When a writer has a philosophy like Bess Streeter Aldrich’s, I know I’m in good company.
And when Jodi said that The Rim of the Prairie was her favorite of Aldrich’s books, I knew that I was in for a treat.
I want to begin this review by saying that one of the things I love best about Bess Streeter Aldrich is the very thing I love in so many of my favorite writers, namely, a sense of place so evocative, so intimate and alive that you as the reader are literally present in the story, every sense awake to the beauties and charms and idiosyncrasies of the setting. Elizabeth Goudge gave me the cobbles and cathedrals and gardens and houses of England; Prince Edward Island is Lucy Maud Montgomery’s lavish bestowal which I will be honored to carry with me all the days of my life. Daphne DuMaurier made Cornwall so vivid and touchable that when I first saw its jagged cliffs and shingle beaches and deceptively placid coves, a shiver of recognition, of revisitation, went through me and I all but cast a glance over my shoulder for a spaniel named Jasper scrabbling among the rocks behind.
And when I drove across Iowa for the first time on a still October morning just tinged with the maiden blush of dawn, I knew that I had been there before. Had seen a couple of nondescript graves covered with woodbine on a little rise of a churchyard and watched a solitary young man make his purposeful way over the golden sea of prairie grasses…
That was Song of Years, of course, my long-standing favorite of Bess’ children. And Suzanne, that idealistic companion of my youth, has always been my favorite of her characters. I was almost afraid to see her challenged by The Rim of the Prairie and this upstart of a Nancy Moore, howsoever endearing she might prove herself to be.
It hardly needs saying that Nancy won my heart, as did her story of a sweet youth ended abruptly by the rise of a dark shadow. Chic in a delightsome 1920′s way, charming, vivacious–and so winningly flawed that one can’t help but like her, it’s easy to identify with the characters she encounters, many of whom are predisposed to frown upon her teasing and her breezy ways and end up her devoted friends and admirers. Nancy is not perfect, and that’s what makes her real: that’s what makes her faults and her misplaced ambitions ring true to pitch. Jolly and designing, sunny and selfish, but altogether living and breathing and laughing–and even crying in secret.
And it’s the secrets that propel the story forward: hidden intrigues and painful questions that engather an entire community with the ‘tangled roots’ that Aldrich so evocatively describes, making of a small town a grove of trees that both beautify the wild landscape and stand as a respite and windbreak from the merciless elements. Images of cottonwoods and their growth are intertwined with the growth and interlacing of a community, where one’s standing influences another’s and the fall of a single tree could bring down an entire line.
I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to the sweet sophisticate Nancy Moore: to learn the secrets about her that she herself didn’t even know; to be assured of the outcomes of those whose lives had become irrevocably intertwined with her own. To see how that last visit to the old farm where she was raised with which the book opens influenced the rest of her life.
I am resolute in not denying your enjoyment by giving away any more of a teaser than that. But I can promise you a setting so fresh with wind rolling over the prairie gold and alive with birdsong in the cottonwoods that only love of the deepest sort could have crafted it. And a living, breathing heroine that learns what it means to ‘put away childish things’. And a supporting cast of ‘tangled roots’ from which spring all the really fine things in life.
(But Suzanne is still my favorite. )