Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Hawarden's Suckow


There's no way I would have read The John Wood Case if it weren't for the fact that the author was born and reared just west of here, in Hawarden, Iowa. Ruth Suckow, who was a major voice in American literature in the early years of the 20th century, came along a decade or so before her neighbor just up the road, the novelist Frederick Manfred, and saw, as a girl, a whole different world than he did right here in Sioux County, Iowa.  

Suckow's father was the pastor of the Congregational church and her people were from "out east."  They weren't from Friesland or Alsace Lorraine, like the rest of the county. They were from out east, where they were schooled in a cultural context and character that was nothing at all like Manfred's Dutch and Frisian immigrant community. When the young people in The John Wood Case go on picnics, they take Thoreau for entertainment.  When the rough-and-tumble farm kids in Feikema novels go on picnics, most of them want to fornicate and some do. 

The world Suckow creates in The John Wood Case is not only church-centered, it's church-run. Once it is discovered that the imperially righteous John Wood has actually been siphoning off funds from his wealthy employer, the real mission of the novel begins, an investigation into how it is good Christian people react to the big-time public sin.  

In some ways there are only heroes in this book, no villains, because even John Wood, whose misappropriation of funds is the heart of the conflict, did what he did out of love, unfailing devotion for his darling, sickly wife, who some believe is burdened by the frail sweetness of an artistic temperament. Suckow appears to feel the same way. She doesn't really investigate Minnie Woods; instead, she simply accepts that Mrs. Woods needs a lifetime of of TLC.  Others think she's just a hypochondriac. Thankfully, Suckow leaves room for both views. 

The novel is devastatingly slow.  I can't imagine it could be published today.  A full 100 pages have to be turned before anything resembling a real complication occurs.  I knew it was coming only because I read the dust jacket. If I hadn't known that John Wood, the very model of small-town righteousness, was going to have a great fall and if I hadn't really wanted to read the novel, I would have despaired long before the novel ever got going.

Because Suckow's quarry is the community, her choice of point of view is what you might call "third person(s)."  The story is told through the eyes of several people, some of them, quite frequently, in the same room at the same time. That choice makes the reading immensely tedious. This novel is a textbook case in why omniscience is a perilous point of view. Plot just about disappears when everyone at the table gets meticulously examined, inside and out. 

But then the novel is not a study of character, per se; it's the study of the character of a community, a community of believers. 

Still, I loved the book, got to the point where I really couldn't put it down.  Why? Because of the curse of the English teacher. The John Wood Case really has no literary descendants.  In many ways, it's a quintessential "Christian" novel. What's at stake here is the means by which good people deal with sin and the difficult balance between justice and mercy. The winners, the real heroes--and there are more than one--are those who deeply believe that the quality of mercy is not strained.

I loved this novel because of its uniqueness--written by a native, aimed at a world I think I know fairly well, and decidedly loving. I love Manfred too, despite his excesses and maybe even because of them. But it might be pretty hard to find two more radically different, highly-honored novelist neighbors in a population that must have been what?--15,000 or so a century ago.  

The John Wood Case is a story about "a faith community," what Sioux County has been ever since the  Dutch Calvinists put down roots west of the Floyd River and Luxembourgians set up camp just east. But it's not a town that suffers when John Wood falls into sin, it's the church. There's no cop in the book, no county sheriff, no Iowa State Police; there's only church people trying prayerfully to determine what to do about John Wood, his wife Minnie, and their almost perfect son, Phillip, who for the first time in his life faces a world where he can't help but think there is no God.  How will they react to sin?

The John Wood Case is far too slow for contemporary readers, far too patrician for anything but genre readers. None other than H. L. Mencken loved Ruth Suckow's work, as did Robert Frost; but she couldn't make it today because while The John Wood Case is not romance, it's definitely romantic in its character, its deeply rooted faith, and its thoughtfully reasoned denouement.

It's a nice novel, a sweet novel; but today, for stories, we want the Game of Thrones of The House of Cards.  Nobody buys nice.

The John Wood Case is long out of print, probably with good reason.  But I loved it, not so much for what it is as what it was. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like it's nothing like "My Bright Abyss" Got it and it's good , just like real life. Thank you.