Archive for the ‘Kathleen Norris’ Category

Crossing the Skeena River by 2-car reaction ferry, Usk, B.C.

Crossing the Skeena River by 2-car reaction ferry, Usk, B.C.

Since my last post a good two weeks ago quite a lot has happened in my world. The most exciting thing being an immensely enjoyable week-long road trip to Alaska in our old Triumph Spitfire. Top down all the way, though we were pretty chilly those cool northern British Columbia summer mornings!

An overwhelming magnitude of most excellent scenery. Glaciers and totem poles, the tock-tock of ravens everywhere we went, and the fragrance of sweet clover from the hayfields and roadsides overcoming our little car’s perpetual miasma of Old British Car over-fuelled exhaust.

It was grand.

Bear Glacier, near the Canada-U.S.A. border towns of Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska

Bear Glacier, near the Canada-U.S.A. border towns of Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska

Lichen-covered lava flow at the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park near Terrace, B.C., site of Canada's last volcanic eruption in the mid-1700s.

Lichen-covered lava flow at the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park near Terrace, B.C., site of Canada’s last volcanic eruption in the mid-1700s.

Totem poles near Kitwanga, B.C. These are memorial poles erected over the graves of band chiefs. The figures depict clan memberships and significant connections of the people they memorialize.

Totem poles near Kitwanga, B.C. These are memorial poles erected over the graves of band chiefs. The figures depict clan memberships and significant connections of the people they memorialize.

So. Books.

Just before we took off on our drive, a kind neighbour passed on to us three boxes full of dusty vintage hardcovers she’d been shuffling from shelf to shelf for years. In between the collections of sermons and prayers-for-the-day, the moralizing children’s tales, and the expected classics were some now-obscure popular novels which were bestsellers in their day. E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, and Ethel M. Dell, anyone? Or how about Kathleen Norris?

I packed a random handful of the most promising along on our trip, but was so exhausted each night from the miles of windy driving and the glorious sightseeing (and possibly the brisk northern air combined with those afore-mentioned exhaust fumes) that I only managed to make my way through one of them.

An Apple for Eve by Kathleen Norris, 1942, was a contemporary romance novel by the prolific San Francisco writer. If you’re not familiar with the name, here’s a brief biography, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Kathleen Thompson Norris (July 16, 1880 – January 18, 1966) was a popular American novelist and newspaper columnist. She was one of the most widely read and highest paid female writers in the United States for nearly fifty years, from 1911 to 1959. Her stories appeared in the Atlantic, The American Magazine, McClure’s, Everybody’s, Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Home Companion, and she wrote 93 novels, many of which were best sellers. She used her fiction to promote values including the sanctity of marriage, the nobility of motherhood, and the importance of service to others

An Apple for Eve by Kathleen Norris, 1942. This edition: P.F. Collier and Son, 1942. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

an apple for eve kathleen norris 1942An Apple for Eve was the fourth novel by this writer that I’ve read, and based on past experience I assumed it would be a readable, well-detailed, decidedly earnest though not off-puttingly preachy, easy to take up and put down light read. And it was all of that.

Teenage Loveday, daughter of a much-respected family of once-wealthy California Quakers, falls tempestuously in love with a young man of not quite top-drawer origins. She promises eternal faithfulness, and sends her fiance off to flight school with the promise to marry him as soon as he can finish his training and set up a modest starter home.

Much drama then ensues. Loveday becomes orphaned; we learn of a mysterious family fortune possibly hidden somewhere in the decaying family mansion; Loveday is semi-adopted by a wealthy family and introduced to high society and rich living; Larry-the-fiance stops writing; Loveday finds herself in a mutually-attracted relationship with an already-married playwright; heart rendings all round!

Eventually Loveday and Larry reunite and marry, but things go swiftly downhill. For Larry is something of a ne’er-do-well. He can’t keep a job, he argues with any sort of authority figure he comes across, he’s deeply jealous of Loveday’s affection for her adopted family, who keep swooping in with welcome cash donations to ease Loveday’s continual financial woes, for she and Larry and their three small children are sliding ever deeper into a lower strata of society than either of them started out in.

Re-enter Loveday’s other lover, the wealthy playwright Chris. His wife has just died, and he feels himself free to woo the still-lovely Loveday, as her husband is obviously unwilling to man up and support her in the way which she deserves. And Loveday must admit that she returns the illicit passion. But will she be able to set aside her marriage vows and divorce her sad-sack spouse? Larry, though continually inadequately employed, occasionally sullen, and generally slightly mopey, is quite a sweet guy at heart, who has never done anything to deserve spousal desertion.

Hmmm…

Take a peek up to the bit about Kathleen Norris’s championship of the sanctity of marriage vows and the nobility of motherhood for a Great Big Clue as to what our heroine eventually decides.

I’ve occasionally seen this author’s work classified as “Christian Romance Fiction”, and while I wouldn’t go that far myself – she seldom directly references God or religion, and her characters get up to some rather worldly shenanigans – I can see why that is a tidy and appropriate categorization in this current anything-goes age.

This not particularly top rate novel is redeemed by its generous period detail and its depiction of rural California life in the early World War II years, when America was poised on the brink of committing to the overseas conflict. There is ongoing discussion of the situation in Europe and the role which America should play in the escalating war; some characters go north to Canada to join the R.A.F.; during the course of the novel the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, precipitating the U.S.A.’s decision to jump into the fray. Back on the home front, wives and mothers scramble to compensate for breadwinners heeding the call to arms, and, just a little later on, to deal with the inevitable deaths of loved ones and the return of the wounded.

By 1942 Kathleen Norris had honed her writerly craft to a very competent level, and working one’s way through this melodramatic tale some 75 years after its publication is no great hardship, with the expected allowances for era-expected attitudes, as well as a soupçon of bigotry and racial slurs. Those of Chinese ethnicity come in for most of the little digs, as Loveday’s household staff (for of course our heroine has devoted family retainers despite her desperate poverty) are descendents of the California Gold Rush “coolies” of a generation or two before. A typical off-the-cuff comment from Loveday, in reference to her housekeeper: “The Chinese are trustworthy because they find it pays better to be honest.”

As in the other Norris novels I’ve read, the chief heroine is almost impossibly beautiful, universally admired, and stunningly competent at everything she does. Though she temporarily allows herself to be tempted – remember that clue-providing title? – “Eve”, “apple”? – I couldn’t work up any surprise upon finding out that she ultimately does the morally right thing. And of course earthly rewards follow thick and fast, though Norris pleased me by not tying up quite every loose end.

Some years ago I read and reviewed 1937’s The American Flaggs. My opinion of the writer’s style engendered by that first experience of her work have not changed in my subsequent readings; I’ve since acquired and read The Venables (1941), Bread Into Roses (1936), and, just the other day, Butterfly (1923). Good summertime books, not too deep, and the annoying bits are easily brushed aside. Next in the queue is The Heart of Rachael (1916), which I may dip into this evening, before setting aside Norris’s all-of-a-pattern heroines for something with a bit more oomph.

 

 

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the american flags kathleen norris 1936

First edition Doubleday dust jacket illustration from 1936. (Not my copy, which is the 1937 Sun Dial Press edition.) The illustration emphasizes the “we Flaggs are united in our happy prosperity” in comparison to Miss Fitzpercy’s solitary advancement.

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.

 

 

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