The Unremarkable Able McLaughlins

I finally finished the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel after dragging my feet for much of the summer. It is altogether difficult to go from reading the beautiful rolling novels of the great American pioneer writer, Willa Cather, to the bland landscapes of Margaret Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The Able McLaughlins.

Wilson’s novel is a story that tries to teach of redemption and forgiveness, and to encourage those with strength to take pity on the suffering. It attempts to be a moralizing story. However, the reader is the one who winds up suffering from a total disconnect with any of the characters and their struggles, while the anticlimactic closing chapter leads to a wildly unsatisfying conclusion of the story.

The book is about Scottish immigrants who settle on the Iowa prairie around the time of the Civil War -an event which unfortunately bears very little mark on the story. Wully McLaughlin returns home to his family’s farm from the war to spend one golden evening with his love interest, Chirstie McNair -a mostly unremarkable woman, who is reportedly beautiful and highly emotional. Wully and Chirstie swear to commit to one another and then he is called back to the war, only to return again a short time later, this time for good. He goes immediately to Chirstie’s home only to find her changed -she is now distant and aloof to his advances. He eventually discovers she has been raped and impregnated by their cousin, Peter Keith. In a rage, Wully goes after Peter Keith and threatens to kill him if he ever returns again.

Years pass, and Wully and Chirstie have gotten married, with Wully taking responsibility for the child and taking the shame and the blame for the child’s early birth, sparing Chirstie the scandal, but soon many in the tight-knit Iowa farming community discover the truth. Wully and Chirstie build a home and a farm together, and one day Peter Keith returns and tries to grab Chirstie while she is alone in the house, but he quickly flees. Wully later learns that Chirstie had shot him in the foot. Wully and many of the men grab their guns and go hunting for Peter Keith out on the prairie -a long and suspenseful scene in which the reader desperately wants to see Wully violently punish Peter Keith. However, Peter Keith is never found. One day, Wully and Chirstie are in town conducting business, and Wully happens to find Peter Keith lying alone, unconscious, and suffering due to a hemorrhage on a pile of hay in a stable. Wully decides to leave him, but Chirstie forces him to go back and do the right thing by bringing Peter Keith to his mother’s house to die. They do so, and in the end Wully has a sudden and unexpected change of heart. He decides to help Peter Keith in his passing and take care of him while they transport him to his mother’s house. In the closing lines, Wully even mentions how he may go to find a pillow for Peter Keith -an abrupt and confusing ending to the novel. In all of the preceding chapters, Wully had gone into a frenzied rage at Peter Keith, only to let it dissipate in the end. The vengeance which we so desperately seek, and which we were led to believe was ahead, never arrives.

Praise of the novel can be found in its accurate portrayal of immigrants on the prairie, and their fervent Presbyterianism. Apparently the initial recommendation from the novel jury to the Pulitzer Committee was that no novel for the year 1923-1924 was “outstanding enough to merit a prize this year.” They even considered nominating Willa Cather for the second time. Eventually the committee noted that “if it is deemed that a prize should be awarded anyhow, the committee would name ‘Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.” They followed up with a statement assuring that they would not publicize that no book deserved the prize, so there would not be the same type of scandal that occurred in 1921 when Sinclair Lewis was denied the Pulitzer, and the novel jury took their frustration to the newspapers. Much of the early years of the Pulitzer were spent trying to avoid controversy, in an effort not to besmirch the name of the committee, the donor, or Columbia University.

Published in 1923, Wilson’s novel won the coveted Pulitzer in 1924. It was Wilson’s first, and most notable, novel. Today, The Able McLaughlins is a difficult book to track down, having been out of print for many years. Having access to a strong inter-library loan program was the only way I was able to get my hands on this one.

Who was Margaret Wilson?

Margaret Wilson (1882-1973) grew up on a farm in Iowa. She graduated from the University of Chicago before pursuing missionary work in India during the early 1900s. She later returned to the United States to become a teacher and care for her invalid father. During that time she built a reputation for serializing short stories in the Atlantic Monthly. Two central themes found throughout much of her writing included the redemption offered through faith, and this is evident in the conclusion of The Able McLaughlins in which revenge is not exacted by Wully. The other central theme focuses on the suffering of women. In 1923, the same year her first novel The Able McLaughlins was published, she married a Scotsman tutor at Oxford. She wrote several adult novels, some focused on her experiences in India, and one book for children. Her last book, published n 1936, was a sequel to her debut Pulitzer-Prize winning book, entitled The Law and the McLaughlins. Grahame Greene once wrote a notably favorable review of the book.

Here are a couple passages from the novel that struck me as I was reading:

“The prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of September afternoons, vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where only very little waves slip back into their element. One might have walked for hours without hearing anything louder than high white clouds casting shadows over the distances, or the tall slough grass bending lazily into waves” -opening lines.

“They were happy as the summer wore on, the three of them working from the first streak of dawn to the frog-croaking darkness. The stars in their courses and the clouds in their flights seemed to be working with them that season. Week after week, just as the ground grew ready for it, they watched the desired clouds roll up in great hills against the sky, and pour down long, slow, soaking rains. They watched the sun grow more and more stimulatingly warm, and then, just when their corn needed it, grow fiercely hot in its coaxing. They worked like slaves, of course. But then, they had always worked like slaves…Wheat and corn had surely never grown better than theirs did that year. To John, now, a field of wheat was a field of wheat, capable of being sold for so many dollars. To Wully, as to his father, there was first always, to be sure, the promise of money in growing grain, and he needed money. But besides that, there was more in it than perhaps anyone can say – certainly more than he ever said – all that keeps farm-minded men farming. It was the perfect symbol of rewarded, lavish labor, of requited love and care, of creating power, of wifely faithfulness, of the flower and fruit of life, its beauty, its ecstasy. Wully was too essentially a farmer to ever try to express his deep satisfaction in words. But when he saw his own wheat strong and green, swaying in the breezes, flushed with just the first signs of ripening, the sight made him begin whistling. And when, working to exhaustion, he saw row after row of corn, hoed by his own hands, standing forth unchoked by weeds, free to eat and grow like happy children, even though he was too tired to walk erectly, something within him – maybe his heart – danced with joy. Therefore he was then, as almost always, to be reckoned among the fortunate of the earth, one of those who know ungrudged contented exhaustion” (Chapter XIII, p. 170-172).

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