I’ve talked a few times about my reading practice — and considering how easy it is to take all your enter/edu-tainment by screen these days, it is a practice. I’m always reading at least one book. I choose books to fill in gaps — foundational speculative fiction I missed growing up, more current books by female or minority authors, and the odd piece of classic straight fiction.
So when we were sorting through my grandparents’ stuff, I kept a few choice pieces of straight fiction for myself. And one of those books was Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.
If my copy had not once belonged to my dearly departed grandparents, I would have put it down about 100 pages in, because this book is not worth it. Certainly it has its good points — it wasn’t a bestseller in the 80’s for nothing — but it is not worth it. It’s 900+ pages, it’s a friggin’ commitment. What do I expect in 900 pages? I expect an adventure, a transformation, a truly notable series of events, enjoyable characters. What did I get?
A vivid picture of what history looked like on the ground, among the commons, during the late 1800s and early 1900s in the American South. A memorable narrator, plucky Lucy Marsden, the titular widow.
Every single character is developed as a tragic victim of circumstance, pushed into a certain mindset and mode of behavior by the intersections of gender, race, age, and the politics of the post-Civil War South. Even the characters who should have been villains — the slave-owning grandmother-in-law, the abusive and neglectful Confederate veteran husband, the parents who force Lucy (fourteen year old) into her burdensome marriage with said husband (who is fifty) — are instead portrayed as victims with their own struggles.
And that’s fine, except no one is held accountable. It’s all just a tragedy embedded in distant, impersonal history.
Don’t get me wrong, I love historical fiction. But Gurganus makes a big mistake. He frames the whole novel as a story told by elderly Lucy to a visitor in her retirement home. So rather than tell the past as if it were present, Lucy/Gurganus keeps reminding us that it’s the past. Everyone’s already dead. Lucy’s story is over, and no, she never left her husband.
And even that would be fine, except Lucy Marsden likes to pretend there was some love in her travesty of a marriage. She reassures us there were good times with Captain William Marsden, but never tells us about them.
And maybe that’s just fine too. There are lots of battered, neglected wives who don’t leave their abusive, self-centered husbands. But to ask me to spend 900+ pages worth of my time in their loveless disaster of a marriage?
But hark — 400 pages in, Lucy hints that she does spend some time on the loose, run away from her old Captain. So that’s what I was banking on for the next 400 pages. When does Lucy run away? How does she handle her nine kids when she does? Is it anything like Carolyn Jessop’s FLDS memoir Escape, only fleeing her bearded husband-patriarch in a Model-T instead of an SUV?
No, it’s nothing like Escape. Lucy doesn’t escape. She leaves for an evening, then creeps back at 4AM filled with guilt for nearly abandoning her kids. She makes plans for a second escape attempt, this time with the kids, only to learn the Captain just had a stroke on a hunting trip.
So she soldiers on, caring for her now disabled, senile husband along with their nine kids.
To add insult to injury, with less than 100 pages to go the book breaks character. The endless, relentless, historical “realism” of victimhood and tragedy lifts for a chapter about baby poop. Baby Marsden (the character’s actual name) swallows Lucy’s wedding ring, and the whole chapter that follows is a weirdly unfunny poop joke.
With the book’s character broken, I couldn’t take the ending seriously. Captain Marsden, intermittently violent throughout the book, has lost his mind to his stroke. So he tries to strangle Lucy. Twice. The second time, Lucy kills him with his own Civil War scabbard in self defense.
It’s a solid ending, but tacked onto 900 pages of poop (literally and figuratively) it’s too little too late.