The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion

A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks

IN June 1935 a Boston publisher staked E. P. O’Donnell to a thousand dollars: he had seen the synopsis of Mr. O’Donnell’s first novel and wished to have it finished without delay. With fifty dollars the novelist acquired a one-room cabin in a small orange grove ninety miles down Delta from New Orleans, and there he set to work on his book about the Delta country, that grassy, swampy, exotic Eden at the mouth of the Mississippi, full of queer fish, queer birds, queer people. A year later his book, Green Margins (Houghton Mifflin, $2.50), was ready for publication.

The leading lady in Green Margins is Sister Kalavich, and Sister is not only an eyeful, but site can act — she holds your attention every moment she is on the page. Sister is a blend of Americanism such as I have never encountered in the flesh. Her father and grandfather were Dalmatians. her mother’s people were the Aeadians — or Cajuns — who were driven out of Nova Scotia ages ago. Sister is brawny, handsome, humorous, with a zest for life that keeps her going through all adversity. She has at the outset of the story the most attractive and reckless beau in the whole countryside. You know that she will marry Mitch Holt before the book is over. But meantime, for reasons which are never made clear. Sister succumbs to the momentary attentions of a stupid boatman who drifts in and out of her life. It suits the purposes of the novelist to have Sister a fallen woman early in the story, and so fall she must.

Once it has got by this initial improbability, the story picks up momentum. Sister is ejected from her father’s house, and comes to live with her grandfather. Grampaw is quite a fellow. He once served in the Austrian cavalry; now he grows oysters, carves wooden figures, and quotes Shakespeare. Sister learns about life from Grampaw. From Loretta, a silly, luxury-fed woman who meanders into the Delta, Sister learns all ‘the thrilling rituals of dress and conduct’; and from Rene Davidson, a milk-and-water artist, she learns something about ’the fleetness of beauty. But these visitors pale in comparison with the Cajuns, Slavonians, and octoroons who speak Sister’s own language and don’t try to teach her anything. Mitch Holt, her long-suffering lover (whom she might reasonably have married on page 13); Mocco, her sluggish brother; and Unga T. January, her octoroon girl-friend — these are the people who, with Sister, give the story what vitality it possesses.

The novel has, as I have suggested, its quota of improbabilities; the narrative proceeds at a jumpy and inconsequential gait, and again and again the style is permeated by the lushness of the Delta country. There are passages of dense, vegetable prose here which I personally can penetrate only with difficulty. When Unga, whose ‘entire lower face was drenched in tears,’ has ‘horrible sobs ripple through her,’ I can only blame it on the Delta. This regional novel does open up a new country, and in the character of Sister it gives you a person worth thinking about, but by and large the story seems to me too exotic for complete credulity.