1935: Now in November by Josephine Johnson

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From the Back Cover:

Originally published in 1934, Josephine Johnson’s first novel, about a middle-class family driven into poverty by the Great Depression, won the Pulitzer Prize and drew clamorous praise. Certainly, more than 50 years later, its characterizations ring remarkably true: a family of three daughters, struggling to exist as dirt-poor farmers, the father unable to respond to the fiercely devoted eldest girl who longs to be his “son.” The brief and intense narrative movingly evokes the torment of people isolated, and driven by strong–yet often unexpressed–feelings of love and hatred, and paints and indelible portrait of the Depression and Dust Bowl years.

My Thoughts:

I read Now in November around the same time as I saw Christopher Nolen’s film, Interstellar. I won’t comment on the rest of the movie, but the opening scenes are filled with actual interviews, conducted by Ken Burns, of Dust Bowl survivors. I did not know they were real interviews when I went into the movie, but recognized immediately that it was not scripted, that those people were speaking from a raw and intimate knowledge of something apocalyptic. The land itself rose up against them and was terrible in its destruction. Josephine Johnson captures those feelings and emotions in the pages of Now in November. Johnson also captures the brokenness of humans, the struggles of despair and depression and mania, and the melancholy resignation that comes on as disaster leaves no choice but to be accepted, even as you’re attempting to fight against it.

The novel is narrated by Marget, and focuses mainly on her tenant farming family as they struggle through the drought leading up to the Dust Bowl. Marget’s sister Kerrin has psychological issues–possibly some sort of manic depression–that slowly becomes more evident as the drought continues and the farm totters on the brink of disaster. Marget’s mother has an unwavering faith that carries her through the drought, but it’s a faith that her daughters question and do not understand. Her father is stoic, but has the incessant need to always be right and in control of the situation, which leaves him adrift when he faces something that he can do nothing at all to control. And Marget sees herself as homely and unloved, a constant victim of her circumstances, who so often wishes for more, but cannot build up the courage to do anything because of a fear of rejection and failure. In fact, the drought is little more than the impetus to discover how different people fall apart and persevere in the face of adversity. It is a tool for Johnson to use to explore humanity, and so the novel is at its heart about the struggle to survive and reconcile personal convictions in the face of an impersonal, impartial cataclysm. It explores the different ways that people break when they are strained past their limit, and whether or not they are able to pick the pieces up and put any of them back together again after the fact.

Now in November is not a novel about drought and disaster. It is not a novel about farmers, about the poor, hungry masses migrating in search of work, about the wealthy profiting from them even as they are starving. It is no grand, sweeping epic hoping to capture all the feelings and emotions contained within a disaster of that scale. It is a story about people. And that is where it succeeds so well in telling its story. It is the story of depression and exhaustion and defeat. The dry land seeps into the very attitudes of the characters until they are each defined in their own separate way by the drought. At times, much like Caroline Miller’s Lamb in His Bosom, it seems like the disasters and tragedies stack up to force the drama, but the psychological implications of those seemingly-forced misfortunes are well-developed in Johnson’s novel, helping pull the reader past what might otherwise have been missteps in the narrative.

I realize all of this makes it sound like a rather depressing novel, and it certainly is in many regards. You will not find a story of human spirit, hard work, and determination winning out against disaster. And the best any of the characters can claim is acceptance in the midst of chaos and confusion, rising just a little bit above despair. But there is still something salvific about that acceptance, a way in which people are able to continue living in the face of adversity by naming it and knowing it and abiding in it, which is different than defeating it. Some adversities can only be accepted and never overcome. And that is where the real power of the novel begins to shine. There are moments of beauty and happy memories, even if they are surrounded by ugliness and sadness. There is a strength that comes through as the characters struggle on. It is not a hope, exactly, not for the characters and their situation, at least. But it is a hope of sorts for humanity, and for its ability to accept disaster and continue living in the face of it.

While Johnson captures the mental and psychological journeys of the characters throughout the novel with some amount of expertise, especially considering this was her first novel, written at the age of 24, she also brings out some beautiful prose in her writing. There is a melancholy, almost dreamlike feeling throughout the novel as Marget recalls and remembers all the events of the past years, culminating in the most recent year of drought. But the writing never feels ethereal. Instead of feeling any sort of insubstantiality that might come with prose pointing toward memory, Johnson writes with a lyric beauty that works to anchor the reader, helping them see and think and experience the things Marget has in a way that grounds them within the story. It works not only to establish a reality within the novel, but the pull the reader through the turmoil and experience with Marget, shifting the reader’s perspective until it approaches Marget’s.

Favorite passage:

In August the smell of grapes poured up like a warm flood through the windows. But they ripened unevenly, with hard green balls all through the purple. The apples fell too soon, crackling in the dry grass,–gold summer apples mushed and brown, and the sour red winesaps with white flesh. The creek stopped running altogether, and the woods were full of dead things–leaf-dust and thorny vines brittle to the touch. It was chill and quiet sometimes in the early mornings, but the head returned, the sun blasting fierce as ever, and the red plums fell like rain in the cindered grass. In places the grasshoppers left nothing but the white bones of weeds, stripped even of pale skin, and the corn-stalks looked like yellow skeletons.

Why you should read it:

It’s a depressing book. If you’re looking for a book to cheer you up, you shouldn’t pick this one. But it captures the full gamut of emotions and despairs that occur as events spiral further and further out of your control and explores the human reaction to that in a hauntingly beautiful way. The prose is well-written, and the characters are thoroughly fleshed out and explored. It is a moving look at the way people respond to adversity.

Currently reading: Honey in the Horn by H. L. Davis

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