The Able McLaughlins.

Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (now Fiction) in 1926, the sixth time the award was handed out, part of a surprising run where four winners in five years were women authors (along with Edith Wharton’s wonderful The Age of Innocence, Willa Cather’s sentimental One of Ours, and Edna Ferber’s forgettable So Big). Why it won is probably a mystery lost to the sands of time, as it’s a trifle of a work, a slim slice of quaint Americana that pays tribute to homesteaders and the strength of family, without memorable characters or a particularly solid plot.

(I’m going to spoil much of the story here, because you’re probably never going to read this book, and if I don’t get into plot details this post will be just six words long.)

The McLaughlins are a hard-working family of Scottish immigrants in Iowa with some indefinite number of children, one of whom, Wully, takes a fancy to the neighbors’ daughter Christie. He goes off to fight for a second time in the Civil War, but when he returns, Christie won’t so much as give him the time of day … because, he finally discovers, she’s pregnant, having been raped by another neighbor (and maybe cousin of Wully’s) named Peter Keith. Wully runs Peter out of town under threat of death, marries Christie, and claims the child – born too soon to have been conceived legitimately – as his own. Minor scandals and controversies ensue and fade away, until eventually Peter returns, having gone to see Christie, leading into a multi-chapter search around the area for him or his corpse, although only Wully and a few others know the reason for his departure.

That’s not a whole lot to go on, especially when reading with the morals of the modern reader who will see this all for what it is. Rape victims still feel shame today, but the idea that a woman is responsible for her rape is at least less pervasive in society today, so Christie acting as if she’d done something wrong, and then everyone working to hide the truth, is an anachronism that makes the entire story hard to accept today – even if you know this was a widespread attitude in the time of the book’s setting or publication. Instead of even questioning the established order, Wilson wrote a book about forgiveness and Christian morality; how Wully’s mother is so disappointed in him when she believes the baby is his, how relieved she is when she finds out it’s not and that he was doing the Right Thing by marrying Christie anyway, how Wully and Christie end up forgiving her assailant when he comes to a bad end.

It was really a tiresome read, bearing none of the good qualities of classic American literature, not prose, not memorable characters, and certainly not story. I’m not surprised the book is hard to find – Delaware’s statewide library system didn’t have a copy, so I had to request it from the University of Delaware via an inter-library loan. The copy I got appeared to be a first or very early edition, and it was falling apart as I read it, perhaps an apt metaphor for the irrelevance of this kind of story ninety years after it was written.

Next up: I finished Anna Smaill’s dystopian novel The Chimes and am almost done with John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Comments

  1. Small correction- 1924, not 1926.
    If you look at the year in publishing it was pretty sparse. A lot of the more popular authors produced either volumes of short stories or lesser works.

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