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Drivin' Woman

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Meet America. And her sisters, Palestine, Arabia, and Andorra. This is Drivin’ Woman by Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier.

She was about to call out again, when she saw approaching around the parlor chimney, a weather-beaten Confederate soldier. He was perhaps thirty years old. Even in rags he was the handsomeest man America had ever seen.

How I got the book: Purchased from a used bookseller via Biblio.com. I got a nondescript hardcover edition from The MacMillan Company, which gave away none the book’s secrets--just the title and author’s last name. It came complete with a lovely bookplate on the page facing the inside front cover: a domestic scene of reading before a roaring fire, the original owners’ names in ink, and a quote, “Old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, old books to read,” attributed to Alonzo of Aragon.

The writer: Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier. Click on her name to read the brief Wikipedia entry. Drivin’ Woman was her first novel, though she’d been writing for the movie industry for over two decades when it was published and subsequently promoted as book similar to Gone with the Wind.

The book: Ok, so I’ll give Chevalier this much credit: the lady knew how to turn a plot, and she was not scared to give it a twist any time her main character begins to get a little comfortable. The book centers on America Moncure, who at the time of the novel’s opening in spring 1865 is pondering whether she can restore her family’s Virginia plantation in time to secure advantageous marriages for herself (teetering on the brink of spinsterhood at eighteen) and her sisters, teenaged Palestine, nine-year-old Arabia, and little Andorra, aged four.

She figures she has two years, “if she was not to break the family tradition that Collier women married before they were twenty.”

And by the end of the first chapter, all hopes of achieving that dream are dashed, though some measure of peace is restored to the Moncure girls and their mother and the few remaining former slaves in Chapter 2 by the return of an unlooked-for family member.

And so it goes. The novel ends in 1911, following America all the while (with often-inelegant switches of point-of-view that will drive readers with an eye for writing craft just a little bonkers) and on occasion a man of her acquaintance, Tugger Blake. What begins as a post-Civil-War novel somehow transforms into a labor-and-tobacco novel somewhere along the way.

I can’t say I exactly enjoyed this one. Especially in the early pages, the perspective taken of the Black characters who populate the edges of the story can make it truly painful to read, though the nasty racial commentary does fade out as you continue through the story. (It never completely disappears, though. There’s a blatant blackface incident painted almost as heroism almost three-quarters of the way into the book, and it’s not until page 602 of 652 that America concedes inside her own head that slavery may have been wrong and possibly evil.) It was difficult for me to read a protagonist with whom I so fundamentally disagreed, when the text betrayed no indication that she might be, to say the least, wrong-headed on this point. We are meant to be unshakably in America’s corner, but Chevalier makes that hard.

On the other hand, the later pages go into great detail about the tobacco trade at the turn of the century, and this part of the book proved especially fascinating to me.

And, like I already said, the plot twists aren’t exactly masterful but they are entertaining. My poor husband got to hear all about it: and you wouldn’t believe what happened next. Despite what I consider serious flaws in the novel, I can see why people in 1942 might have been reading it--especially caught as they were in the midst of their own war and uncertain of what will come when it finally ends.

Next up is My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. When I saw this author’s name on the 1952 list, I was immediately excited, her famous Rebecca being an old favorite of mine. And I wasn’t disappointed. Stay tuned!