Her world is a world about which no one cares--the rural Midwest, where, sadly enough, I live, fly-over country. That's one reason she's gone, I suppose, but there are others--the overall stodginess of the lives she recounts in that world. Faulkner had a whole different world down there in Yoknapatawpha County, rural Mississippi, because the war--the Civil War--was omnipresent in its myriad effects. But what does she have, really, in rural Iowa, early 20th century? Small-town foibles. Really, who cares?
Well, I do, because there's a special joy inherent in reading stories that grew from the soil beneath your feet. Ruth Suckow (1892-1960) spent the early years of her childhood just twenty miles west, in Hawarden, where her father was the pastor at the Congregational church. When he left for another pulpit, she left too; but there's a sense, I think, that something in her never rode out of that river town just down the road because there are traces of her childhood home left scattered along a path all through her work, and just finding them springing up from familiar soil is a joy all of its own.
She made something of her homeplace in Hawarden in a story called "The Homecoming," which, if you've got a half hour, you can read it here. Go ahead--won't hurt you, and I'm guessing it'll stick with you just like it sticks with me.
"Home-coming" is Bess Gould's story, an ex-patriot who's found herself a husband she's loved and traveled the world after leaving home, seeing and experiencing things the sweet, country folks back home could only dream of. But Bess comes back for an Old Settlers reunion, and when she does she's the talk of the place because everyone remembers the Goulds. They had standing. Bess, to the natives, is a real prize.
There was a boy once, Charlie, and the two of them shared most everything. To say they were lovers would make the story feel late- rather than early-20th century. They were buds, friends, blessed friends who likely shared more than a few kisses. But Suckow is an old writer, and she's not into steamy backseats. Still, Bess Gould's triumphal return excites old feelings she didn't know still had some heat.
Now it just so happens that Charlie's good wife is off visiting relatives, which leaves Charlie rather blessedly alone. The two of them end up together and alone, and I must admit--child of the Sixties that I am--that I wondered if there was going to be some passionate stuff. There is, but none of that.
They do share a moment, however.
It was as if the world, suddenly and yet easily, had swung back into its own right orbit--and there was the old singing sense of miraculous peace and rightness together. It was as if all at once the woods and the water came close again, and the right earth was under her feet, the right sky over her head--while the summer landscape, her own summer landscape, intimate and alive, stretched away from that central moment of reunion to its far horizons of green tree-tops.He's taken her back, this Charlie has. In fact, Charlie is her past, more her blessed childhood in this old town than he is some old lover. Suckow brings them together delicately, builds sweet tension, but then douses it when Bess realizes, clearly, that he isn't what he was, not because he's a bad man, but because neither of them are anymore what they were. This whole home-coming has prompted sweet dreams; left to roam the town where she grew up, she finds herself a kid again--and it's a joy. Charlie is part of that dream.
But Thomas Wolfe is here too--"you can't go home again," he wrote. There really is no such thing as homecoming.
They were really different, she and Charlie," Bess tells herself. He had, after all, "a provincial air" because he'd "settled into a slower rhythm and she into a swifter," which meant "they had lost their peace together." And then this: "There was, after all, no real renewal of a thing once gone."
And that would be it, if "Homecoming" ended with the line. But it doesn't. Her moments with Charlie leave her "restless and strange" because she knows she is neither in this river town nor of it anymore, and that's a loss she feels more deeply than she had before she'd come to the Old Settlers reunion because it's fragrance is, sadly enough, deathly.
In the story's final scene she stands at the window and longs for her husband to take her away because it is no more a home. It's become instead something from which she needs to escape. In her imagination, she sees her husband return:
. . .she saw Mac, the stranger, tall and impetuous, enter the little house. She had never, even in her first rapture of impatience when she had let him sweep her off her feet--never wanted his arms with the abandon of desire, the finality of surrender, with which she wanted them now. He had come as a stranger and carried her off from this place before.Now, however, something has changed, Bess tells herself. "But there had been something never wholly real about it. She wanted him to take her again, and with no remembrance left." She's almost angry at what's happened, at her own inability to return to girlhood. "She felt lost and all alone, and her heart was wildly begging Mac to come . . . "Take me away with you. Be everything. Make it up to me. Don't let me die away from home."
And so the story ends, in ambiguity with the very word that's at the heart of the way in which most of us define ourselves--"home." Is Bess simply acknowledging that her hometown is no longer home? Has it really been death to be here, as the line suggests? Does she hate it now, having come back to something that could not have possibly been what it once was to her? And did she really believe she could return some a magical place that hadn't changed?
"Home-coming," the story and the idea, is more ambiguous than you might have guessed, prompting as it does those kinds of questions. She was a fine writer, this Hawarden native, thoughtful, devoted, humane--and, well, old-fashioned. Bess Gould is, rather obviously, no feminist hero.
Once upon a time, in my office, a student of mine was lamenting something or other about her life, her foibles, her uncertainty about her future. "I just wish I was ten again," she said.
I remember nodding. So did Holden Caulfield.
At one time or another, don't we all?
Maybe for Ms. Suckow too, "there's no renewal of a thing once gone. . ."