The Valley

by Nathan Asch (Macmillan, $2.50), is a series of stories and sketches concerning a worn-out farming section of the New England Berkshires. It is not, however, merely one more local-color study of a decadent neighborhood. It is the product of a fervid imagination playing over a place and its people with the zest of discovery. Despite the richness of the New England detail, indeed, the Valley seems at times during the reading to be only a country of the mind. A faintly nightmarish atmosphere occasionally envelops it. It has some of the strangeness and unearthly vividness of a painting by a modernistic artist. Passing through such a decayed locality, one is impressed by its sad aspect, its drab life; but Mr. Asch has put on highpowered spectacles that bring to a focus the picturesque and grotesque aspects of a place that to an eye less poetic would probably be sordid enough.
The stories are so good that it is hard to choose among them, though for stern pathos I should select that of Stefan Marny, the Polack, and Leokadia, his wife, and for humor that of Mrs. Ferris and her piano and her aunt Julia. The people are all queer; but, then, so is the Valley — a run-down, backwater place, where anything can happen. Both the people and the Valley are comprehensible, however, because their creator has detected the hidden human springs of their surface aberrations and has managed to combine in his style a manly force with poetic sensitiveness and beauty.
Ellen Glasgow’s new novel. Vein of Iron (Harcourt, Brace, $2.50), is the story of Ada Fincastle, between her little-girlhood and her middle age. It is a searching study of the force of a fine tradition in making bearable a life which would have defeated any woman less strong.
In the first great crisis of her life, when her lover, Ralph, is leaving her after a quarrel, ‘while she stood there and watched him cross the floor, it seemed to her that joy was slowly ebbing from her heart. Yet something stronger than joy, the vein of iron far down in her inmost being, in her secret self, could not yield, could not bend, could not be broken.’ This basic stanchness Ada inherited from her grandmother, a Scotch Presbyterian of the most unflinching orthodoxy, and her father, a philosopher and once a clergymau, who had been expelled from his church because of heterodoxy. Even her mother, the physically frail Mary Evelyn, for whom the hardships of genteel poverty were too severe, had her heroism too and her philosophy, expressed in the memorable sentence: ‘It is only in the heart that anything really happens’; and finally Aunt Mcggie, ’who in comfortable circumstances would have seemed only ordinary,’ never wavered in the principle of following the dictates of her heart. The consequence was that Ada lived through personal disaster and through the hysteria of the war and the frustrations of the postwar days, experiencing the extremes of sorrow and want, and yet could say to her husband at the end, ‘Oh, Ralph, we have been happy together!’ and he could only reply, ‘Yes, we’ve had a poor life but we’ve been happy together.’
In thus stressing the theme of the book, I have made it sound like a parable of contentment. It is true that any good novel is really a parable; but it is only in retrospect that one feels that Miss Glasgow has written an apologue, and one badly needed in our times. The theme, variously illustrated in the portrayal of Grandmother, Mr. Fincastle, and Aunt Meggie, who have integrated their lives by means of religion, philosophy, or love, and, antithetically, in the portrayal of Ralph, Janet, Minnie, who have never found any such integration, gives meaning to this story of the life of a family in the Great Valley of Virginia; but the story is extremely interesting on its own account. Told without the satire of some of the author’s recent novels, even eschewing the wit for which she is so notable, Vein of Iron, in the sobriety and sincerity of its narrative and portrayals, seems, if not Miss Glasgow’s finest novel, her wisest.
A. J. Cronin’sThe Stars Look Down (Little, Brown, $2.50) deals almost precisely with the same period as Vein of Iron, but the scene is a mining district of the Scottish Lowlands. A novel of immense length and scope, it is divided into three parts, dealing respectively with the miners’ strike, the World War, and postwar conditions in industry. The main thread of the plot is borne by David Fenwick, son of a miner, and Arthur Barras, son of a mine owner, each being inspired by circumstances of his boyhood to try to improve the lot of the workmen, David because of the death of his father in an accident, Arthur because his father has enriched himself by exploiting labor. So far as there is an abstract theme, it is that the struggle between capital and labor will never be solved. David’s attempts at a solution by political means prove as futile as Arthur’s by improving the conditions of labor. A contrast with the two young idealists who fail is furnished by Joe Gowlan, a boy of the same town, who is a complete vulgarian, sensualist, and opportunist, and who grows steadily in power and wealth to the end.
It would be a mistake to suppose, however, that the book is pessimistic or cynical. The story of the individual lives, as distinguished from the social theme, is rich in exciting incident and in warm human values. The account of the flooding of the mine and of the death of the imprisoned miners is superbly dramatic. The history of David’s married life with scatterbrained Jenny, of Laura’s relations with Joe, of Arthur’s alienation from his father, of his imprisonment as a conscientious objector, of Richard Barras’s rise, decline, and death, are only a few of the narratives that make one read on and on, constantly marveling at the fertility of imagination that could create so many incidents and characters so exciting and so true. It would require pages even to suggest the skill with which the numerous strains of plot are interwoven with almost unfailing naturalness and strength. When one is through reading, one feels, in spite of the fact that the third part is certainly weaker than the other two, that here is a novel of rare beauty and power — perhaps one that could be called great.