The American Flaggs by Kathleen Norris ~ 1936. This edition: The Sun Dial Press, 1937. Hardcover. 403 pages.
My rating: Parts of this were an easy 10, but other parts not so much. This might change on further mulling over, but right now I think a 6.5/10 is a fair assessment of the reading experience as a whole.
A beautiful young woman with a troubling family background (deserted by father, mother a not very successful writer/poetess, three siblings who moon about wasting their days and ignoring the squalor of their shabby rented bungalow situated in a subdivided California orchard on the outskirts of San Francisco) makes the acquaintance of a wealthy local family, the Flaggs.
The Flagg way of living is gracious to the extreme, and our heroine, Penelope Fitzpercy, who has come to see if she can sell an heirloom embroidery sampler to the family matriarch, is treated with unexpected courtesy and grace. She catches the eye of handsome and impulsive Jeff Flagg, who proceeds to woo Penelope with overwhelming enthusiasm. Much to her own surprise, she resists Jeff’s advances, out of a combination of pride in knowing that the Flaggs suspect her of having her eye on a rich husband and honest reluctance to marry someone she doesn’t truly love.
Back and forth the romance goes, until one tragic night in which Jeff almost dies in an accident, and Penelope is begged by the Flagg family members gathered around Jeff’s bed of pain to marry him, so he can die in peace at having attained his heart’s desire.
Needless to say Jeff makes a stunning recovery, and Penelope is trapped in a marriage which she never wanted. A chance for an annulment is secretly offered to her by Jeff’s grandmother, but Penelope refuses, mostly because she is too proud to back down from the promise she made to Jeff upon their hasty midnight marriage.
Jeff is a most definitely spoiled rich kid; he proceeds to squander his parents’ generous allowance, and becomes caught up in drink and gambling, while Penelope feebly wrings her hands in despair. When Jeff carelessly abandons her on the night of their baby’s birth, Penelope is rescued and comforted by Jeff’s cousin Tom, and the two, already friendly, enter into an emotional relationship which is emotionally if not physically a breaking of Penelope’s marriage vows.
When Penelope and Tom announce that they wish to marry after Penelope divorces Jeff, the rest of the family joins together in an agitated plea that Penelope give Jeff yet another chance, until the family matriarch unexpectedly speaks out in Penelope’s support.
What follows is an agony of indecision by Penelope, who thought she knew what she wanted…
I picked this up recently in one of my favourite used book shops, The Final Chapter in Prince George, thinking from my brief browse that it was something of a family comedy, a humorous romp, albeit a rather sustained one, at 400 pages plus. This initial assessment turned out not to be the case; this novel is at heart a serious sort of thing, and I closed it feeling like I’d just been subjected to an mesmerizingly earnest sermon by a preacher with a fine way with words but very little sense of humour.
Let me elaborate.
The finest thing about this book by the super-prolific Kathleen Thompson Norris (80-some books published from 1911 to 1959, according to her Wikipedia biography) is that it is decidedly readable, at least in the set-up phase, which takes up the first few hundred pages. (The last few hundred suffer from a certain amount of repetition and going on and on and on, rather like this post is starting to do! Must be catching…)
The author sets a wonderfully detailed scene, and her characters are, for the most part, believably flawed and therefore human enough to hold our interest, though as the tale progresses we note that many stay completely one-dimensional, while others – the very obviously “chosen” ones – are allowed an extreme degree of personal development, to support and justify author’s increasingly obvious point-of-view.
There is a goodish dose of melodrama early on, quite nicely handled; this was a point in favour.
What I didn’t care for was the way in which the author fast-forwarded her ending, taking us from agonizing, hyper-detailed moral dilemma to it’s-all-better-now without providing much in the way of explanation. She merely asks us to take on faith the idea that everyone has been able to pull themselves together and reach a higher moral plane, once the “correct” decisions have been made.
“A happy life is a reward for correct moral behaviour.” I feel like a real heel sneering at this noble ideal, but in this case it just felt too easy, and rather ruined the last part of the book for me.
Though I must say that I quite liked the final scene which was an unexpected reconciliation between the heroine and her high-principled but perhaps not quite-so-perfect-as-once-assumed grandmother-in-law.
Would I read another Kathleen Norris book?
I do believe I would, though from the plot descriptions of several others which I’ve just discovered and from quick browses through the Project Gutenberg offerings by the author, I see a strong similarity of theme: Young woman decides to seek happiness over old-fashioned moral duty, has a spiritual awakening, and realizes that the old ways are the best.
There were a few places here and there in The American Flaggs where the chiming of church bells came through loud and clear, though they quickly subsided; the preaching was more implied than open, but it was definitely there.
For a portrait of a particular time and place, California just after the turn of the 20th Century, this was a fascinating snapshot, and I hugely enjoyed the details of the setting, as well as the author’s pull-no-punches descriptions of the Fitzpercy family’s lazy housekeeping and messy, messy lives.
Period snobbishness is evident throughout as well, and a version of a feudal class system. There are servants in abundance in the Flagg enclave, going about their duties meekly and modestly, and they are accepted as part of the background support system, with only a very few – the butler, the housekeeper – being named and given speaking roles.
Even the indigent Fitzpercys hold that they are somehow higher than servant class. Early on Penelope bemoans the fact that though she and her mother and sisters are of a higher social status than those who stoop to menial labour they are much worse at keeping their surroundings clean and neat, but this thought doesn’t seem to inspire a prolonged effort to raise the standard of living by washing a few dishes and sweeping the floor.
Towards the end of the story, after Penelope has her epiphany and her chance at a remade life, her humbling herself is made obvious by the mention that she is now on almost equal terms with her Mexican cook-housekeeper, though she retains an edge of unquestioned social superiority.
A rather decent discussion on what it is to be American takes place near the end of the book, balancing the theoretical rejection of “American values” by some of the more outspoken Fitzpercys and their bohemian friends early on. The Flaggs are held up to scorn for their strong patriotism and holding to tradition, but events go to show (and here is the author obviously trotting out her own pet theory) that the melting pot of America and the moral American standard upheld by the united Flaggs is more truly good than any nonsense of “communism” coming from Russia, or of the ways of those troublesome Italians and Germans making headlines in the newspapers.
Grand stuff in a highly opinionated period-appropriate sort of way!
I’d never heard of this author before, but I’m sure I’ll be noticing her in future, much as I now see Gene Stratton-Porter and Frances Hodgson Burnett and Mary Roberts Rinehart here, there and everywhere. She shares qualities with these others who were her contemporaries, a mix of (generally) positive and (occasionally) negative which makes for an unusual and vaguely unsettling reading experience. Not a great writer, but decidedly an accomplished one in this particular genre.