Those who read know what I am speaking of when I say a book has sneaked into my heart…those who do not read…have my sympathies….
I read -rather, I reread – a book over the holiday break. It is a book that I mentioned in conjunction with an essay on a much more successful book, a book that I found a combination of pretentiousness and mediocre writing. As a contrast to that book, the much ballyhooed dreck Cold Mountain, I used the book, a historical novel about colonial New Hampshire called Rivers Parting as an example of a historical novel that is both well written and that does not pretend to false grandeur.
I first read the novel about 40 years ago ( I have shared the background about how I came to possess a copy of this work in the Cold Mountain essay linked above.) and I have read it a half dozen times since. What brings me back to this novel, that even I would grudgingly admit is a typical example of the middle brow literature that enjoyed great popularity through the middle third of the last century? The same things that attract me so often to the highest brow literature: engrossing characterization and memorable writing.
As I said in my original assessment of the novel:
“…The novel is a page turner and involves the struggles of New Hampshire colonists to escape the grim control of Massachusetts Bay Colony as well as a love triangle involving the stalwart hero, a “New Hampshire man” as Barker calls him, a beautiful fair haired fellow colonist with whom our hero, Will Scarlock, has grown up, and a sexy dark haired tavern singer whom Will meets on a journey back to his father’s home in England. There’s a dash of sex, a dash of violence, some good historical background, and some truly poetic language:
Up in Seething Lane, Mr. Pepys put away his flageolet and scurried indoors, and down at Sayes Court, John Evelyn heard the shower on the sad leaves and rejoiced at it.London men went on about their own affairs, and the sand ran down a thousand hourglasses, bringing the world that much closer to the blessed time when it would not matter who loved whom and how they married.
Barker’s novel is full of this sort of writing. It’s a delight for anyone who appreciates a turn of phrase as well as a ripping yarn….”
But that doesn’t explain exactly why I have had a “guilty pleasure” affection for Rivers Parting for over 40 years. That comes partly from passages like this one in which Barker, who never married, describes losing a great love – and what happens to the mind and soul of one who follows the conventions of marriage to someone else:
I shall marry and bear sons and daughters, for that is what a woman lives by, and I shall have my life in my time, in spite of it all – as much of it as I can get. …and I shall not love them for their father’s sake, but for themselves I shall love them, and perhaps that will will be better in the end. And in the end will be the dark, and it can matter to none of us there, who loved whom or how we married.
Sure, it’s romantic and a little overwrought, but for anyone who’s experienced the mess we call life it also has an unmistakable ring of truth.
The novel has a happy ending, and that’s fine. Many people want, perhaps need that. I don’t. From what I’ve been able to discern so far, life does not have a happy ending. What Rivers Parting has is fine writing aplenty.
I may speak only for myself, but I can ask no more from a book.