So, I didn’t spend the entire holiday watching Little Women – I read some strange books too! Strangely strange books. The other two – The Love Child by Edith Olivier and Living Alone by Stella Benson – I definitely enjoyed and will talk about in a later blog post. Right now I want to talk about these strange children.
The Strange Children is by southern American writer Caroline Gordon, published in 1951. As far as I can tell, it was never reissued or printed in paperback, so buying an old copy online is about your only option.
Despite the obscurity of this particular title, in her day, Gordon had won both the Guggenheim Fellowship and the O. Henry Award. She came across my consciousness because, when I purchased the Collected Stories of Jean Stafford online, it was part of a lot of books that also included Gordon’s Collected Stories, which introduced me to her, and I then found The Strange Children and ordered it online too. I was surprised at how accomplished she was compared with her obscurity today.
She was also married for much of her career to the poet Allen Tate. I took a lot of poetry classes in college, and what I vaguely remembered about Allen Tate was that 1) he was the U.S. Poet Laureate for a time, and that 2) he was pretty racist. I went to Wikipedia to ensure that I wasn’t misremembering this, and sure enough, both of these facts were true (there’s an anecdote included on Wikipedia about how Allen Tate convinced his colleague Thomas Mabry to cancel a reception for Langston Hughes because, according to Tate, socializing with Hughes would be comparable to socializing with Tate’s black cook – YIKES). So I went into this book hoping that Gordon wasn’t as difficult as her husband!
The basic story is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Lucy, who is an only child living in an old house in Tennessee with her intellectual parents (her father is an academic/creative writer of some kind who publishes books about the Civil War – all the characters talk about the war as though it’s still going on, even though the book takes place in the early 1940s). Several of her parents’ academic and writing friends come to stay for a time, and their lives are all caught up together in a mess (the adults are the “strange children”). All the while, the tenant living on their land is holding an evangelical revival down the hill.
So, I could tell within a few pages that Gordon knew how to write. I was also nervous, though. These folks have a painting of Stonewall Jackson in their dining room (described on page 2). One of the deeply disturbing early scenes featured the parent’s best friend “Uncle Tubby” (oh dear) trying to get Lucy to warm up to him. He pretends to have an imaginary “boy” (yes, an imaginary slave) carrying his bags. Lucy, who’s an avid reader and has a potent imagination, can “see” him too, and it becomes an inside game or joke between them. He confides that he “won” him through a game of cards with General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
“General Forrest would never play cards,” Lucy scoffs.
THERE IS SO MUCH MESSED UP ABOUT THIS SCENE THAT I CAN’T EVEN. I almost stopped reading right there – adult characters playing make believe games with children characters about imaginary slaves and pretending like the first grand wizard of the KKK was still alive but TOO GENTLEMANLY TO PLAY CARDS was a little much to take in all at once. I took a walk around the block.
But I kept at it, primarily because of Jenny the cook. She is the most important adult character to Lucy after her parents, and she is written in a surprisingly three-dimensional way (rare not just for a white southern writer of the 40s and 50s to give a black character, but frankly for a southern writer that had a “plantation” upbringing, as Gordon did, to give any servant character of any race, at least based on the books on my shelf). Once we moved to the scenes with Jenny and Lucy, the book felt much less disturbing and was much easier to read.
The parents and Lucy are loosely based on Gordon’s life with Tate and her daughter at their house “BenFolly” in Clarksville, Tennessee, and it struck me as deeply perceptive of Gordon to understand the relationship that Lucy would have with Jenny, and how the two might relate to each other, outside of Lucy’s relationship to her mother. Certainly this perception is absent from the works I’ve read by Eudora Welty (although I haven’t read her short stories) and other white southern writers of the era.
I did, however, find myself wishing that Gordon hadn’t spent quite so much time on these “strange children.” Lucy is the most engaging character in the book, and the middle of the book is spent mostly on the parents and Uncle Tubby and the other visitors and their weird inner problems, and it drags a bit. Which is a shame, because the plot, once it picks back up in the third act, I found quite satisfying. And there were no more of these disturbing incidents like there were at the beginning.
So did I love the book? I don’t think I could say so, but I found it worthwhile to read. It gave me insight into the intellectual southern circles in which Gordon and Tate ran in the mid-century, and it was fascinating and well-written. Since I got her collected stories as part of a bulk buy of books anyway, I’ll give one or two of them a go and see if they fall to one side or the other of the disturbing-visions-of-Forrest situation. That’s the nice thing about short stories – I can beat a hasty retreat, so to speak, if it’s looking grim!
Next time we can talk more about The Love-Child and Living Alone – so British, so quirky, and both so full of magic! I loved them both, for different reasons. Happy New Year, and happy reading!