1934: Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller

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From the Dust Jacket:

This is the story of the Carver family of Georgia. At the center of the book is Cean Carver, whose life is described in astonishing detail, from the day of her marriage when she leaves her family to establish a new home, to the time when she welcomes her second husband back from the Civil War.

The Carvers are simple enough people, living close to the soil, as much a part of the natural scene as the changing seasons and the ripening of the crops.

Caroline Miller tells of them with raw insight, humor and drama–in a prose of such rich quality that many times it approaches genuine poetry.

My Thoughts:

Lamb in His Bosom is the story of what may be the unluckiest family in Georgia before the Civil War. Whether it’s illness, stillbirth, gangrene, fire (twice), or even panther attack, it seems like everything that could go wrong, does. Following Caen Carver, the novel chronicles several decades of rural farming life before and through the Civil War, giving what feels like an overly-dramatized look at these character’s lives. Having not lived through that time period or lifestyle, I’m in no way qualified to remark on how realistic Miller’s depiction is, but as the novel progressed, I found myself wondering how many more things would go wrong for this family, which I suppose also made the little victories in the novel all the more surprising.

Other than that, I found the novel a fascinating counterpoint to the previous year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Store, and T. S. Stribling’s previous novel, The Forge. Whereas The Store and The Forge looked at the life of a slave owning family in Alabama in the decades before and after the Civil War, Lamb in His Bosom takes a look at the poor farming class in the years before the war, who were almost hidden in the swamps and forests of Georgia, far from any town or settlement or store, and could not even dream of owning slaves. Miller’s depiction of the Carver family in the first half of the 19th Century reminds me of the lifestyle that is often associated with the Appalachian region in literature and film. It is a lifestyle centered around the land and the home that seems very isolated on first impression, but one in which neighbors, despite the distance between houses, play an important role in each other’s lives.

Though the Civil War is a minor plot point at the end of the novel, I found the treatment of the war to be one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The older, “prophetic” character who seems to be introduced solely to foreshadow the war before dying of old age is dismissed by the characters. The political discussions that occur on the coastal towns baffle the inland farmers when they come to trade. The idea of owning slaves is a fantastic luxury that is hardly a dream of the characters in the novel, because they know that it will never become a reality. The idea of state’s rights doesn’t factor into their conception or realization of life. When the war does finally come, the men are conscripted into the army, or at the very most volunteer for the chance to travel and see other places. There is no comprehension of the social or political ramifications of the Civil War within the pages of the novel. Instead, the farming men fight and die for things that they will never have or understand. It does not come across as propaganda or a shallow view of war, portraying the human element as fighting the war on the behalf of other people, with no real grasp of the motives behind it. It is a view of the Civil War, and of war in general, that in my mind did not seem very present or popular until the Vietnam War in American culture.

The majority of the book, however, does not deal with the Civil War. In fact, the war is something that happens between the lines in the last few pages of the book, with very little impact on the narrative. Instead, the book focuses on the isolated rural farming life. There is a reliance upon family and neighbors, despite the distance involved, and there is a focus on the ways in which those farming families survived and thrived without the villages and general stores and access to supplies that I personally take for granted. The preservation of meat and crops to last through the winter, and the need to rely on wild game in the years when the farm does not provide, are things that are foreign to me, yet also appealing because there is this lost way of life and art to living with the land that was being forgotten even by the time the novel was published. The year before, The Store had focused on shops and towns and the ways in which supplies and necessities of life were tied to those institutions, and so I feel that, even for the readers back in 1933, Lamb in His Bosom may have held some nostalgia for a way of life that was fading on the other side of the Civil War, or at least a way of life that was being pushed further and further west and out of reach. The Native Americans are still things of nightmare and the land is tenuously settled. It is a story of the frontier when the frontier was still in the backyards of many of the Southern cities.

Lamb in His Bosom is a compelling read. The forced drama keeps you reading to see how things work out for the characters, and the nostalgia factor, even 80 years later, works in its favor. Regardless of whether or not the novel is true to a way of life that did once exist, it provides an interesting drama and a unique view into a way of life and way of thinking that is becoming more and more of a legend and distant memory in our culture today, but a life and way of thinking that certain groups of people are striving to reclaim.

Favorite passage:

The little unknown thing was growing within her as suddenly and softly as the first touch of spring on the maples. It was putting out its hidden, watery roots as simply and surely as little cypresses take root in a stretch of swamp water away off yonder. It was coming upon her as quietly as the dark came up from the woods at night and hushed in the little clearing, closing every chink of every shutter tight with nothing. Impulses swelled within her, swelled her body fit to burst; yet they did not come out in words, nor song, nor in any sign.

Why you should read it:

Much like The Good Earth provided a look at Chinese rural farming life, Lamb in His Bosom takes a look at the fading American rural farming life, and shows a dramatic, but noticeably different view of the South in the decade leading up to the Civil War than T. S. Stribling’s novels of southern etiquette and plantation life, and is a fascinating contrast when read with The Forge especially.

Currently reading: A Watch in the Night by Helen C. White

*As a side note, the cover of the copy I checked out from the University of Texas library (pictured at top) is a little ridiculous. I’ve never had so many people give me strange looks or ask me about what I was reading as when I was carrying this novel around.

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