The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion

A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks

IT is, of course, pure coincidence that there should be so many New England novels among this autumn’s harvest, but the number is worth comment if only for the sake of contrast and diversity. The New England of Joseph (‘Cape’) Lincoln’s The Peel Trait is certainly a different kettle of fish from that which Bernard DeVoto cooks up for us in We Accept with Pleasure; the Rhode Island seacoast which Samuel Rogers sketches so sensitively in his Dusk at the Grove is separated by more than time from the picturesque Captain Caution of Kenneth Roberts. What interests me is that a part of the country commonly thought to be so Yankee, so hard-shelled and homogeneous, should readily produce such amusing opposites.

The New England of Robert Littell’sCandles in the Storm (Harpers, $2.50) is the New England of art colonies. To Bridgewater, a summer community of real and pseudo artists, north of Boston, comes a woman of glamour who, when the truth is at last known, proves to be a good deal of a fool. Her presence — and then her absence — occasion a proper amount of mystery and thereby tempt the principal characters to commit themselves in various ways. The story moves with a good pace, there are many clevernesses of dialogue, yet, old and young, the people are so self-conscious, so artificial in what they say and think, that one can hardly take seriously the record of their undoing.

The Cold Journey, by Grace Zaring Stone (Morrow, $2.50), shows us the New England of history, but history whose terms are neither staid nor dry as dust. This story presumably finds its origin in the French and Indian raid upon Deerfield in 1703. In the dead of winter a small panicky community is invaded by a party of Indians under French officers. Death and fire destroy the homes and, with their captives in tow, the marauders then begin their long tramp through the wilderness to Quebec. In a series of clever impersonations Mrs. Stone endeavors to show us the leading characters in this New England outskirt and the various ways in which they endured their captivity. But, although she is a stylist of distinction, I am not satisfied that her prose is here adapted to the nature of her undertaking. The primitive cruelty, the exposure, the brutal tests of endurance to which the poor wretches were subjected in life, seem in marked variance to the wit and irony with which Mrs. Stone so suavely tells their story. By placing the rude melodrama in an atmosphere of over-refinement she has succeeded in belittling her characters.

In Mary Peters (Macmillan, $2.00) that reflective writer Mary Ellen Chase is seeking to evoke the New England of tradition, the tradition of a coastal people who, men and women both, went to sea and who there acquired a philosophy and a resourcefulness which never deserted them though they might retire to upland farms or drowsy village. Her novel is concerned with the Maine coast of the past sixty years, from the last active days of the sea captains down to the present era of summer resorts. Mary Peters, for whom the book is named, was born in the harbor of Singapore and reared on her father’s ship; in after years she was to watch the rotting wharves, the first summer visitors, the antique craze, then the well-dressed resorts which gradually possessed the shore. Her experience, in short, is the record of a doomed and changing order.

No one writing to-day is better able to describe Maine’s fine and ancient heritage. Miss Chase’s pictures of a seafaring family, of Cadiz Harbor, of Mary’s growing weather-wise; her pictures of a Maine farmyard, of the moon at flood tide, an early August morning on the uplands, and the fierce exultation of winter, are unforgettable. These passages, in their amassing of detail, in their mood of reflection, fill page after page; they build up a background whose authenticity and loveliness are truly remarkable.

As much cannot be said for what takes place in the foreground. The narrative of Mary Peters is as disappointing as the scenery is fine. In my opinion the inadequacy of the story is traceable to two serious faults. In the first place, Miss Chase deals with her characters in much too determined a fashion. John, Ellen, and Jim are labeled from their first appearance; they are one-note people; they can do only one thing — and doing it deprives them both of surprise and of sympathy. Mary Peters herself is a robust and rounded figure, the little we see of Hester is appealing, but the story is weakened by the flat characters who surround them. The author is again uncertain in her development of events. The happenings are invariably as sudden as they are accidental; instead of being given the appearance of inevitability, they have only the aspect of surprise. I think this is why the catastrophes in Mary Peters’s life so seldom stir the reader’s emotion. There must be an essential coördination between the people in a book and the events which bear them down. But I cannot find that coördination in the events which destroy Hester, John, and Jim.