Book Group Report – Now in November by Josephine Johnson

This novel was our book group’s last choice made by playing Word Association Football for a while (we’re moving on to other themes for choosing books). Following on from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Johnson’s novel was also a Pulitzer Prize winner – but one we’d never heard of – having read it we’re glad we now know the book. It’s worth noting the Johnson remains the youngest author to win the Pulitzer, and that Now in November, her first novel published when she was just 24, is considered her best work.

Now in November could almost be a prequel to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (another Pulitzer winner published in 1939). The latter follows the Joad family as they are forced to leave their farm and go west, the former details the trials and tribulations of the Haldmarne family in the late 1920s as they struggle on their farm. Arnold Haldmarne failed in retail and took up farming instead, back-breaking work for the ageing man. They have three daughters: Kerrin is the eldest, the local schoolteacher; Margret, our narrator, in the middle who helps farm, and Merle, the youngest. I couldn’t help but see parallels with King Lear, for Kerrin as you come to discover has darkness inside, like Goneril, which Johnson herself has Kerrin identify her father as Lear.

The story follows the seasons wonderfully, Johnson having a lyrical manner of writing. At the start, Margret looks back to the arrival of spring:

The hills were bare then and swept of winter leaves, but the orchards had a living look. They were stained with the red ink of their sap and the bark light around them as though too small to hold the new life of comng leaves.

Life is hard, and Arnold is struggling with the work that maintaining a dairy herd entails. Mother suggested that he employ Grant Koven, thirty-one, returned from working on ranches to his father’s farm, and Arnold agrees reluctantly.

Then on a cold dry day toward the middle of April, Grant came over. […]

Grant was older than I had thought he would be, and seemed at first a cragged and strange-looking man. He was tall and thin and we found ourselves staring up at his face like children. When he spoke his voice had a kind sound, almost old, and his smile was quick and sudden.

The arrival of Grant changes the family dynamics, but gets the farming done. Margret falls for him, but it is Merle he likes and she is oblivious of this. Kerrin, by this stage is hardly living in the house, always out wandering of an evening, becoming more and more disturbed. This really started after an incident involving a knife at Arnold’s birthday celebrations which turned sour.

Then the drought really begins to take hold, and everyone suffers. Mother is injured in a fire. The crops begin to fail, their neighbours are forced to abandon their farm and Arnold is wondering how they will meet the mortgage. How will they survive on the farm?

Johnson paints such a realistic picture. Not just the descriptions of nature – both benign and aw(e)ful, but the toil and the loneliness of farming, scratching a living from this increasingly dry land. It’s no wonder that it takes its toll on everyone, especially once Mother is injured, the Haldmarnes are on a downward spiral. Johnson never sugarcoats anything. Writing this novel made an activist on behalf of rural subsistence farmers, and tying up all the ends neatly, happily even, wouldn’t have been true to her credo.

We all loved the style of Johnson’s writing, lyrical and poetic, intense too. Lucy commented that our narrator, Margret, was ‘consumed by the landscape’, which is particularly apt. We didn’t discuss the Lear parallels or compare with Steinbeck except in passing really, instead concentrating on the mental health of Kerrin, and we wondered why Grant stayed. It made for a good book group discussion.

By the way, the cover painting of the edition I read is by Jackson Pollock! Man with Hand Plow (1933).

Head of Zeus and their Apollo classics imprint have been bought up by Bloomsbury – who are nowadays considered one of the big six in the UK, and not an independent publisher any more, so this book no longer qualifies for #ReadIndies!

Source: Own copy. Apollo paperback, 203 pages. BUY at Amazon via my affiliate link.

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