Friday, March 31, 2017

My Reading Life: The Sojourner



This book is one of the best ones I've read. In many ways, it's a simple story, one of the life of a young man and ends, well, like life ends. I was transported to Asahel's shadow from the first page to the last and read late a night, fighting sleep after some really labor-intensive days, and thinking when I arose how I couldn't wait to go to bed on this next night so I could read more.

The first sentence was arresting to me: "Three crows flew low over the fresh mound in the Linden burying-ground, dark as the thoughts of the three unmourning mourners." I had no idea what this book was about at all, but after that first sentence, I was hooked. The story has some dialog, just enough to carry the characters along, and most of the sentences are written in the simple noun-verb-direct object form, yet the form does not make a simple story. The descriptions are some of the best -- "Then a wind keened far off in the west, nosed across the hills and leaped into the clearing, snapping its fangs at the limbs of the oak trees." If I marked every description that evoked a I-need-to-remember-this-one response, I would be recopying half of the book.

This is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' final book. In fact, she died just months after it was published in 1953 after she struggled with it for a decade.

I came to this title through a mention of it by Pat Conroy in his My Reading Life where he notes a plethora of book titles. In his chapter about Norm Berg, a publisher representative who befriended and advised the young author Conroy, he writes that Norm had violently disapproved with Rawling's book The Sojourner. Since Conroy read many of the books Berg mentioned to him, I thought it was likely he read this Rawlings book, and my goal is to read, or attempt to, as many of the books Conroy references.

"Living close to the land as she was growing up 'planted deep in [her] a love of the soil, the crops, the seasons and a sense of kinship with men and women everywhere who live close to the soil.'" This quote from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society is why Rawlings could write The Sojourner with such understanding and description. Every day I worked outside digging in the dirt during my time with this book and saw the new spring growth, the clouds, the rain, the trees, and the birds, I found a deeper appreciation for the natural wonders of the world.

Although I am in the age of moving books on to others after I read them, this is one that will remain on my shelves. Maybe it is my seasoned age that tightens my grip around this story, but I think you may find this a surprisingly edifying read and one that will linger in your thoughts.

A few quotes I’ve marked:
“His father had never planted an orchard. No growing thing was graceless, but that scowling, snarling man, Hiram Linden, had seemed purposely to avoid all crops that flowered in beauty. All were utilitarian, sown with surliness and harvested with oaths. Ase was the first Linden of three generations to consider the earth and its bounty with reverence and affection, to long to adorn it as best he might during his tenure.”

“She was not unattractive until she focused her eyes on a human being, when their unblinking coldness gave the effect of the stare of an adder.”

“I’ll walk off the rest of my mad.”

“He set down the milk pails to rest and stared at the bright house. This was a man’s great joy, to come at nightfall after his day’s work to a lighted house. . . . and his beloved was waiting for him with food and warmth and comfort.”

“Life is a difficult matter, and the more a simple man may learn of what greater men have thought, and taught, have spoken and have written, the better can he cope with any sort of life.”

“It occurred to him that the increasing patience of age was as great a myth as the unalloyed joy of youth. The longer he lived, the less tolerance he had for the patently evil.”

“Some of the books that provided the richest fare were hidden under unrevealing names, like a rare soul behind a drab face.”

“It had been so brief a sojourn, not even a full century. He had been a guest in a mansion and he was not ungrateful. He was at once exhausted and refreshed. His stay was ended. Now he must gather up the shabby impedimenta of his mind and body and be on his way again.”