Tuesday, February 12, 2008

1918: His Family

Early 20th century New York City is the setting for His Family. Roger Gale is the head of a well-to-do family of three daughters; all four are very different not only in character but also in the way each embraces or rejects the changes that are occurring so rapidly, particularly as a result of the waves of immigration that crowd the city and change its physical, moral, and social landscape.

Roger, now in his late 50s, is a New Englander who moved to the city as a young man and threw himself into its life. He owns a successful small business. A widower, his life revolves around his three daughters; he views himself as something of their protector and patriarch, even though all three are all of age. He is uncertain about the changes that he sees in New York, a city he loves. He raised his family in a traditional fashion, in a large home he owns. Now, all around him he feels pressed in by the apartment buildings that not only tower over his home but also seem to be populated with hundreds if not thousands of pairs of eyes of stranger, people whom he does not know—not really neighbors in the sense to which he is accustomed.

Edith, his oldest daughter, is married and the mother of 4, expecting a 5th child. She represents in the novel the traditional ways of ‘old’ New York—the pre-immigrant, slower way of life where the wife stayed at home, raised the children, and provided a comfortable, smooth-running home for her husband. Raised in privilege, used to servants, she views the newcomers with disdain, considering them undesirable. At one point in the book, she dismisses the idea of sending them to anything other than private schools for fear that her children will be forced to associate with “them”. She stands for tradition, for what is known and cherished, and all the values, both good and bad, that are associated with a woman’s traditional role in a family.

Deborah, the middle daughter, is of a totally different cut of cloth. A career woman and idealistic reformer, she heads a radically modern (for that day) school, coming into daily and intimate contact with immigrant children and their families. She sees at first hand their struggles and identifies strongly with them. She gives herself tirelessly to her work which is her life. Terrified of marriage and motherhood for fear that she will be then trapped and unable to continue her life’s work, she continually puts off marriage to Allan, a young doctor equally as idealistic as Deborah.

The third daughter, Laura, might as well have arrived from a different galaxy. She is the party girl, the forerunner of the flapper, whose gaiety fills the house and charms each of her family. Suddenly engaged and then married to an up-and-coming wealthy young businessman, Laura is the frivolous one, the grasshopper to Deborah’s and Edith’s hard-working ants.

World War I disrupts this family as it did so many others. Roger’s business falls on hard times, and the family is forced to cope in ways it has never imagined. The changes occurring in the city at large impose themselves on the family in an intimate way. Life changes irrevocably; each of the Gales adapts and grows in accordance with their characters.

This is another novel that really has no plot to speak of, but rather in its own way is a documentary of a white, upper middle-class family caught in overwhelming changes they can neither foresee nor prevent from impacting their lives no matter what their outlook. The story is told from Roger’s point of view, as he observes and reflects on the actions of his family and tries to reconcile it all. It is his book.

Of all the early Pulitzer Prize winners, I found Poole’s writing style the most dated. That doesn’t mean that the book was difficult, but it was slow-going in a way that, for example, The Magnificent Ambersons, published two years later, was not. Still, I found the story interesting, if not absorbing, from a historical perspective, since it documents in such detail the type of changes that were taking place and what was probably a common reaction to them among the more privileged classes. The daughters, although stereotypes, are still interesting figures, because Poole neither judges them nor paints them as all good or all bad; each of their viewpoints has merit. Clearly, though, Poole has the most affinity for Roger, a good man who did his best to raise and nurture his family.

Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Bybee said...

Was it difficult to find this novel?