Friday, February 3, 2017

Picking the Brains of History: Ruth Moore's A Fair Wind Home

As someone -- Rousseau, isn't it? -- says, it's a funny world.  Just when it gets to the state where it seems as if the river were the only way out, some little thing will go and happen, and you are immediately convinced that whatever [is,] is right, and everything happens for the best in this best of all possible universes.*
"And then," as Dorothy Parker continued after listing various theatrical atrocities of 1921, "just when you are wondering if death by gas is really as painless as they say it is," you pick up another of Ruth Moore's novels, A Fair Wind Home (Morrow, 1953), and "you instantly feel that we are undoubtedly put here for a purpose, after all, and there is a very good chance of there being a hereafter."

What turned Parker's mood around was The Robbery a one-act play by Clare Kummer; for me it was starting to read A Fair Wind Home. Almost immediately a wave of relaxation swept over me as I returned to Ruth Moore's world.  This one is a departure from the novels I've read by her: it's an historical novel, set in the mid-1700s between the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution.  She warns the reader in a brief introductory note that
an historian might find that liberties have been taken, and that little attempt has been made to reproduce accessories of the period.  Those who wish battles and massacres may imagine them as taking place when and where they did; but there were times when people worked and built, and this is the story of three men of peace who lived in one of those piping times.
This stretches things just a bit, to my mind: there's a marvelous sequence about a third of the way through in which a rigidly honest woman tracks down a pirate to return money her son had stolen from him, and there's a small battle at its climax, which mostly takes place in the novel's peripheral vision.  But it's there.  I was afraid for a moment that Moore was going to write a much more violent book than any I'd read by her before, but she handled this element well: enough to be disturbing without letting it take over the story altogether, and with some sharp comedy thrown in.  The book would make a great PBS miniseries up to that point at least (I'm only about halfway through right now).  As usual, I love Moore's writing, her evocation of place, and her characters.  I've been needing the feeling of home, seen lovingly but critically, that she provides.

Looking for biographical information on Moore today, I noticed again that she hated the word "regionalist" when it was applied to her.  I understand why she felt that way -- "regionalist" was commonly used to diminish and dismiss the value of work by the authors it was applied to -- but I think it would be better to reclaim the word.  Not only have some major, critically respected writers been regionalists, but every writer worth his or her salt will have to do something with locations; it's just that setting a novel in New York City and its suburbs is not seen as "regionalism," just as the very English writer isn't seen as "ethnic."

Jennifer Craig Pixley, in a 1996 article on Moore I found online, wrote: "Moore does locate her novels and her poetry specifically on the coast of Maine. This is the geography of her childhood and the memorized terrain in which she is most at home. This is the location that she dreams of, even when she is not there, but her images of this locale are not sentimental."  True enough, though I don't think "not sentimental" goes far enough; as I've pointed out myself more than once, Moore was very critical of provincialism whether in her Maine fisherfolk or in the summer people who hired them as caretakers and housekeepers.  For me, as much as I enjoy her depiction of the Maine coast and its small towns, which don't seem all that different from other places anyway, it's her characters and their interactions that are memorable.  That someone like Ruth Moore lived, and wrote, as she did doesn't cause me to believe in the hereafter, but that there are human beings with sense out there in the world.

Dorothy Parker, "The Primrose Pathology," Ainslee's, May 1921.  Reprinted in Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway, 1918-1923 (iUniverse, 2014).