Tuesday, September 10, 2013

First Week of September: Reading--Ellen Glasgow's "Vein of Iron"

Didn't quite get this one in on the first week of the month, but oh wells...

Let me start out by saying that I really enjoyed this book. It has a lot of merits and I recommend reading it.

However, I'm about to get critical--very critical of this book and I feel bad about it, because I enjoyed it thoroughly. Glasgow is a beautiful writer; however, I think her structure is lacking and I'll try to explain why (while probably being unstructured and super tangent-y in my post).

Ultimately, Vein of Iron is a novel with conflicting main characters.  Not that the two main characters of the book fight a lot, but you don't know which one is "in charge" of the story.  Is this is a story of a man who lost his faith and struggles to be a brilliant "Philosopher" in the Appalachians during the early  20th century, or is it a story about his daughter and her struggles with love and a changing world?  You get this very tight tension between this being a romance novel or  actual "Big L" literature.  You can do both of these at the same time (i.e. Austen or Bronte to name a few), but the way the structure and characters are presented in Glasgow's work makes this crux hard to get over.  The majority of the novel's plot is about Ada and her relationship with her family and "the love her life", poor old Ralph.  But randomly, almost abruptly you get these chapters sporadically placed in the novel that concentrate on Ada's father, John Fincastle.  Even though, I found these chapters of the novel some of the most brilliant in the entire book, her father's sporadic place in the novel becomes a bizarre contrast to Ada's romantic story line.  The book continually mentions how Ada and her father are alike, the connection they both have--yet  you never really see it played out.

John Fincastle, at his core, is compelling (more so than Ada's in my opinion).  He's a Presbyterian minister who is removed from the church because of (I guess?) his giving up the faith.  He becomes a philosopher who continually questions the nature of God and people.  But you never really get to know what his philosophy is.  You just know he's a philosopher and is brilliant and is writing a book, but because you never learn what it is that he believes, you never really know who he is.

I feel as if Glasgow had connected Ada with her father more or if she had given her father a more substantial role in the book,  the question of whether this is a romance novel or literature wouldn't even need to be asked and it would weld those two types of fiction together.  In comparison with one of my favorite books about Appalachian women: Fair and Tender Ladies does much of the same plot-wise as Vein of Iron.  It centers on the life of a woman who is poor and living in the Appalachian Mountains throughout the 20th century.  But Fair and Tender Ladies is grittier.  Maybe this has to do with the education of the families of the main characters.  Of maybe because Ada lives in a Valley and in FTL the characters live (for most of the book) high up on a mountain--much more remote.  Or maybe because Lee Smith knows her book will be middle brow, she doesn't try too hard.  Her plot is amazing, and through that plot she's able to smack you across the face with ideas, themes, and "human truths." That's the genius of a lot of middle brow novels---they can be almost, if not just, as effective culturally as major literature, without being scary or too hoity-toity for the Average Joe to pick up, read and really GET something out of it.

I feel I've gone off into a tangent.  So let's pull back and look at the great things in this novel, what makes it worth reading....

Glasgow's use of language throughout the novel and her descriptions of the land and the place are very beautiful.  I continually felt like I was looking at the mountain valley town of Ironside through "soft light", as if it were a dream.  A book that can make a character out of the setting is always interesting to me.

Certain scenes that were breathtaking:

  • Ada's heartache over Janet crushing her dreams
    • The heartache and jealousy Ada felt in this scene is so richly written that you feel as if Ralph and the stupid "rules of society" have broken your heart as well
  • Ada and Ralph's romp in the forest
    • Instead of being smutty, or even too vague, Glasgow walked a line of, again, keeping these scenes very dream like.  You understand that Ada and Ralph are up on the mountain, having a weekend of consummating their relationship.  However, it's important enough to the novel that Glasgow doesn't just write it off with a dot-dot-dot at the end of the chapter and have the characters think back on it later. 
  • Ada giving birth
    • I got very choked up when Ada's grandmother "rescues" her during her labor.  Ada's grandmother shuns her and has her own heart broken because of Ada's pregnancy out of wedlock.  How emotional it was when her grandmother comes to help her give birth and how heartbreaking it was that even though her grandmother helps her during this moment, it doesn't deter her grandmother's demise and heart-ache over the situation.
  • The Death Scene of Ada's Father
    • Rambling and scary, beautiful and peaceful, when John Fincastle lays down in the grass outside of his family's dilapidated home, you understand how important place and land is to people who don't have much.

3-3.5 out of 5.  A great read, especially if you enjoy books about the south, place, and the changing landscape of the world in the 1920s and 30s.

Other quick notes:
  • I think Glasgow does a good job of portraying what we would now consider "PTSD" in Ralph, or if not that, how war can bring out the dark side of someone, even way after the fighting is over.
  • Simplistic moral of the story:  If you have a home, a garden and family, nothing else should matter.

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