The Crimson Bookshelf
FEBRUARY HILL: Victoria Lincoln, Ferrar and Rinehart, 1934, 337p. $2.50.
ON the jacket of February Hill appears the descriptive blurb: "The story of an amoral New England family." Like most blurbs this one conceals more than it tells about Victoria Lincoln's excellent novel. If the publishers had been looking for a more accurate, though perhaps less cunning, device for gaining publicity they might have called it a study in contrasting morals. It is true that Minna Harris, the strongest character in the book, finds little time to bother herself with moral reflections. She is a June among prostitutes who supports her family on the profits of her popularity among travelling sports. The family includes, besides four children, a sot of a husband and Minna's unregenerate mother. But both Vergil Harris, the husband and Grandma, are set pieces. They live their restricted lives in the Harris' hill-top shanty, they are used for the purposes of background, but they do not often carry the story forward. Neither does Amy, the youngest child. Amy is a literary creation, a very amusing one. She is the little girl who swears and sings bawdy songs (taught by Grandma) with the sublime innocence of her type. But she would be missed in the novel.
The three older children, Jenny, Dottie and Joel, whose actions have importance in the unfolding of the story, are followed through critical phases of their lives. Jenny, soft and sweet, an expert at shoplifting marries stiff-necked Berkely Howard, a rum-runner. The idyll of their love is broken off when revenue officers shoot Berkely. Dottie is the viciously respectable member of the family. She marries a Cannel mill-worker, over steps herself in a plot to regain favor with the paternal grandmother who had disowned her father. The scene in which the cumulative effect of her underhandedness comes back on her disastrously is one-of the fine things in the book. Joel is condemned to live with Grandmother Harris. She burns his Shakespeare, she heats him, she drives him into the arms of Lettie. The underpaid maid-of all work. In despair at his iniquity Jeel appeals to Jenny. Jenny money seventy-five dellars from a Junior Leaguer on the main street of Fall River and sends it to him. He is about to escape when he learns Lettie is with child. Heroic little Joel gives her Jenny's money and resolves to stick it out. It is these three children who find themselves faced with the problem of reconciling to the tribal conventions of the outside world their own sense of being "different." Their solutions of this problem constitute the main interest of the story.
The pattern of their lives is not, however, separated from the body of the book, nor is it the whole book. In the person of Vergil Harris. I find examplified a manner of handling character that has now come to be a fashion. Vergil has the habit of confusing time, of imagining himself back in his boyhood, of suffering again the persecutions of boyhood playmates. This may be a thoroughly accurate way of portraying weak characters. It is, at any rate, a favorite one with modern novelists: Joyce has used it. Whole books have been written by his imitators (Mr. Aiken, for example) in which the principal character hardly gets a chance to live, so busy is he kept recalling childhood experiences. Mr. O'Hara, in Appointment in Samarra, has employed this technical device to explain the temperament of his hero, Julien English. And here is Victoria Lincoln, following along in what is, by now, a well worn path. Her novel would have suffered little by the omission of Vergil Harris' reveries. I do not contest the truth of the method. I merely suggest that it is not universal outside of novels, and that it is becoming a little shopworn.
Minna Harris is a triumph of craftsmanship. The entire book centers about her. She is not always on the scene but her presence is everywhere felt. It is not only that all the rest of the characters depend on her economically but that she furnishes a great deal of the motive force behind the action. I, for one, amperfectly convinced that Minna's creator has done justice in bringing her back to the shanty after the temptation of marriage. Like Jenny, Grandma and Amy, Minna belongs in the Schlaraffenland which she has done so much to create.
Mr. Malcolm, in a review of this book, complains that it is played out in a land of make-believe (the actual scene is Fall River, Mass.) in which the economic verities are slighted. I can agree with him to the extent of saying that the same charge might be made against a great deal of fiction. That this fact alters the value of the story, as a story, seems very doubtful. Miss Lincoln has told it well, with restrained gusto, with great humor and kindly understanding. For this she deserves to be read.