Sunday, May 27, 2012

His Family, by Ernest Poole

Until I downloaded a collection of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in e-book format, I'd never heard of Ernest Poole or His Family, the very first novel to win the prize in 1917. Critics have opined that his earlier novel, The Harbor, which promoted social and labour reforms, was the stronger book, but this one had plenty to say.

The narrator is Roger Gale, a New Hampshire boy who is now, in his late middle years, widowed and living in New York City. It's a rapidly changing city -- buildings are growing taller, horses are giving way to motorcars, and immigrants are pouring in from God only knows where.

I found Roger a deeply trustworthy narrator, because he willingly acknowledged his shifts of mood, his changes of opinion, his tendency to shift one way then the other as his three adult daughters express their own conflicting world views. He is not, however, a weak or indecisive man. He is often weary and craving some peace and quiet. Most of all, he is wonderfully reflective.

Each of Roger's three daughters reflects a different facet of the changing social mores. Edith, the eldest, is married with five children. She is deeply traditional, fiercely and maternally protective of her young. Deborah is a social activist, working in the schools that she has developed for the immigrants in New York's tenement communities. She is as passionate about her family of thousands as Edith is about her family of five. Laura, the youngest, is a beautiful, vivacious hedonist. She marries a rich young man who shares her opinion that having children will only impede their enjoyment of life. Although these three highly conflicting attitudes to womanhood confounded Roger, it occurs to me that we're still trying to come to terms with them today.

Roger invites Deborah, the social activist and educator, to join him for an evening at the opera, thinking it will alleviate her exhaustion. He sees her watching the stage with a feverish glow, and her comment makes him realise that it is impossible for her to separate her work from her life. Her work is her life.
"I was thinking of hungry people--millions of them, now, this minute--not only here but in so many places--concerts, movies, libraries. Hungry, oh, for everything--life, its beauty, all it means. And I was thinking this is youth--no matter how old they happen to be..."
I appreciate her comment and its inverse:  the loss of hunger for everything is the onset of old age, no matter how old we happen to be.

Roger has an intriguing hobby: He collects antique rings. Wedding rings, poison rings, rings with gems or inscriptions or filigree. Poole gives me the sense that the rings symbolise infinity and loyalty to Roger. After his youngest daughter's lavish wedding (which, Roger fears, will lead to no stable marriage), he reaches for his rings for solace. It's a lovely and subtle image.
Roger rose and walked the room. The comforting idea entered his mind that when the wedding was over he would take out his collection of rings and carefully polish every one.
As we age, we cope with change less gracefully. That seems to be a nearly universal trait, and people who grew up in the countryside occasionally look at city life -- no matter how much they love it -- and wonder at its insanity. Life never feels quite solid in a metropolis.
The taxis and motor trucks thundered and brayed, dark masses of people swept endlessly by, as though their very souls depended on their dinners or their jobs, their movies, roaring farces, thrills, their harum scarum dances, clothes. A plump little fool of a woman, her skirt so tight she could barely walk, tripped by on high-heeled slippers. That was it, he told himself, the whole city was high-heeled! No solid footing anywhere! And, good Lord, how they chattered!
This lovely little novel with its sympathetic characters puts us in the thick of so many universal human contradictions, as well as those specific to that place and time: Caring for one's own flesh-and-blood family vs. nurturing the global family. The struggles of a parent to love each of his children, accepting each child's unique strengths and foibles.  The impact of a World War, fought in Europe, on one family in New York. Learning not to despise new migrants because they are different and poor. Roger 'adopts' Johnny Geer, a young man crippled as a child when his drunken mother dropped him on his head, and their relationship proves one of the most gratifying in Roger's life. 

Not surprisingly, the novel closes with Roger's death, and on his way out, he recognises that it's not either/or -- he's been labouring under a false distinction. His family includes those who are related to him by blood and those who are not. I pray I can achieve this synthesis before I'm on my deathbed. 

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