The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion

A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks

James Boyd has my unadulterated admiration for his two historical novels, Drums and Marching On. His stories have a power of sympathy that reminds me of Galsworthy, they speak with a special affection for horses and country, and they move with a speed and idiom that please me down to the ground. These encomiums all apply to Bitter Creek (Scribners, $2.50), and yet, judged by Mr. Boyd’s best standard, the book is disappointing.

Bitter Creek is the odyssey of a runaway, Ray Talcott, who in his fourteenth year escapes from his home in Illinois, bound for the West. Hack — I mean Ray — begins a peregrination that takes him in and out of the clutches of Uncle Coon (a devil), strands him for a time in the sideshow of W. C. Fields (whose book name is Dr. Antelope), chases him through caves, hunger, and lonely nights until he lands on a train out of Kansas City, with Springtime, a cowboy, on the seat beside him. There fantasy pauses and the story begins.

Ray’s introduction to the range and to Absolute, his partnership with Springtime, his nickname ‘Spur’ and what it came to mean to the Circle N, his coming of age in the Wyoming of the 1870’s — this leathery, laconic relationship of horse and man Mr. Boyd has recaptured with the gusto of Remington. It is only when he begins to make his plot work, when with a fortuitousness past belief he concentrates his old villains and heartaches in a spot no bigger than a pinprick, that his story passes into the realm of the impossible.

There’s nothing impossible about that picture of the West to be seen in John Steinbeck’s striking narrative. The Grapes of Wrath (Viking, $2.75). If anything, it is too literal, too unsparing. This is the story of an American exodus, the tragic exodus of the tenant farmers who, driven away from their once-fertile acres in the dust bowl, dispossessed, their homes left standing like scarecrows in the tractor-ploughed fields, somehow muster up enough strength, hope, and gasoline for that long trek to the promised land — California. In his earlier books, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, the author has already shown us his understanding of, his indignation and sympathy with, the migratory and insecure. The common touch is his, and the ability to dramatize it in action and in lingo. To me The Crapes of Wrath is the summation of eighteen years of realism, a novel whose hunger, passion, and poetry are in direct answer to the angry stirring of our conscience these past seven years. More of this later.

The book is profane and sometimes shocking in its detail. So is that segment of America which Steinbeck describes with such truth. This is no book for the timid. I can only hope the brutality-dodgers will take my word for it that it is essentially a healthy and disciplined work of art.