My rating: 5.5/10
American writer Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954) is likely best known for her popular novel, A Lantern in Her Hand, the story of Nebraska pioneer Abbie Deal. I had read and greatly enjoyed that novel, so was quite looking forward to reading A White Bird Flying, which follows Abbie’s granddaughter, Laura Deal, on her own coming-of-age journey.
I am sorry to say that strong Abbie’s granddaughter is a wishy-washy little thing, and that I was generally disappointed in this lightweight novel. It reminded me of some of the more sentimental twaddle perpetrated by our iconic Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote in a similar time period and genre; much as I love some of her stronger novels, she was also capable of churning out some dreadful slush; ditto Aldrich.
The first part of the book is perhaps the strongest. Abbie Deal has died and been buried with due ceremony; young Laura stands in her beloved grandmother’s house a few days after the funeral, and tries to come to terms with death and what will happen next. Laura is a deeply emotional, imaginative child; at twelve she already aspires to one day be a writer, and she thinks in those terms.
She was half enjoying herself in an emotional way. There was a sort of gruesome ecstasy in making herself sad with memories. She would like to write about it. “The girl moved about from room to room, touching the things lovingly,” went through her mind. She was in one of those familiar moods when she looked upon life in a detached way as though she herself were not a part of it. She could never talk to anyone about it, but in some vague way she felt withdrawn from the world. She lived with people, but she was not one of them.
Perfectly captures the essence of an introspective adolescence.
Laura goes on her dreamy way, often at odds with her practical, striving mother who is often bewildered by her introverted, sentimental daughter. Laura continues to pursue her private ambition, turning out poems and stories and seeing the world through detached eyes. She often thinks of her grandmother, and of how Abbie had given up her own ambitions to dedicate herself to full wife- and motherhood; Laura is appalled at the thought of a similar fate for herself and resolves to form her own life quite differently. She decides that she will turn her back on love, and particularly marriage; instead she will dedicate herself to her art and become truly fulfilled in a way a mere housewife can never attain.
Well, the inevitable happens. Laura dreams her way through college, and attracts the attention of a boy from her own home town, Allen Rinemiller, who has strong ambitions to improve the family farm with modern ideas, and has a rather interesting philosophy himself, which Laura scornfully dismisses.
Allen proposes; Laura naturally declines.
“…I can’t think of anything more prosaic than settling down here…and sort of letting the world go by.”
“I don’t call it letting the world go by,” he returned quickly. “I call it tackling a small piece of the world and making something of it. You admit Morton and his bride and all the rest of the old pioneers did a great thing when they crossed he river and started their settlements. You’ve said it was romantic and intensely interesting, and quite worthwhile. You think their own love lay at the bottom of their acts of courage and bravery. All right – did you ever stop to think that maybe we’re pioneers, too? Haven’t you the vision to see that? Why isn’t it something of pioneering that I’m trying to do? Agriculture in most quarters has been a hard, wearisome proposition…I’m pioneering, too – and a whole lot of other young fellows from colleges and universities, we have visions, too – a new outlook on the whole thing…We’re pioneering…starting a new class…the master farmers who are attempting to develop agriculture to the nth degree. Why couldn’t you enter into that in the same spirit your grandmother did? …Because you’re rooted in the soil, need you be a nonentity?”
Allen’s stirring words fall on deaf ears; Laura has already decided to pursue the celibate life, and has even promised her wealthy, childless aunt and uncle that she will remain unmarried and look after them as a daughter would, in return for inheriting their fortune, justifying this strangely unromantic and mercenary agreement by the excuse that it will allow her to pursue her writer’s career without worry and interruption.
The only fly in this particular ointment is that Laura is no prodigy; her talent is modest at best, as she is slowly beginning to realize.
The rest of the story follows its predictable-from-the-first-page path; no surprises here. Laura does marry Allen and dedicate herself to the farm; there are some tough years, but even through these Laura`s issues are not on par with those of her grandmother’s generation. Laura bemoans the fact that she cannot afford new curtains, and a new carpet, and a new dress; Abbie Deal dealt with life and death concerns and had a much more elemental notion of what the truly important things in life were than her grandchild ever faces up to.
I do get the feeling, however, that Aldrich portrays this dichotomy deliberately; the decadence of the descendents of the pioneers, though sympathetically portrayed, is a common undercurrent of her books I’ve read so far. She was obviously very interested in the generational and cultural shifts of the pioneer-to-modern era, and by and large captures the essence of the succeeding generations and their attitudes towards those who came before.
I will be reading more of this author’s works, as opportunity allows, though I doubt I will go to a lot of effort to seek them out. And while White Bird was not a particularly strong novel, it had its generally well-written and thoughtful moments, and I will overlook my vague annoyance at self-centered Laura and her self-created melodramas to classify it merely as a lesser entry into the long-respected Aldrich canon.
I am editing this review to add a Young Adult classification. It was re-published by Scholastic, after all, and the subject matter may be of interest to teenage readers, though I suspect many of them will be as annoyed at Laura as I am.