From the first edition’s dust jacket:
The Able McLaughlins, Scotch Covenanters, devoted to one another, deeply pious, but humor-loving and full of the emotion and sentiment which exists under the craggy Scotch exterior, are leaders in a pioneer Iowa community, Isobel McLaughlin, mother of ten, and Wully, the oldest son, are characters in whom one feels the spirit and intelligence and dauntless courage that carved out our Western States. The story is Wully’s — his wooing, his bride, his home building and the fine triumphant victory to which the end of the book brings him.
First of all, The Able McLaughlins has a very serious and dark primary plot: the main character comes home to find that the woman he loves and wanted to marry has been raped and is with child by someone else in the community, so he runs off the rapist, marries the girl, and takes the blame in the community for the scandalous birth. And maybe I was just reading it wrong, or maybe Margaret Wilson intentionally wrote it this way to keep it from being terribly depressing, but the book as a whole seems a little bit ridiculous, with a large number of lighthearted and comic moments, as though the reality of the plot isn’t really taken seriously by the author. There is plenty of murderous intention and depression and anxiety tied to the main plot, but I had a hard time really buying it. I have to assume that Margaret Wilson didn’t write those emotions well, because I have a hard time believing she was making light of those emotions.
The Able McLaughlins is set in the final year of the Civil War and through reconstruction, in a small farming community, made up almost entirely of Scottish immigrants who are all somewhat related to each other, the larger national issues of the war and reconstruction are merely footnotes in the story. Although, Margaret Wilson also makes World War One a footnote in the story as well, taking brief moments throughout the book to look 50 years into the future and make brief, seemingly inconsequential comments about World War One. It felt as though she was trying to make it seem more relevant to the current time, despite the setting, and it always felt strange to me when she took those digressions.
The primary plot follows Wully McLaughlin and his marriage to Chirstie, and the scandalous birth of their child just a few months after the wedding. And though the specter of the real father, Peter Keith, hangs over them, much more time is spent on Wully’s mother exclaiming that she never thought her boy would be the sort of person to bring a woman to shame, and how her whole family would fall into sin now that the eldest started it. Followed a short time later, after she learns the truth, with exclamations that of course her boy couldn’t have done a thing like that to an innocent girl. And while there’s a change Margaret Wilson was being serious with that character, it came off as rather ridiculous the whole time I was reading it.
The subplot of the novel follows Chirstie’s father, a penny-pinching man more interested in buying up more and more land that providing anything but the most basic of comforts to his family. After his wife dies, he comes back from Scotland with a new wife, one who from the very beginning won’t put up with his thriftiness, and pushes him and defies him at every turn, until he has the largest and nicest house in the whole community, and lavish meals every night, and fine clothes and a garden full of beautiful imported flowers. This subplot is legitimately humorous, and was clearly designed to bring levity to the darker sections of the novel, but it added to the general ridiculous nature of the book as a whole.
Ultimately, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the book. It had some entertaining moments, and it wasn’t terrible, but there wasn’t much that stood out or seemed in any way spectacular. I have to agree with the novel jury when they wrote in their recommendation that there was no book (including The Able McLaughlins) “outstanding enough to merit a prize this year,” although it makes me wonder how much worse the other contenders had to be if this was the best they could come up with.
Wully was too essentially a farmer ever to try to express his deep satisfaction in words. But when he saw his own wheat strong and green, swaying in the breezes, flushed with just the first signs of ripening, the sight made him begin whistling. And when, working to exhaustion, he saw row after row of corn, hoed by his own hands, standing forth unchoked by weeds, free to eat and grow like happy children, even though he was too tired to walk erectly, something within him–maybe his heart–danced with joy. Therefore he was then, as almost always, to be reckoned among the most fortunate of the earth, one of those who know ungrudged contented exhaustion.
Why you should read it:
There’s really nothing noteworthy about this book. I guess it is an interesting look at Scottish covenanters in Iowa in the years immediately after the Civil War, and it has it’s moments, though they’re few and far between. All in all it would probably be better just to skip this one, though.
Currently reading: So Big by Edna Ferber