Nothing about Black Oxen Is Plodding

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The years like Great Black Oxen tread the world
And God the herdsman goads them on behind.
—W. B. Yeats

From it’s title, I expected Black Oxen to be a story of rural life. From its, author, Gertrude Atherton, I expected a fireworks plot that fizzled after a brilliant beginning, as her 1921 Sisters-in-Law did.

I was hopelessly wrong on both counts.

Lee Clavering, a young New York drama critic, is intrigued by an attractive, obviously European woman attending a bad opening night performance.

Clavering’s cousin says the woman must be the illegitimate daughter of Madame Zattiany, née Mary Ogden, a New York socialite with whom he and the city’s most eligible bachelors were in love 30 years before. The lovely socialite married a Hungarian diplomat, from whom she was later estranged, then widowed.

The mystery lady’s lawyer—one of the long-ago suitors of Madame Zattiany—refuses to be pumped by his friends. The mystery makes the lady even more attractive to Clavering.

Alert readers will figure out the mystery long before the besotted Clavering does half way through the book, but nobody could predict what Atherton will do with the story after that.

Black Oxen‘s extraordinary characters behave in totally plausible ways as she explores issues of generational differences, ethics, marriage, international politics, medical research, sexuality, and human motivation.

The well-crafted plot is enhanced by peripheral episodes whose irrelevance to the plot lends a strong sense of reality. And Atherton combines lyric prose with razor-sharp dialogue.

Black Oxen will knock your socks off, stand you on your head, and make you wonder what hit you.

Black Oxen
by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
A. L. Burt Co., 1923
Illustrated with photos from the screen version
1923 bestseller #1
Project Gutenberg ebook #25542
 

© 2013 by Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Linda Aragoni

I read. I write. I think. I make big ideas simple. I help teachers teach expository writing to teens and adults. In my free time, I read and review old novels.

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