I’ve been working my way through my Pulitzer Project for almost ten years now. I break it down into manageable goals — this year I’m focusing on the winners for the years ending in 9 — which also forces me to at least acknowledge the existence of some of my ugh titles (although it might take me another few decades to crack open the damn remaining Updike title).
The Yearling was one of those books I was dreading. Not because I considered it to be in the same gross misogynist category as Updike, but because from the title alone I already knew how the book was going to play out and I was not down. It’s a book that seems to have always had, through its numerous printings, a tragically dated book cover (for real: do a Google image search) that screams “sad coming-of-age story.”
And it is a sad coming-of-age story, one that I knew I’d probably like but had to work myself up to á la Call of the Wild. Because animals.
The book takes place in Florida shortly after the Civil War. Jody Baxter lives with his parents on Baxter Island, not the name of an actual island but a homesteaded scrap of backwoods that the family has claimed for themselves. Jody is a much-loved only child; all of the other Baxter children died young. His only real friend is Fodder-wing Forrester, a disabled boy roughly the same age who lives miles away; his parents allow him to keep a collection of animals as pets. The Forresters are a rough and tumble, quick-tempered bunch. They, along with the Baxters, survive off farming and hunting. All are at the mercy of the elements.
Quoyle — pathetic, depressed, and loyal to a fault — lives in the United States and quietly suffers the indignities of being married to Petal, an openly promiscuous woman with no regard for anyone but herself. He is basically a single father, caring for their two bratty daughters whenever Petal goes gallivanting off with her latest lover.
The book has its share of over-the-top episodes, and Petal meets an untimely death early on that serves as the catalyst for the rest of the book. He loses his job at the newspaper and his father also dies around this time; with nothing left to hold on to, Quoyle is left floundering in his grief. Along comes Aunt Agnis, his father’s sister, and convinces him to move with her to their ancestral home in Newfoundland.
The house hasn’t been lived in for ages and is crumbling from disuse. Quoyle has a job at The Gammy Bird, the local paper, but has no easy way of getting to work without a boat. Even if he does get a boat, he can’t swim. It’s freezing. It’s windy. It will be a while before their house is livable. Have they made a huge mistake?
Ever since 2010, I’ve been working my way through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction. To make it more manageable, I set a goal to read all the winners for the years ending in the current year’s number (so in 2016, I focused on the winners for the years ending in 6). I’ve yet to actually complete those mini-tasks, but they serve as good reminders to not just focus on recent contemporary winners. They also not-so-gently nudge me into reading the books I know I’ll probably hate, just to get them over and done with. *cough* Updike *cough*
Which brings me to Lonesome Dove, a cowboy Western that’s 850+ pages long. I don’t really do cowboy Westerns, and the thought of one that’s the size of 2-3 average books put together was just not my idea of a good time. But there it was, sitting on my Pulitzer TBR list for this year. What finally pushed me towards it? On Goodreads, several people whose reading tastes I trust had all reviewed the book with variations of, “Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.”
Y’ALL. Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.
Alice Adams is about a middle class girl who aspires to join the ranks of high society. As a girl, she was friends with many of these people; her family wasn’t poor enough so as to make her friendships with wealthy children seem improper. Once everyone came of the age where one should be properly presented to society, poor Alice was left behind.
But, of course, Alice is young, beautiful, and desperate to fit in. She makes due with what she has, trying to keep up with the latest fashions and desperately clinging to her one well-off “friend.” Alice knows her place in the world, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to fit in. Meanwhile, her mother can see what pains Alice, and she pesters her ailing husband to get better so that he can finally start a successful glue business and lift them from their middle class troubles. The problems really begin when Alice reaches too high, gaining the affections of a man she can’t possibly have a future with.
I’m kind of at a loss as to how or why this book won the 1922 Pulitzer (for real: The Age of Innocence won the year before, and then this?). I liked Alice well enough, and the story was okay, but parts of it were just ridiculously far-fetched (not the least of which was the glue business that Mrs. Adams kept bothering her husband about). Mr. Adams was a completely spineless character. And as for the women…they were obviously written by a man. The book also had problems in its execution. Like so many other stories of its time, random racist remarks were sprinkled throughout the text for no real reason. Worse still was the time period; I assume it was trying to be set contemporary to its time, but it felt like the setting was much older than the early twentieth century.
One of my long term reading goals is to get through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction, but Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was on my to-read list since long before my Pulitzer project went into effect. I took my last road trip as an opportunity to finally delve into the audiobook, and I could kick myself for not having read this book sooner.
The Good Earth is set in rural China and follows the arc of Wang Lung’s life. It begins at the turn of the twentieth century with Wang Lung eagerly preparing for the arrival of his soon-to-be wife, O-lan. He and his father are poor farmers who have always kept their heads down and worked hard, living by their means and saving what little they had. Wang Lung’s father has arranged a marriage to a humble woman working as a house slave for a landowner, and O-lan’s arrival brings the hope of future sons and prosperity.
Over the years O-lan does her work dutifully and without complaint, and though their marriage is not one of love, she and Wang Lung treat each other with respect and work as a team. She does backbreaking work in the fields and bears Wang Lung sons, and the small family eventually begins to prosper. Even though they have good fortune, they are careful not to spend it frivolously. The ultimate goal is to buy land, and as they grow more prosperous, Wang Lung sets his sights on buying land from the great house of Hwang, where O-lan once worked as a slave. In his mind, all material objects can be lost, but a man with land will always have secure assets.