God’s Little Acre

Never prosperous even in the best of times, during the Great Depression Ty Ty Walden and his extended family are trying to get by in rural Georgia on nothing but libido, hostility, and holes.

Dust jacket of God's Little Acre, first edition.Ty Ty has turned over to black sharecroppers the responsibility for the cotton and vegetable crops on which the family depends.

Ty Ty, his son Shaw and son-in-law Buck spend their days digging for gold.

They’ve dug up most of the farm except God’s Little Acre, the proceeds of which Ty Ty has devoted to the church.

Whenever Ty Ty gets a feeling that the mother lode lies beneath God’s Little Acre, he moves the boundaries of the acre.

Believing in “scientific” knowledge that albinos have miraculous powers to find gold, Ty Ty and the boys capture an albino they learn is working nearby.

Ty Ty summons daughter Rosamond and her husband, Will, an unemployed mill worker, to come help them dig in the place the albino points out.

Will and Buck have never gotten along.

Buck thinks, correctly, that Will is after his wife, Griselda.

Shaw thinks whatever Buck thinks.

It’s not long before the three men come to blows.

Ty Ty, Rosamund, and Griselda go to wheedle money from another of Ty Ty’s sons, Jim Leslie.

Jim Leslie abandoned his father’s gold-diggings for real estate investments.

One look at Griselda, and Jim Leslie is determined to have her.

There are more characters and more couplings, but you get the idea. By comparison to God’s Little Acre, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a a moral treatise.

Ty Ty sums up the point of the novel thus:

God put us in the bodies of animal and tried to make us act like people. That was the beginning of trouble. If He had made us like we are, and not called us people, the last one of us would know how to live. A man can’t live, feeling himself from the inside, and listening to what the preachers say. He can’t do both, but he can do one or the other. He can live like we were made to live, and feel himself on the inside or he can live like the preachers say, and be dead on the inside….When you try to take a woman or a man and hold him off all for yourself, there ain’t going to be nothing but trouble and sorrow the rest of your days.

The term God’s little acre has come to stand for hypocrisy, setting aside something worthless for God while living without any regard for Him.

That really doesn’t fit the novel.

The Waldens shouldn’t be called hypocrites: They haven’t enough moral sense to rise that far.


This is one of GreatPenformances’ occasional reviews of notable novels that didn’t make the bestseller lists. First published in 1933, God’s Little Acre  didn’t make the bestseller list or win a Pulitzer Prize, but Erskine Caldwell’s novel has become an American classic.  The edition I read: God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell.  The Modern Library, 1961. 303 pp.

Now In November is beautiful and enduring

Now in November was Josephine Winslow Johnson’s first novel. Although it didn’t become a popular bestseller, critics showered praise on the book and its author. The year following its publication, the Pulitzer committee awarded Johnson its 1935 prize for best novel, a rare achievement for a writer’s first novel.


Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson ©1934 ©1962.


Cover of 1961 edition of Now in November shows women doing farm work.Arnold Haldemarne had done well in the lumber factories through persistent hard work. Suddenly, his peace and security vanished overnight, swallowed up in the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

Haldemarne takes his wife and three daughters back to the mortgaged farm his family had owned since the Civil War.

The Haldemarne women, Willa and daughters Kerrin, Marget, and Merle, fall in love with the land.

But as the novel’s narrator, Marget, observes, her father doesn’t see the land’s beauty, and he “hadn’t the resignation a farmer has to have.”

The family suffers one misfortune after another until there are only Mr. Haldemarne and daughters Marget and Merle left.

Despite what sounds like novel built of gloom and misery, Now in November has a lyric quality that lifts the novel beyond the doldrums.

Johnson makes even the mad Kerrin and her gloomy father individuals deserving of both pity and respect.

Their gardens are dead, but the land is beautiful.

The Haldemarnes are driven far beyond endurance, yet they endure.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni


This is another in the GreatPenformances series of occasional reviews of notable novels. The cover shown above is from Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson,  afterward by Nancy Hoffman. The Feminist Press, 1991, 231 pp.

Vein of Iron pulses with unsentimental goodness

The Fincastle family of Ironside is what, in the early 1900s was referred to as “salt of the earth folks.”

Poor, hardworking, highly principled, they can be counted on to tend the sick, comfort the dying, stick up for the outcast.


Vein of Iron  by Ellen Glasgow

Harcourt, Brace, 1935. 462 pages. 1935 bestseller #2. My Grade: B.


1930's commercial street  scene is on cover of paperback edition of Vein of Iron The boy Ada Fincastle plans to marry, Ralph McBride, is accused of getting a local girl pregnant. The families force Ralph to marry her.

Awaiting a divorce, Ralph entices Ada to spend a weekend with him before he is sent off to France.

Ada goes through the disgrace of an unwed pregnancy.

After the Armistice, they marry.

The family, including Ada’s father and her aunt, moves from Ironside to a poor section of Queenborough. They have money saved toward a home when Ralph has a car accident.

The household is just beginning to recover from that crisis in 1929 when the stock market crashes.

Ada’s father goes home to Ironside to die; the rest of the family go back there to live.

Ellen Glasgow tells the story in an unsentimental, matter-of-fact way that makes it feel like biography. That no-nonsense tone gives the novel authority and power.

You’ll come away respecting the Fincastles rather than loving them — which is precisely as they would have wished.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Within This Present Proves Need for Challenges

granny retro250Margaret Ayer Barnes, who published the haunting Years of Grace to popular and critical acclaim in 1930, pleased her public again in 1934 with Within This Present.

Both novels follow a character from the cusp of womanhood through midlife, allowing readers to live through a slice of history from a domestic perspective.

The woman in Within This Present is Sally Sewall, a girl from a wealthy, close-knit Chicago banking family. At 19, she marries Alan MacLeod before he goes off to the Western Front.

Alan sees only five days of fighting. He comes home feeling cheated of the opportunity to do something that matters.

When Sally says she’s pregnant, Alan says perhaps being a father is what matters. Alan goes to work in the Sewall family’s bank.

Ten years later, Alan becomes involved with a woman in their set. He and Sally are living apart in 1929 when the bank fails. The family crisis predictably brings them back together.

Although Within This Present is an entertaining and enlightening novel, Barnes lets Granny Sewall talk from beginning to end about how young people need challenges to show what they’re made of. Sadly, even dear, sweet Granny’s sermons grow dull with repetition.

Within This Present
By Margaret Ayer Barnes
Houghton Mifflin, 1933
611 pages
1934 bestseller #5

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: Granny Retro by unknown photographer

Master of Jalna makes miserable reading

Renny Whiteoak inherited Jalna and responsibility for the family when his grandmother died in 1927. Right up until her death at age 102, family stayed on the farm and under her thumb.

Renny would like to be a dictator like his grandmother. He’s got the temperament for it, and no morals to prevent it. But the 1930s offer restless family members more opportunities for escape than his grandmother’s day held. And the world doesn’t seem to share Renny’s belief that Jalna is sovereign territory.

Renny’s half-brother, Eden, (who also happens to be Renny’s wife’s first husband) comes home to die.

Renny’s two uncles go into a decline when Eden dies.

Rennys brother-in-law is selling off lots in adjacent property to city people.

And Renny is broke. He won’t pay his bills, but he’ll lie and cheat to get money to keep Jalna intact and all the family living out their sordid lives under Jalna’s roof.

If Mazo de la Roche told the story through one character’s perspective, the novel might be worth reading. However, the ever-shifting point of view gives only a recital of miseries.

Most miserable of all are readers who pick up this highly overrated novel.

The Master of Jalna
by Mazo de la Roche
Little, Brown, 1943
377 pages
1933 #7
My grade D+

 

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the Earth Turns, it’s on axis of farm family

As The Earth Turns is a homely novel: a picture of a year in the life of a Maine farm family in the early years of the Great Depression.

The Shaws are a next-century version of the Ingalls and Wilder families profiled in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books: solid, hardworking, reliable.

Mark Shaw has farmed all his life; he doesn’t know or care to know any other place. His daughter Jen and three of his boys have a heart for farming. The others seek excitement off the land.

Since before her mother’s death ten years before Jen has run the house. She neither asks nor receives significant aid or interference from her father’s second wife.

Jen’s life is cooking, cleaning, and caring for others. She wants nothing else. She copes with life’s crises—a croupy baby or fatal accident—and the attentions of the handsome Polish immigrant farmer with equal calm.

Gladys Hasty Carroll relates the story with the dispassion of a visitor reading the family record scribbled on the calendar by the back door.

The Shaws would be great neighbors, but they aren’t particularly entertaining ones.

And reading about someone else doing housework is even less exciting than doing one’s own.

As the Earth Turns
by Gladys Hasty Carroll
MacMillan, 1933
339 pages
1933 bestseller #2

The Group is a waste of time and tuition

The Group follows eight expensively educated Vassar alumnae of 1933 as they are launched from the college’s privileged porticos into abyss of the Great Depression.

Although the stigma of money and class clings to them, they know themselves humble: every one of them plans to work, if only in a volunteer capacity. The Group know themselves to be Women With Something To Contribute.

Only Polly Andrews, who had to accept a scholarship to complete college, has anything resembling work skills; the others assure themselves Polly is still one of their very dearest friends despite her financially embarrassed state.

Theses alums are, individually and collectively, pains in the butt.

Mary McCarthy believes the novelist should show, not tell, so she shows these muttonheads’ lives dust mote by dust mote. From their politics to their potty training methods, their sex lives to their silverware, readers see it all.

It’s not pretty.

It’s also not interesting.

From the time the first of the group marries a week after Commencement until she falls 20 floors to her death from her room at the Vassar Club is only a decade, a mere 378 pages, but it seems much, much longer.

The Group
by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt, Brace & World
©1954, ©1963 Mary McCarthy
378 pages
1963 bestseller #2
 © 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni