As any dedicated reader will agree, possibly the most exciting part about moving to a new place is gaining access to a whole new library system. When work relocated me to West Virginia’s Appalachia this fall, I could hardly wait to add a sixth library card to my collection. (Yes, I’ve moved around a bit in life!)
Work has kept me busy, but I’ve already spent many evenings and weekends exploring “my” new library. Actually, there are a few libraries around here. The best by a long shot, though, is the library at the small, private college. I especially love that the school’s librarians seem to favor their collection of old literature, complementing it with only a modest assortment of prizewinners and “modern classics.” I don’t think this curatorial choice makes the fiction section very popular with the students—I’ve yet to encounter a student among the shelves—but as for this reader, I couldn’t be more delighted!
During one of my evening browses through the shelves, I encountered an author I’d never heard of before…and yet the library had a full shelf of her works! That immediately peaked my interest. The author, Ellen Glasgow, was a Virginian who published over twenty novels between 1897 and 1942. (The 1942 novel, In This Our Life, won the Pulitzer that year.) In my library’s Modern Library edition, the author note remarks that, “In open defiance of the genteel prejudice against women expressing themselves on such controversial subjects as politics, Miss Glasgow staked her reputation and social position on a novel published under her own name.”
Barren Ground, though it comes late in Glasgow’s career, still strikes me as rather progressive for a female novelist. The story opens with our teenaged protagonist, Dorinda Oakley. She’s just finished her day’s work at the general store, and as she prepares to walk home she hopes fervently that she will once again run into the doctor’s handsome son Jason. Jason has only recently returned to this small Virginia farming community. The story is that he’s come to look after his ailing father (who’s a renowned drunk), and to take over the medical practice until his father is healthy again (read: stops drinking himself into oblivion). At such a time, Jason will undoubtedly return to the grand city of New York whence he came.
In the mean time, the community—especially its young ladies—can talk of seemingly nothing else besides this new arrival in town. At the novel’s opening Dorinda has only seen Jason once, but it’s enough: she is clearly smitten.
Dorinda is very good looking, too, with her dark hair and bright blue eyes. There are other young men in town who would marry her in a flash. The thing is: Dorinda is perfectly primed to fall madly and poetically in love, and this exciting new man is just the ticket. As her mother tells her,
Grandfather used to say that when a woman got ready to fall in love the man didn’t matter, because she could drape her feeling over a scarecrow and pretend he was handsome…The way I’ve worked it out is that with most women, when it seems pure foolishness, it ain’t really that. It’s just the struggle to get away from things as they are.
If Dorinda is looking to escape this poor, rural community, Jason seems her most likely means. As they talk and get to know each other, Jason rants about how the farmers around here know nothing of agriculture. They don’t understand that they cannot keep planting the same crops in the same fields, generation after generation. The farmers, Dorinda’s humble father included, resign themselves to fate whenever pestilence or frost wipes out their season’s crop. Jason has some pretty lofty ideas about bringing the community into the modern era of farming, but as he talks, we wonder: who is he kidding? Why would the farmers, who’ve owned and worked the same acres as their forefathers, take farming advice from this young city-slicker? He’s not even a farmer—he’s a doctor.
Dorinda listens to Jason’s rants quite sympathetically. She even goes so far as to side with his farming notions over her father’s. But Dorinda is fundamentally different from Jason. For one, she loves this land. It’s difficult and unpredictable and has trapped the entire population in poverty, but still she loves it. Glasgow’s writing really shines through in these moments when we get to see the land through Dorinda’s eyes.
The romance between Dorinda and Jason develops rather quickly. (In fact, as a side note, the Modern Library edition of this book is deceptively small—it’s about the size of a 250 page book, yet it’s over 500 pages long!) We witness Dorinda falling deeply in love, ready to abandon anything for the sake of her beloved. Yet every time that she has a scene with Jason, we witness something in Jason that’s actually quite distressing. I’d call it a manic weakness, if such a thing is possible. Jason proposes to Dorinda (although we never witness this scene), and yet it still seems so obvious that things are not going to end well. Even Dorinda is sensitive to the premonition:
Though her love was the only thing that was vivid to her, she had even now, while she felt his arms about her and his lips seeking hers, the old haunting sense of impermanence, as if the moment, like the perfect hour of the afternoon, were too bright to endure. However much she loved him, she could not sink the whole of herself into emotion; something was left over, and this something watched as a spectator. Ecstasy streamed through her with the swiftness of light; yet she never lost completely the feeling that at any instant the glory might vanish and she might drop back again into the dull grey of existence.
Jason does betray Dorinda—I don’t feel this is giving away too much plot, although I’ll not give specifics—and Dorinda is understandably bereft and humiliated. She runs away to Washington D.C., where she intends to start afresh, where no one knows her story, where every bend of the road and ray of light on the fields doesn’t make her heart grieve. In the midst of her fresh beginning, and her prospects of returning home to her beloved family and farm, we wonder whether Dorinda might find happiness again. She is resigned to a life of hard work and perseverance. But love? As she repeatedly swears, “I’ve finished with all that.”
Barren Ground is not a light book. In addition to the raw facts of plotline, Glasgow’s descriptions of the land can be unforgiving. For instance, there’s a recurring symbol of the broomsedge (see a description here), a weed that spreads relentlessly across the farmers’ fields, no matter how diligently they cut it back, year after year. The broomsedge seems to echo Dorinda’s own diligence to make something of her life. Barren Ground comes with a hinted inevitability.
But Barren Ground is undoubtedly worth the read. Glasgow’s writing is the stuff college literature classes are made of. (Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was why I found so many of her books in this college library!) Her prose is eloquent and poignant, whether she’s describing a young girl, an old man, or land that knows no bounds of time. It’s the kind of book that, like certain people whom you can’t quite decipher, will return to your thoughts again and again.