A historical novel about a Russian woman who marries a wealthy Californian; later, though they lead separate lives, they both become caught up in the California agricultural debates over water. 1948.
When I write a one-sentence synopsis of a book, I try to keep it pretty tidy and matter-of-fact. (See above for said attempt.) With this book, though, I really struggled! The Cleft Rock is just so, so much more than a single sentence!
Full disclaimer: I loved this book. I finished it just yesterday—made myself late to work, in fact, so I might finish reading it—and all day long I found myself thinking back on the characters, wanting more, more, more! If there were a sequel, I would read it in a heartbeat.
Not only is there no sequel, there’s not even any hype around this book. It’s fairly cheap to find a copy, as it had a pretty substantial printing in 1948. Hobart was once a bestselling author, her 1933 Oil for the Lamps of China being her best-known work. And yet…she’s still pretty much unheard of and unread today. The Cleft Rock is solid testimony that this should not be the case!
The story opens in a frontier town in China, near Siberia, where a young American man named Edward Dodd is serving a short stint in the foreign service. During the Great War he had enlisted thinking he would be sent off to fight, but instead he was given a desk job. He suspects this was his father’s doing; his father is extremely controlling and plans on molding Edward into the kind of man who will be useful to him and his California business empire.
Edward is horribly lonely during that bitterly cold winter, and he takes up with a Russian woman. Katya is the sole surviving member of an aristocratic “White” Russian family that perished during the revolution. Somehow, she’s found her way into China, with nothing but the clothes on her back, her pretty face, and her intelligence.
Still, she’s scarred by her experiences. Memories of home and angry, revolting peasants haunt her by night. Only through Edward does she find some sense of security—but at the same time, it’s just as likely he’ll abandon her once he heads home to California.
She was not certain of his kindness or of the kindness of his people. Americans were strange to her. Did they always just want to be made happy? His sudden gentleness might mean less than nothing; she did not know.
Then the inevitable happens, and their situation must change: Edward gets a message from home, informing him that his father is terribly ill. Edward must leave his post in China and return immediately. Is this a power play by his parents, to pull their errant sheep back into the flock?
Edward returns home, but he won’t totally give in (yet): he marries Katya while still in China, even though he knows his parents will be horrified. At this point, we think Edward might be our “hero” of the story. Thankfully, this is not truly the case…
…Because shortly after they return to California, Edward’s family successfully convinces him to quickly, quietly, and thoroughly divorce Katya. Now is when we see that Edward is probably just as spineless as we feared.
Mercifully, the story shifts increasingly toward Katya’s side of the story. Abandoned in the foreign city of San Francisco, she seeks out fellow Russian refugees, and finds comfort in these distant but still accessible acquaintances.
Plus, she discovers that she’s pregnant. The family’s lawyer, however, takes advantage of her ignorance of the American legal system, and makes it clear she will not receive anything more from the family. Not only that, but she’s even forced to give up her American last name.
Here was a new threat to her security. The name of the man who had offered her love and protection symbolized for her dignity and safety. At the suggestion that she drop the name, the memory of her former terror at the time of her flight from Russia, pushed below the conscious level of her mind of late, sprang to the surface. Her pulse beat violently, pounding out the whimpering cry of the pursued.
It’s at this point that my favorite character steps into the story: Edward’s older, half-brother, John. John has successfully forged his own way in the world, pursuing a philanthropic career that satisfies him in spite of the disappointment it brings to his father. It is John who urges Edward to consider the difficult position he’s put Katya in. But Edward, ever the weakling, goes along with this father’s plan.
I won’t give away too much more plot here, because The Cleft Rock is entirely worth discovering on your own. I love the gentle way in which Edward and Katya’s stories keep just barely crossing paths. Edward’s challenge remains coming to terms with his father, while Katya’s (and her child’s) challenge is of finding a place in American society, at a time when the country is flooded with immigrants, and any Russian refugee can claim aristocratic origins, while simultaneously facing the slur of a “Red” Russian.
As a historical novelist, Hobart was clearly fascinated by politics and industry. The Cleft Rock is likewise her vessel for telling the history of the California Valley water debates. We see the political, big-money side through Edward, and the boots-on-the-ground struggle through Katya.
For it setting, tone, and even subject matter, The Cleft Rock often called to my mind Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Hobart’s language is perhaps not as literary, but the plot carries the same long-lasting punch. To me, The Cleft Rock is just as worthy of a place in any high school curriculum.
No matter your age, I cannot recommend The Cleft Rock enough! I’ve recently been in a slump of just “pretty good” reading, but this book is definitely something exceptional. I positively fell in love with these characters. Please, please read it! And then tell everyone you know to read it!