Last week I finished reading the first book for my New York Times Bestseller Project, And Now Tomorrow by Rachel Field.
Give me any plague but the plague of the heart.
How I got the book: Kindle (affiliate link), $2.89. It was unavailable at the library and given the cost of shipping, an e-book was the most economical option. The formatting was crude but it was perfectly readable.
The writer: Rachel Field. Click on her name to read the full Wikipedia article. Interestingly, she died the year And Now Tomorrow was published, in 1942. She won the Newbery Award in 1930 for the children's book Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, and her novel Time Out of Mind won a National Book Award in 1935. She was awarded a Caldecott Medal posthomously in 1944 for picture book Prayer for a Child. (Bonus fact: And Now Tomorrow was turned into a screenplay written by Raymond Chandler and was released in late 1944!)
The book: Ah, I thought, it's about the death of the protagonist's mother. No, it's about World War I. No, it's about the death of the protagonist's father in World War I. Finally, around a third of the way in, I discovered what the book is really about--love, labor rights, and hearing loss.
First lesson from this project, it seems, is that books moved at a different pace in 1942.
Part medical thriller, part romance, the bulk of the story takes place in 1931, as Emily Blair, the main character, discovers that her absence of a few years' time as she has pursued a cure for a disability brought on by a bout of meningitis has left her estranged from her fiance of several years, also a supervisor at her family's textile mills. Prohibition is as much a character in the tale as the Great Depression. Given that the U.S. was well into World War II when this book took the first-ever top spot on the NYT list, it seems almost as if it's an escape into the problems of the past, which may by then have taken on a bit of a nostalgic sheen.
There's a lot to be said about character's attitudes toward women in this book. Emily and her sister were raised mainly by their unmarried aunt Em. Cousin Eunice, depicted as a flighty women obsessed with society, nags her younger cousin Emily to marry, concerned because, as Emily nears the age of 21, she doesn't have a romantic interest in her life:
That comes of an old main like Em bringing you up. Not that Em isn't a remarkable woman, but then what woman wants to be remarkable?
Once Emily finally ("finally") falls in love just before her birthday, it's hardly surprising that she makes a mess of it. Looking back on her love affair--the entire book is framed as though she's writing it after triggering some memories going through a storage room--she recalls how she made excuses for Harry's moods.
It's different with a man, I would reason; he doesn't have to make his whole world of a single person.
Indeed, except for the first summer of their romance, Harry treats Emily as though she is little better than a child. My impression was of a narrator who finally realized that she had sold herself short through most of her early 20s. She's constantly asking about what's happening at the family textile mill, where the workers are striking for better wages while the management watches business dry up in the face of the national economic collapse. In fact, Emily and her sister are the product of a marriage between their millhand mother and their mill-owner father. From my vantage point, her ability to empathize with both sides could have been a boon, were she brought in and educated to run the mills, but everyone else sees her as just a muddle-headed, soft-hearted woman who shouldn't worry herself about things she'll never understand.
Only Dr. Vance sees the potential in Emily. Only he challenges her and her tendency to behave automatically as is expected of her:
You put me in mind of something I read in a book once when I was a kid. It was about Marie Antoinette going to the guillotine, and how she stepped on the executioner's foot and begged his pardon--
So is And Now Tomorrow a feminist novel? Probably no more than it's a pro-labor novel--but Field definitely bring empathy to her writing, and while it's not a comedy of manners in the Jane Austen sense, she definitely manages to put across a point of view that leaves the reader feeling that Emily could be (and will be) more than she has been.
A few additional observations:
- Prohibition seems to be the one thing that everyone can agree on: no one, regardless of class, is teetotaling. Early on in their affair, Harry and Emily share a bottle of bootleg Chianti Harry got off one of the millhands, who is making it in his woodshed and selling it in "catsup" bottles. Harry lectures Emily about how women don't really understand drinking as she tries not to let on just how bad the wine is. She asks him how it feels to be drunk. He replies, "Kind of like a god until you pass out."
- Another character in the novel? Cigarettes, without any moral implications on their smokers. Emily and Dr. Vance smoke together following a tense night of impromptu surgery on the table in a poor family's kitchen. The novel is littered with ashes and lighters. Emily is the opposite of edgy and cool, but she smokes a lot. It's not a marker of any sort of status.
- There's a lot of excitement about antibiotics in the novel, given the medical focus. Field would have known the difference that antibiotics were beginning to make in the treatment of infection as she was writing, and the lack of antibiotics, which are in development but not commercially available, plays a role in two major plot points in the book.
- I've written on this site before about how it seems to me that Google has taken the mystery out of life. Reading this book showed me that mine is not a groundbreaking observation. Field has Emily say something similar: "Miracles are out of fashion nowadays. Or perhaps it is only that they have been explained away from us. Radios and newsreels and words have shorn them of their mystery."
- Another constant in life is, apparently, the influence parents have on their kids. Emily's father charged her as a young girl to always do what's expected of her while admitting he hadn't done what was expected of him, and to be happy for her aunt's sake. Trying to fulfill these imperatives has a lot to do with how Emily tries to live in her early adulthood, and it doesn't work out very well.
I'll return to And Now Tomorrow when I sum up 1942, but first I have to read the other three novels from the list. Up next will likely be The Robe, since it was the only one I was able to get out from the library and, therefore, the only one with a due date. Until then, here's a quick sketch of my cover update--a very rough idea of how I would repackage And Now Tomorrow were it to be reprinted for an audience today. I chose to focus on the car that is so a part of the plot, as it illuminates what is to come. Enjoy!