Monday, November 17, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts

I might not get to all the classics I hoped to read for the 2014 Back-to-the-Classics Challenge, but I’ve just completed the last of the books in the required category, so that’s a partial victory. And since it’s a historical novel that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple years, I’m going to triple dip and use it for all three challenges.

The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts is a classic by an author who is new to me. (And a Kentucky author.)

It is old-fashioned pioneer literature, following the trail of Diony Hall (Jarvis). Diony begins as a 15-year-old hardworking daughter of a "plantation" owner, Thomas Hall, in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1774. The description of the family farm sounds rather small by the standards of what I think of for a plantation, but Diony and her family are comfortable and settled–though life is not one of ease. Diony is the oldest daughter. She’s pretty and intelligent and seems to be her father’s pet.

The book is a bit of a slow-starter, but it is rich in the details of daily life and immerses us in the dreaminess of Diony’s thoughts. She’s a restless sort. Diony and her neighbors are hearing a great deal of talk about Kentucky, a paradise beyond the hills, which sets her to thinking about life’s possibilities. And as Diony grows into young womanhood, she becomes aware of a neighbor, a young man, Berk Jarvis, who has the same restless spirit. He sets off to get a better look at Kentucky. When he decides he’s going to move on, he asks her to come along.

They marry and set off, along with other Jarvises, including Berk’s mother Elvira, for Fort Harrod. They travel with a small party of other pioneers along Boone’s Road. The journey is narrated through Diony’s eyes in a descriptive detail that is interesting and realistic. She focuses on things that are important to her and skims over other incidents, so that moments of high drama are lacking, but the realism make it more compelling.

The story becomes more dramatic, more exciting, as they settle into life in the fort. There is a more or less constant threat of Indian attack–a threat that is eventually realized.

Diony has to cope with a great deal as a pioneer woman. This writing is in an older style. There’s very little dialogue, and a lot of internal monologue. The romance is quite understated. In fact, the necessities of life require Diony and Berk to be apart much of the time. And yet, there is something extraordinarily solid about their love that makes the great love of many more modern romances seem shallow.

As a transplant to Kentucky, I’ve picked up a little of the state’s history here and there, I’ve been to visit Fort Harrod, but my knowledge is pretty limited. This novel does a wonderful job of bringing to life that early settlement phase of Kentucky’s history.

If you’re looking for a classic that’s a little bit different, I highly recommend The Great Meadow.