"The Moonflower Vine" by Jetta Carleton
Reviewed by David Marshall James
This "rediscovered classic" from 1963 holds true to both aspects of the phrase: It deserves to be rediscovered because it is a bona-fide classic.
Few of this nation's writers, past and present, could so masterfully relate the simple saga of a Missouri farm family, from the time the parents wed, around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, up to the mid 1950s, and supply the reader with such a sense of epic occurrences.
Part of the reason for that sense belongs to the vast changes wrought during that period, from the era of horse-and-buggy to the MG convertible that the youngest daughter, Mary Jo Soames, acquires as soon as the British pound is devalued.
Nevertheless, the Soames family farm is never overtaken by modern trappings: No indoor plumbing nor electricity. When the daughters wish to cool off on a hot July afternoon, even in later years, they head to the bathing pool diverted from the creek that cuts through the property.
Another vital component of the book is the brilliance of author Jetta Carleton's structuring. The novel begins during the mid 1950s, with the daughters home for their annual two-week summer's visit. Indeed, the first part offers a story within a story, fashioning a plot in which most of the book's major characters are either introduced or referenced.
It's instant nostalgia fulfilled, with aging parents, adult children set in their ways, and a strapping grandson who's about to leave his family's nest.
Afterward, the author recounts the pivotal points of the Soameses' lives by focusing on one player at a time:
The righteously pious father, Matthew, is revealed to be something of an Arthur Dimmesdale; nonetheless, he rises out of another scraping-by farm family to become a teacher, school principal, and superintendent of schools.
His wife, Callie, possesses no such love of books and learning, but she remains a hardworking, common-sense housewife whose blinders are rather looser than her upright, upstanding-at-all-cost husband's.
Their eldest daughter, Jessica, grows up sweet-natured, with a love of learning, yet she also seeks a joie de vivre that Matthew finds frivolous.
The next in line, Leonie, lives by the book, but to such a self-righteous and officious extent that she tortures one and all, including herself.
Mathy, the third daughter, profoundly affects the outcomes of her older sisters' lives. She remains a free spirit who exasperates her parents while garnering the love that the straight-laced Leonie desperately seeks from them.
Finally, there is Mary Jo, who is born so late in her parents' marriage that she becomes a living doll to her adoring siblings.
The author's gifts for characterization and dialogue are profound, but this is much more than a character study. There is a narrative line that grasps the reader's attention until the end, which returns to the beginning, with Callie anticipating her daughters' arrival.
What a sensual (and passionate) novel this is-- the reader is invited to observe and smell the richness of the land, to feel the earth and water under foot, and to taste such bounties of nature as freshly put-up plum preserves and vine-ripened blackberries drenched in cream from the resident cow.
Indeed, the farm represents both an Eden as well as a pastoral setting from mythology, in which nature's forces seem propelled by pantheonic deities. The scene in which Jessica, Leonie, and Mathy surreptitiously observe a handsome young man bathing in the creek pool seems both Biblical and mythological.
Such nuances abound in this extraordinarily composed, quintessentially American novel, concerning a time and a place that Missouri-born Jetta Carleton (1913-1999) knew firsthand.
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