Carolyn Howard-Johnson, This Is the Place (America House, 2001)
[originally posted 14Jan2002]
There is a recent review of this book at amazon.com (December 29, 2001) that so misses the mark I find it hard to believe that reviewer and I were reading the same book. The eviewer takes pains to belittle the idea that subtle prejudice is, in fact, prejudice. One wonders how much prejudice of any sort said reviewer has encountered in her life; if a person’s definition of prejudice begins and ends at the business end of a baseball bat, then it’s obvious such a person is not going to pick up on what’s going on under the surface in this novel.
That reviewer does say something worth repeating, however. The comparison on the back jacket between This Is the Place and Gone with the Wind is ludicrous. Mitchell’s first (and blessedly only) novel was an overblown, unreadable piece of melodrama that should better have been published, in the words of Melville, to the flames. Howard-Johnson’s first novel is exactly the opposite; it’s a spare novel, rarely a word out of place and with very little filler, without long diversions that have little to do with the central characters. No, Gone with the Wind this isn’t, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
Set in 1959, This Is the Place gives us Skylar Eccles, between high school and college, working for the local paper, and a non-Mormon living in the state of Utah. She’s dating a mormon seriously, and it looks as if she’s treading the same routs as most of her ancestors that we get to know in this novel: she’s going to marry a Mormon. But how that affects her, how her wordless battle against pre-ERA workplaces, and the various other strings of plot here are of secondary importance. This Is the Place is a novel about the Eccles family and Sky’s attempt to put the recent family history into words. [ed. note to be edited out of the Amazon posting: In other words: this is what Billiards at Half Past Nine could have been and wasn’t.] It is a love affair with genealogy, and that is what makes this novel shine. More than once while reading this, I found myself making comparisons to Lee Smith’s brilliant novel Oral History; I get the feeling that the audiences for the two books would cross over perfectly.
Since I felt compelled to mention the prejudice angle previously, I might as well attempt to justify it. Sure, there’s prejudice to be found here. Anyone who grew up with Tom Fitzgerald’s wondrous Great Brain books has a basic understanding of the ins and outs of Utah society. Not much changed between T. D. and his family at the turn of the century and Sky in 1959. Much is made of the oppression of the Mormons by American society; much is made of the oppression the Mormons foist on others, as well, both the non-Mormons living in Utah and those places to whom the mormons send missionaries. There’s also a rather biting passage about the non-Mormon minority’s feelings towards the Mormons that had me wanting to stand up and cheer for our heroine. Yes, prejudice is pervasive in this novel, but it’s not thrown in our faces with the tacit understanding that we should Do Something About It. It’s presented in a more Nietzschian fashion—what doesn’t kill us, etc. Does that make this a bad book, or a “sell-out” as far as prejudice goes? Far from it—would that more American literature treated prejudice in such a pragmatic fashion.
My main problem with the book has nothing at all to do with Carolyn Howard-Johnson and the tales she spins within its pages, but with the publishers. The editor fell asleep at the wheel more times than I can count, and every spelling and grammatical mistake jars, especially when there are ten or twenty per page (this is commonplace in the large italicized blocks towards the end where Sky actually starts writing down all this family history). If you’re a nitpicker, beware—there are large blocks of this novel where you’ll be slowed down by a shoddy editing department. I thought the book was well worth reading despite that, but your mileage may vary. *** ½