Saturday, September 15, 2012

Edna Ferber, Cimarron


Opening Passage:

All the Venables sat at Sunday dinner. All those handsome inbred Venable faces were turned, enthralled, toward Yancey Cravat, who was talking. The combined effect was almost blinding, as of incandescence; but Yancey Cravat was not bedazzled. A sun surrounded by lesser planets, he gave out a radiance so powerful as to dim the luminous circle about him.

Summary: Cimarron is the story of Sabra Cravat, née Venable, who marries the larger-than-life Yancey Cravat, but it keeps forgetting that; the story begins with Yancey, it ends with Yancey, and gets its name from Yancey (whose nickname was Cimarron). Structurally it is the story of how women like Sabra Cravat tamed the Oklahoma Territory, but it cannot break free from the romantic appeal of Yancey Cravat, who, despite being out of the story for large sections of the book, nonetheless lingers throughout as a background image that cannot be erased. In a sense, of course, this mirrors how we think about frontiers and pioneers. Frontiers are civilized by hard work, intelligent organization, and a deliberate attempt to break down the impediments to 'soft living' and the like; but what we remember about frontiers are the wild and crazy parts, the semi-legends and quasi-myths that spring up whenever human beings face the dangers of the wilderness to say that here cities will nonetheless rise. I'm reminded of a passage in Louis L'Amour's Sackett in which someone comes upon the main character, a rough-and-tumble cowboy, and discovers to her surprise that he is reading Blackstone's commentary on the laws of England. It's an image with a point. The West was won by people who insisted on law and order, and kept insisting on law and order, so that law and order spread despite local setbacks; not people slinging guns but people reading Blackstone. But this is the long, tedious work of endless numbers of people, most of whom are hardly even remembered; what strikes the mind with force is instead the madness at the edges, where law breaks down or struggles against lawlessness.

I don't think the novel is a complete success because of this. It could have taken the route of showing the struggle between these two aspects of pioneer life, but while this does get some showing in the novel, especially toward the beginning, it is not consistent enough throughout to give us more than vague indications. It could have focused on the longsuffering Sabra, and structurally it does, but Yancey seems pretty much to get a free pass throughout the whole, just because he's picturesque. It could have focused on Yancey, but then it would have to have been a novel all of edges, all frontier and no civilizing of it. It could have been the story of the town of Osage, using the Cravats just as reference points. As it is, it can't make up its mind which of these it wants to be, and so doesn't quite do justice to any of them.

The Osage Indians also don't get a fair shake through the book; the white liberalism of the novel can see them as people but can't see things from their perspective.

Favorite Passage: This is Yancey Cravat speaking.

"...You can't read the history of the United States, my friends" (all this he later used in an Oklahoma Fourth of July speech when they tried to make him Governor) "without learning the great story of those thousands of unnamed women--women like this one I've described--women in mud-caked boots and calico dresses and sunbonnets, crossing the prairies and the desert and the mountains enduring hardship and privation. Good women, with a terrible and rigid goodness that comes of work and self-denial. Nothing picturesque or romantic about them, I suppose--though occasionally one of them flashes--Belle Starr the outlaw--Rose of the Cimarron--Jeanette Daisy who jumped from a moving Santa Fé train to stake her claim--but the others--no, their story's never really been told. But it's there, just the same. And if it's ever told straight you'll know it's the sunbonnet and not the sombrero that has settled this country."

Recommendation: As Ferber says in her foreword, "Only the more fantastic and improbable events contained in this book are true." This is a very well-done local color kind of novel, with an interesting set of characters, although it never quite manages to decide what it wants to do with them. If you like Western tales, this is a good one, and takes a rather different approach from that which most Westerns take.

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