1945 Near Miss: Colcorton by Edith Pope

From the Dust Jacket:

In “Colcorton” Edith Pope introduces one of the really great characters of fiction-Abby Clanghearne. Growing up with a dreadful secret locked in her heart, striving always, through her brother Jared, to overcome the poverty and decay that have been her environment, Abby remains undaunted. Courageously, as she becomes adjusted to the situation, she accepts the ruin of her plans for Jared and, after his death, she takes on the responsibility of his widow and unborn child, and, at last, overcomes the horror of her secret by tremendous sacrifice, gaining an almost proportionate release from that horror.

The beauty of the Florida coast line comes alive in “Colcorton.” Whether it is the clean etched line of the great pine trees, the vast sparkling entity of the Atlantic, or the muted mysterious world of the swamp, Edith Pope makes you really see, hear, smell and feel the grandeur, the heartbreaking loveliness of this region. She transmits, without sentimentality, Abby’s love for this land that has been her whole life as well as her livelihood.

There are other unforgettable characters in this warm, deeply-moving book of people and the land they live on. Danny Strikeleather is one-wise and kind with eyes that make it impossible for anyone to lie to him. Beth Clanghearne is another-Beth, whose fragile appearance and quiet manner make people think of her as weak and stupid, but who becomes aware of a deep, almost animal, wisdom and strength within herself. And there is Clement Johnson, perpetually running from himself, weary, disillusioned, selfish, who finds a peace of short duration with the selfless, instinctively understanding Abby.

With its beauty of setting, its inevitability of outcome, and above all its brilliantly conceived and completely realized characters, “Colcorton” is a deeply satisfying book.

My Thoughts:

We return back to Florida in Edith Pope’s Colcorton, and while it shares some of the character and feel of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, Pope’s novel is one with much larger themes and much more complex characters. Instead of focusing on a young boy coming of age in the wilds of Florida, Colcorton follows the third generation of Floridians, Abby and Jared Clanghearne, whose grandfather was a slave and plantation owner on the Florida coast, and whose past wealth and land holdings are now but the faintest shadow of what they once were, due not only to the end of slavery, but also because of a dark secret that has kept Abby mostly isolated on the ruins of the old plantation house: her grandmother was black, and thus her family’s bloodline, according to the general white public, is “tainted,” and Abby and her brother Jared are at risk to be treated as black themselves, losing their friends, their livelihoods, and potentially even what little is left of their family’s property and money. Continue reading

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The 1945 Novel Decision

In 1945, Orville Prescott of the New York Times replaced Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune, and the three jury members, if anything, had even more trouble coming to a consensus than before. Orville Prescott championed John Hersey’s World War II novel, A Bell for Adano, while Maxwell Geismar preferred Joseph Pennell’s The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters, and the chairman, John Chamberlain, argued for Edith Pope’s Colcorton. Like the year before, the jury report provided a list of each member’s preferences, this time ten books long apiece, and gave numerical values to the first five spots on each jury member’s list. The resulting tally found Pope’s Colcorton in first with 13 points, Hersey in second with 9 points, but Prescott just behind in third with 8 points. Each of the jury members went on to explain their thoughts on their choices in individual paragraphs.

Chamberlain writes that Colcorton is “the best novel of the year” for its “sheer ability to maintain a mood of mounting terror throughout a long novel in which the characters are fully created.” Though Geismar placed The History of Rome Hanks at the top of his list, he goes on to explain that “in some ways I like Colcorton better, though it is more limited, and flattens out in the end. And Prescott writes that the novel “transcends mere local color and achieves a note of psychological tragedy of almost Grecian grandeur.” Continue reading