main characters except the heroine and her family and friends are historical: Robert Herrick, Sir John Suckling, Abraham Cowley, and John Cleveland, all poets; Henry More, the Platonist; and various other poets, scholars, and churchmen; even John Milton appearing briefly once or twice. The story, however, chiefly concerns Julian Conybeare; her father, an atheistical physician; her brother, a Catholic convert; her tutor, Herrick; and her lover, Cleveland. Julian is an appealing girl, educated beyond the usual learning of women, and a poet in her own right; and her story is a parable of the struggle between love and knowledge that made the lives of some women of her time tragic.
It is a book to fascinate the bookish, because the author has steeped herself in the atmosphere of the period. I wish that she had been less conscientious in the attempt to imitate the actual speech of the time, because, although I cannot prove that, people never spoke as hers do, I had a constant feeling that they did not. Hut it is ungrateful to pass strictures upon a book so full of humor, picturesqueness, and instruction. The portraits of Herrick, More, and Cleveland are real creations and probably substantially true; and the pictures of Devon life and Cambridge manners, the variety of good talk on poetry, politics, and learning, and the sad little idyll of Julian, her amusing father, weak brother, and too sophisticated lover, all create a rich texture, quietly colored, but to the lover of literature never dull.
Sons, by Pearl S. Buck (John Day, $2.50), is a sequel to The Good Earth, carrying on the saga of the three sons of Wang Lung and of their families. I say ‘saga with intention, because the resemblance to that ancient type of narrative is close. The style is still that of Old Testament narrative, economical but never bare, which gives to many incidents, a naïveté that is delicately humorous and that, by withholding set description and comment, leaves the reader free to make up his own mind about the characters and events. As a method of story-telling it is a fine corrective to the strained obviousness and overdone effectiveness of much current writing. And like all sagas its concern with fundamental passions gives it a universal significance. Some reviewers of The Good Earth pointed out that that book is as true of life lived in any age or country as of China; and one cannot but believe that in the history of the Wangs Mrs. Buck is consciously writing a history of the human race. In the former book, she gave the essence of the pastoral and patriarchal period of mankind; in this she gives the essence of the age of landlordism, commerce, war, and conquest; and at the end, in the faint drums and tramplings of the Revolution and in the portraits of certain young characters, like the wife of Wang the Tiger’s nephew, she foreshadows the period of equality and democracy.
This is, however, primarily the story of Wang the Third, the war lord, the Tiger, who inherits the energy and ability of his father, but turns them into channels of military ambition and adventure. It is also the story of the disintegration of that great estate, the land, which Wang Lung accumulated; and the narrative swings the full circle, from the land and back to it; because at the end the Tiger’s son, educated to be a soldier, is drawn to agriculture. Lacking perhaps some of the intimate, homely appeal of The Good Earth, it is still a story of engrossing interest, full of knowledge and wisdom.
R. M. GAY