Monday, November 27, 2017

The Townsman by Pearl S. Buck

Kansas: the state beyond Misery
I consider myself a fan of Pearl S. Buck and have looked well beyond The Good Earth to read a dozen of her books so far. When I stumbled upon her 1945 novel The Townsman in a used book store, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Buck had written a historical novel set in Kansas, the state where I’ve been living for the past 25 years. I’ve read enough of Buck’s work to know that not everything she wrote is a masterpiece, and the fact that she penned this one under the pseudonym of John Sedges did little to inspire confidence. Still, I approached it with enthusiasm, but was ultimately disappointed by this dull, dreary book.

If you’re reading a western, you know you’re in for a long haul when the story starts in England. Granted, this isn’t a traditional western, like a shoot-’em-up, but rather a town-building western, more Dr. Quinn than Gunsmoke. English teenager Jonathan Goodliffe reluctantly immigrates to America with his parents and siblings. The father has heard of good farmland in Kansas, so the family ventures west into that territory. Along the way they stop in the barely-there fictional town of Median. The father, always on the lookout for the next big thing, decides to keep moving west, but Jonathan decides he’s tired of chasing after some illusory promised land. Now an adult, he rebels against his father and decides to stay put in Median. He takes up work as the town’s first schoolmaster and works to mold Median into the kind of town he’d like to live in.

If Buck had written yet another novel with a female protagonist, she would no doubt have given the reader a strong, independent, capable woman. Instead, the male protagonist she gives us here is a weak, dependent man barely capable of surviving on the prairie. For example, Jonathan is terrified of thunderstorms to the point where they actually incapacitate him. For a Western settler, he displays little frontier spirit, giving new meaning to the phrase, “Those who can’t, teach.” Even worse, Buck gives him this bizarre Oedipal relationship with his mother that is really kind of creepy.

The story takes place shortly after the Civil War. Though the novel is set in Kansas, the state is barely recognizable but for the sod houses. There are no references to Kansas history whatsoever. The first half of the novel deals with issues of African American race relations that would be more at home in a novel of the American South. In fact, Buck has to take the reader to New Orleans just to get her point across. When her story requires a big city, she never even mentions St. Louis or Kansas City, but has her Kansan characters running off to New Orleans, which is just ridiculous.

The second half of the book is the most god-awful love story you will ever read. Jonathan’s milquetoast personality leads him to fall in love with a woman he barely knows, and the reader soon sees the cringeworthy writing on the wall. You know how in real life sometimes your dreams don’t work out the way you want, so you settle for second best even if you know it’s a decision you’re going to regret? Imagine an entire novel about that. Ugh. What a drag. At no point during the reading of this book did I finish one of its 41 chapters and feel compelled to start the next one. The Kansas that Buck depicts in her novel is a miserable place full of muddy streets, loveless marriages, and shattered dreams. An optimistic epilogue does little to soften the blow. Buck can be a great writer, so the book does have its occasional moments of literary worth, but for the most part it makes for one tedious ordeal of a read.
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