Low-Budget Review: Bess Streeter Aldrich’s The Rim of the Prairie

I whole-heartedly recommend Bess Streeter Aldrich’s The Rim of the Prairie. It is a novel that will never be made into a modern Hollywood film, as it is hard to imagine how you could work a gunfight or car chase or explosion into it. And since the people in it are all small-town Nebraskans, but none of them are being exploited by heartless wealthy Californians that the reader can feel smugly morally superior to, I imagine a great many of our soi-disantes elite would find themselves unable to read more than a chapter or two before being overcome by their disdain for such yokels and their boring lives. But Aldrich knows that small towns have only a surface placidity, and her main characters are truly and amusingly drawn and their struggles no less fierce for being beneath the notice of the sophisticated.

If it seems that I have begun what should be a book review with a political diatribe…well, to a certain extent I have, but with method to my madness: Aldrich herself, as she makes plain both in a bluntly plain-spoken preface and in what could be considered conversion experiences for two of her principal characters, wrote this novel not just out of a love for her native Nebraska and its people, but as a protest against the shallow and facile sneers of the Eastern elites of her day. As she was, however, a novelist much more than a controversialist, within the novel itself one senses that she is totally engaged in the story, and without the preface I suspect many people would never have particularly noticed the implicit sermon.

For what the book is, primarily, is a corking good read, with believable but unusual characters, with several twists of plot that caught me utterly off-guard (something that rarely happens, I am sad to say), and with a peculiarly pithy turn of phrase. In describing the old Baldwin place, for years the home of Maple City’s most prominent citizens before the family’s decline into keeping boarders, she mentions that the driveway “ran under a porte-cochère (which no one in Maple City had ever had the temerity to pronounce).” In describing twin sisters of quite different dispositions, she says:

Miss Rilla was emotional. Any passing remark which touched upon joy, sorrow or sympathy set her tear ducts to working. Miss Ann was cold-hearted. Any passing remark which touched upon joy, sorrow or sympathy left her impassive, callous, questioning its motive. Miss Rilla was diplomatic. Miss Ann was blunt. “I’m fifty-four,” Miss Ann would say frankly. And as everybody knows that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other, it followed that poor Miss Rilla, who thought her age was her own business, was also fifty-four.

I didn’t pick those quotes out specially — I literally let the book fall out open and picked a line from the left-hand page and a passage from the right. But I would say that I have read few writers this side of Ernest Hemingway who were more economical in description — that is to say, who could sketch so vividly a character or situation in so few, but so well-chosen, words. I discovered Aldrich, as a matter of fact, through seeing one of those instantly vivid turns of phrases quoted by another novelist, who has a character mention The Rim of the Prairie as a favorite novel and then quotes a passage from memory. In the passage the vivacious, but troubled, character Nancy has been visited by a childhood “friend” and her mother; small-town etiquette has required them all to pretend to be friends for years but none of them are in the slightest deceived. Nancy having returned after a long absence, it has been socially necessary for a call to be made and to be received, and now Nancy is describing the visit to a mutual friend:

Nancy met him at the door of the shabby old farmhouse with mock awe. “Alice and her mother have been to call on me,” she announced immediately. She clasped her hands dramatically and rolled her merry eyes. “We were sweeter than honey in the honeycomb to each other. Lovely, gracious things dripped out of our lips….” She pirouetted about on an agile toe and kissed her finger tips to the air. Then she added mournfully, “And froze in long icy stalactites.” And her suppressed laughter bubbled forth infectiously.

But those of you who know me know that I don’t generally care very much how well a novelist says something if he has nothing worthwhile to say. Thus I have never re-read Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man, nor, I think, have I ever these past thirty years re-read anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who has absolutely nothing of value to say and says it like one of heaven’s own archangels. In Aldrich, however, there is substance as well as style. She captures the inarticulate love of a man of the soil for his soil — not “the” soil, you understand, but his soil, the land that has for decades been as much of a lover as his wife, even through the years when the soil has been as unfaithful and capricious as Gomer herself. She captures the love of a married couple who have compensated for each other’s weaknesses for so long that their compensation and mutual service and contentment with each other have become so instinctive as to be hardly more noticeable to them then the air they breath; she captures the mutual distrust and contempt of a couple busily engaged in making each other as miserable as possible; she captures the trepidation of young people tasting love and wondering fearfully which kind of marriage they will someday find themselves in.

Indeed, the book is very much about love, of which (thank God) Aldrich has a deep and rich understanding. I remember sitting through the rather painful movie Love Actually, which attempted to capture what screenwriter/director Richard Curtis seemed to imagine were the various kinds of love within human experience, and coming away mostly with the feeling that he didn’t know very much about love, actually. (Though if you were to take Love Actually to the editing room and cut out everything except Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz you would actually have one of my favorite romantic comedies of the last twenty years or so; and the Liam Neeson story line had the makings of a very good movie indeed had it not been ruined by the absurdities of its last five or ten minutes.) For those of you fortunate enough not to have seen it, Love Actually is a clumsy attempt to weave together nine separate stories about different kinds of love. On the degree to which the movie succeeds or fails (spoiler: “fails” is by and large the correct answer) to depict actual love, I can add little to Christopher Orr’s take, other than to disagree with his opinion on the Firth/Moniz storyline. Aldrich beats Love Actually hollow in her treatment of every kind of relationship other than barely-repressed homoeroticism and adolescent male fantasy sex tourism: bereavement, young love, old successful marriages, partially unsuccessful marriages in which people do their best with the hand dealt them by their partners, non-successful marriages that utterly fail, the love of parents for children, the love of good people for children who do not start out as their own but become so through the generosity of love, the sacrifices people make for damaged family members. This is partly because Aldrich, unlike (apparently) Curtis, knows what love actually is. But to a much greater degree, it is because Aldrich is considerably better at her craft than Curtis is at his.

In this connection it is useful to compare Love Actually with a movie I enjoy very much and think highly of as screencraft and entertainment, but which shows something of the same cluelessness about love and human nature that Love Actually does. Bridget Jones’s Diary is, as the world knows, a retake on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, going so far as to have Colin Firth (the Darcy of the classic straight-take A&E Pride and Prejudice) come back to play Bridget’s Darcy. Bridget Jones’s Diary (in both its novel and film forms) reworks Austen’s work in two ways, one of which is fully recognized by the legions of British single women who hold the book close to their heart, and the other of which apparently goes not only over their heads, but over author Helen Fielding’s as well. The first is that the setting is moved to modern London. But the second is that, in Fielding’s version, it is Lydia (who supposedly is a barely-disguised version of Fielding herself) who gets Darcy — that is to say, there is one Bridget rather than five Bennet sisters, and Bridget is very much more like Lydia than she is like either Jane or Elizabeth. Now it is quite difficult to miss the fact that one of Austen’s major themes in Pride and Prejudice is that Lydia has no more chance at happiness than does her mother, and for the same reason: because her foolish, hedonistic, amoral, contemptuous-of-virtue character hopelessly precludes it. “Till I have your character I cannot hope to have your happiness” is one of the keystones of the book; yet England has tens of thousands of unhappy “singleton” women who (not knowing any better, being products of modern English culture) wish to behave like Lydia and achieve the outcomes of Jane and Elizabeth — and a great many of them love Pride and Prejudice, and even fantasize themselves into it, without apparently being able to understand it. (Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy, for example, scores very highly on the unintentional comedy scale whenever her imagined Darcy wanders onto a page.)

Yet Bridget Jones’s Diary is flawlessly constructed, hilariously written and acted, has entirely believable characters, features a plot that is utterly coherent and flows smoothly, and closes with a happy ending that is thoroughly enjoyable, believable and satisfying so long as you refuse to dwell on the infinitesimal chance that Bridget and Darcy could possibly enjoy a permanently happy marriage. Love Actually, by contrast, is nine separate movies clumsily intercut rather than interwoven, with little real relationship to each other besides the fact that Curtis vaguely associates the word “love” with them. In the end there are only three ways he even attempts to tie them together. (a) Some the characters are made to know, or to be related to, some of the characters in some of the other plots. By and large these interconnections have little or nothing to do with the progress of the different storylines; Curtis appears to have invented a device we might call coniunctio ex machina. (b) He sets the movie at Christmas so that they can all be doing Christmas-y things, and I suppose so that the audience can be predisposed to be all sentimental and everything. (c) He uses the lazy and artificial device of the airport, which for practical purposes means that they all coincidentally show up in the airport at the same time during the last few minutes of the film. (To be fair, I suppose it is possible, given the use of the airport at the opening and ending of the film, that the whole idea of the film originally arose out of Curtis’s response to the phone messages of the 9/11 victims; but if that was the source of unity in his original conception, he did an exceptionally poor job of preserving that unity in his execution.)

But Aldrich has not set her novel in London. She has set it in a small town, where all the characters know and interact with each other simply because everybody knows everybody in a small town, especially one in which families have stayed for generations. She does not have to send all of her characters to an airport in order to make it look like they are part of a single story. Her characters, with all the variety of their individual lives and struggles, are, organically, part of a single larger story, namely the story of Maple City. So The Rim of the Prairie ranges at least as widely (I would argue rather more widely) across the fields of human experience as does Love Actually, but without any of the clumsiness and incoherence of the Love Actually indolent-pastiche approach.

Beyond this, The Rim of the Prairie is one of those very rare books: a mystery novel with no detectives or murders, and indeed (I must be careful here not to spoil) at times hiding its mysteries so well that the reader does not even know the mystery exists until its revelation. Yet Aldrich, though her genre is certainly not the whodunit, follows the canons of the detective novel: once any of the book’s secrets has been revealed, the reader instantly remembers the clues that preceded it, but that were not recognized as clues when read. The Rim of the Prairie is two books, one of which you can only read once. There is the book that it is when you read it for the first time, not knowing what is to come. And then there is the book that it is every time you read it thereafter, when all of the clues leap out at you and you know the satisfaction of understanding their true import.

Aldrich plays fair with her characters; she plays fair with her readers; and she plays fair with life, resorting only once to coincidence and even then doing so believably, tempering its improbability, and introducing it early so that she make use of the one coincidence for several different purposes. She understands people and she creates major characters who are true-to-life but fully realized individuals. And she tells her characters’ stories in an economical but vivid style, all within a perfectly organized structure that could serve as a textbook to aspiring young novelists who find themselves unable to progress past the elementary, clumsy, J. K. Rowling level of plot (in)coherence. This is craftsmanship of the highest order, and a novel that does America considerably more proud than many of the novels on high-school summer reading lists. (Yes, Sinclair Lewis, I’m lookin’ at you.)

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