by Winifred Van Etten
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $2.50]
FOR those of us who, wearied with much reading, have lapsed into cynical pigeonholing of new books, dismissing them with ‘Oh yes, style and sophistication,’ or ’Middle-Western childhood,’or ’New patch of local color,’Mrs. Van Etten’s prize novel, I Am the Fox, will be a salutary and welcome shock. It is unusual and heartening to find in a first novel a fresh and original treatment and outlook. And, like any living creation, it refuses to be pigeonholed.
And yet the author makes no obvious effort to be original. There are no exotic countries, no strange and unusual characters in this quietly told story of childhood and young womanhood in a small Iowa community. The motivating situation — a young girl, frightened by life, trying to decide whether she is really in love or not — is by no means new, and the people who mould her decision sound at first all too familiar. The worn old grandmother, the village Don Juan, the old-maid music teacher, the dominating forceful business employer — given such a situation and such a list of characters most of us should sadly feel—should we not? — that we could tell that story from memory. We should flatter ourselves. Mrs. Van Etten turns an original and penetrating eye on situations thought by less acute observers to be stale and overworked. Her sketches of people are by turns pathetic, Rabelaisian, frequently comic, sometimes unpleasant, but never traditional or dull.
The construction —an argument between the heroine and her lover in which each new point she makes is illuminated for the reader by an excursion into her past, revealing the characters and episodes which have influenced her to speak as she does — is unusual, and well handled. The story is inevitably narrowed by it — concentrating as it does not only on emotional development alone, but on that side of it which has made the heroine afraid of life. But this, and the episodic treatment of secondary characters who vanish completely from the story at each new turn in the argument, are counterbalanced by the picture it gives of human growth. The sensitive little girl scarred too early by contact with death and disillusion, and a lack of any fine personality in her surroundings, does change before our eyes as she successively tries to escape from life into studies, romance, materialism, and a too cynical but life-saving laughter at herself and the pathos in the world. Selma, poised young business woman, still (under her rather hard protective shell) quivering to death and human loneliness and suffering, is an appealing youthful mixture of self-absorption and self-pity, lack of imagination and sudden deep intuitions about life. We do not always like her, nor at times completely believe in her, but she lives. And we leave her at the end with no literary neat winding up of her problems, but humanly taking another groping step, not complete, not satisfactory altogether, but advancing toward maturity as she discovers tenderness and a new attitude of surrender to life instead of escape or defiance.
The novel is an unusual combination — a moving and thoughtful picture of growing youth and a vivid and lively series of character sketches. These characters, though briefly seen, are convincing. The tragic old grandmother, cheated out of any life of her own by endless giving up to children she never really liked, the miserly smug little soda-fountain clerk, accidentally a hero, the fatuous middle-aged Lothario — they are original living creatures, well observed, handled with poise and humor.
It is a pity that the author’s style is so much less sure and competent. The conversation of these well-observed human beings is not nearly as true to life as their actions, and there are stylistic lapses into confused construction and too-literary description which are the more surprising when contrasted with her mature handling of character. One of two episodes, also, are too long, and tend to overshadow the main theme of the Story Yet they all contribute something to the book, and even when overwritten her descriptions are fresh and vivid: —
‘Old Mrs. Temple stood over her rusty kitchen range squeezing brownish-purple pulp through a dish towel tied together by its four corners to make a jelly bag. Her face was almost the color of the stains on the towel, and her shapeless pulpy body looked as if it too would exude the same brownish-purple liquid if anyone cared to press even gently upon its semi-fluid contours.’
If you are anxious about the future of American literature you will be heartened by the appearance of this vigorous and original piece of writing, which is no literary meteor, but full of promise for future growth.