2017 Reading Challenge: Reading for Growth
A Book Published Before I was Born
I have so many books hanging around the house that were published before I was born, so the only hard part was choosing one I hadn’t read before. I chose Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, a collection of 3 novellas published in 1939, 1937 and 1936 respectively. Well before I was born!
After reading her bio in my favorite resource, I was surprised that I had not ever heard of her. In college, I earned, by accident, an English minor, and I was drawn to the literature of 20th century American writers. She has written only one novel, Ship of Fools, and was far better known for her short stories and essays which might help explain the gap in my knowledge.
All three of the novellas were completely different, but focused on similar themes of life and death, morality, and what society expected as acceptable behavior. The first, Old Mortality, was my least favorite. This story was told through the point of view of two sisters, Miranda and Maria, but focused on the story of their late Aunt Amy and her widower, Uncle Gabriel and how the entire family seemed to compare all others’ behavior using Amy and Gabriel as the standard.
In the last novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider we again encounter Miranda, this time about 6 years after the end of Old Mortality. She is 24 years old, a society reporter who has just fallen in love with Adam, a soldier about to head off to Europe in World War I. During their whirlwind romance, Miranda feels she is becoming ill, but does not want to miss a minute of time with Adam. Funeral processions are a constant sight when they are out and about, as the story takes place during the 1918 flu pandemic. Surrounded by those dying of the flu at home, and the boys dying in the war abroad, death is constantly on Miranda’s mind, and she has indeed come down with the flu.
Porter’s descriptions of both Miranda’s dreams and her hallucinations when she is ill are vivid and dark, and compelling. In all 3 novellas, Porter writes with careful detail, letting the reader know exactly how the characters are dressed, their surroundings, etc. This did not detract from the stories. After reading the collection, I was drawn into the setting and stories and would call them page-turners.
My favorite, and also the darkest novella, was the middle story, Noon Wine, which surprisingly has very little to do with any alcohol until near the end. This is the story of the Thompson family, Royal Earle and Ellie and their two sons Arthur and Herbert and life on their small south Texas dairy farm. The story begins in 1896 when Olaf Helton, a Swede from North Dakota comes to the farm asking for a job. He is a quiet, strange fellow who never tells the Thompsons his story, and Mr. Thompson frankly doesn’t care because Helton is such a great worker, increasing profits and the quality of life for the family for 9 years until his past catches up with him which is, of course, when the pedal hits the metal and the story comes to a disturbing resolution.
Reading a book published before a reader was born (in my case 1960) gives a reader a glimpse into life decades before one’s own and reveals that those lives were not so different than our own when stripped down to basic themes of humanity. There is also opportunity, when reading older books, to stretch your reading and writing skills with the different styles of writing you might encounter.