Life after Work

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, Pulitzer Winner of 1932

“The Good Earth” is a story that takes place probably at the beginning of the 20th century in China. Wang Lung is a poor Chinese peasant living with his ailing father. He just scraped barely enough money together to buy himself a wife, a former slave in a rich household, named O-Lan. She turns out to be a good woman, a hard worker. They work on his small piece of land and O-Lan gives birth to two boys  while Wang Lung dreams of being able to buy more land some day so that they can have a better life. But then a drought strikes, locust swarms hit and the family falls on hard times. O-Lan kills their new baby girl right after birth to spare her from a life of hunger. They sell everything but the house and land and move to a larger city where they survive on cheap meals and begging (and some theft). Some time later, during a wave of riots, both Wang Lung and O-Lan come across surprising riches – Wang Lung accepts money from a rich man begging him to protect him from an angry mob and O-Lan discovers hidden jewels in an abandoned house. This enables the family to return to the village and re-establish their farm after the drought. They are even able to buy more land and the next years life gets better and better.

Until… Wang Lung decides that he is now rich and rich farmers spend money on good clothes and visit tea houses where young girls entertain the men. He falls in love with a beautiful concubine and takes her home. O-Lan is hurt but does not complain. Soon she gets sick and dies. Wang Lung grieves and realizes how much she meant to him, too late. He also realizes that nobody else in his family truly respects him. His sons are plotting the sell the farm that he is so proud of so that they can be even richer. A shame because the land is, in Wang Lung’s eyes, the one good thing to fight and live for. He has always trusted that the land will eventually pay back for all his hard work, although in the beginning of the story that is uncertain.

In truth, the reason why the family is able to go back to the village is because they ran into some lucky breaks and came across a lot of money, not because of honest, hard work. They did put that hard work into the land once they returned to it, and were able to prosper from then on, but that’s not really the same is it? The book also seems to maintain that as long as you maintain your connection to the land, you remain a (mostly) good person. The sons who go to school and become estranged from the land turn out to be greedy bad apples. But even Wang Lung in his later years becomes shallow. He goes to the tea house and brings home a concubine because he believes that is what men in his status do, but as death approaches, his focus returns to the land and what it stands for.

I liked reading this book for the most part. In the beginning I was worried that this would be a depressing story, but it is well written and the ups and downs of Wang Lung’s life are always interesting. O-Lan’s selfless characterization of subservient wife, mother, and worker can get frustrating for our modern-day sensibilities, but is the authentic ideal of the times. In a way one could envy her for being so centered and pragmatic, but it would have been nice to hear her take on things every once in a while instead of just hearing Wang Lung’s thoughts.

Something else that I felt uncertain about is that we have another white/caucasian author writing about experiences in a different culture/ethnicity. This perspective, when it occurs with the American literature, is often challenged, examples are right here in the Pulitzer books (Laughing Boy, Scarlet Sister Mary), so how about writing from the point of view of a completely different country/culture? Granted, Pearl Buck spent a long time in China and the book seems authentic enough based on what I know, but it would be interesting to hear from Chinese readers on what they thought about the “Good Earth.”


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The Store by Thomas Sigismund Stribling, Pulitzer Winner of 1933

“The Store” is a very interesting book because it deals with the Reconstruction period after the Civil war, a time I don’t know much about. It seems as if all too often in documentaries, the story ends as slaves are freed and the assumption is that “they lived happily ever after.” But of course, reality begs to differ. “The Store” tells of the small post-war Southern town of Florence, where White folks are trying to hang on to their customary lifestyle. Blacks are still treated just about as cruelly as ever. Maybe they are not being sold or whipped, but racism remains rampant and White people resent that they have to give up their sense of entitlement.

It has been a while since I finished this book so I don’t remember too much about the actual plot other than that our protagonist, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, is worried about his future since his family’s plantation has fallen on tough times after the Civil War ended and his slaves were freed. A lot of the book revolves around the Colonel’s scheming ways, trying to sell his cotton, then buying the town store. In the beginning of the story, Colonel Milt is married to Ponny, who is described as a morbidly obese woman who he despises (he only wanted her because he thought she was rich which turned out not to be true). Eventually Ponny dies which leaves the Colonel to woo Sydna Crowninshield, the daughter of the woman he once loved and wanted to marry, but who jilted him. Needless to say the age difference is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, Gracie Vaiden, a former slave of the Vaidens who is described as a “Quadroon”  or quarter-black, hopes in vain for the chance to move to the North with her son Toussaint. Since he is so light-skinned he can pass for a young white man she wants him to marry a white woman who does not know about his past. In the course of the book we find out that not only is Gracie Miltiades’ half-sister (his father obviously raped/slept with slave women), Toussaint is Miltiades’ son (the Colonel kept up the family tradition), but the Colonel has no idea. While he is usually pretty sharp when it comes to business dealings, when it comes to relationships and people he is clearly rather on the dense side.

Sadly, things don’t turn out well for Gracie and Toussaint. He decides to marry Lucy, a local black woman, against his mother’s wishes. Lucy and Toussaint want to stay in the South and prove to the world that black folks can have a good life and succeed with honest hard work. And, not unexpectedly, black folks with attitude are wont to run into problems in this environment.

What made this book so difficult to read were the frank and brutal racist thoughts and dialogues that permeate it. By the end I was exhausted! While Stribling does not come right out to condemn racism, it is clear that his White characters are for the most part either despicable or extremely shallow (and sometimes, both). Black folks are mostly treated sympathetically. Overall a good read though. I did cry at the end, so that’s a plus in my world, but I won’t read it again ever.

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Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, Pulitzer Winner of 1931

“Years of Grace” ended up being a tedious read. It is a fairly heavy book and started rather unremarkably. Teenage Jane Ward is the youngest daughter of a middle class family. She falls in love with Andre, a French boy whose family is somewhat bohemian (for the time) – the 1890s, but her parents unsurprisingly disapprove of the relationship. Andre moves back to France, but Jane resolves to remain faithful to him. She goes off to college where she seems to enjoy intellectual pursuit, but returns before earning a degree because it is time for her debut, and she also suspects that college really has no meaning for her. It is just something she could do (also Jane’s mother did not approve which made Jane more resolved to go).

Back home, Jane is courted by a young man from a very wealthy family and decides to give up on the idea of ever getting together with Andre. And so she moves on to the settled life of a housewife and mother, until she falls in love with the husband of a friend and finally discovers true passion. Unfortunately she decides not to act on her desires and remains the dutiful wife and mother.

Overall, I thought this book was boring. Hardly ever does anything happen! Jane falls in love with the wrong boy? Of course she does whatever her parents want. Jane fights to go to college, but does not complete her education. She marries the “good match” her parents approve of and enjoys her husband’s riches. She finally has a bit of an adventure, but doesn’t go through with it. Jane just keeps on doing whatever everyone else expects her to do. As the author lets us look right into Jane’s thoughts, we can see how she reasons about what to do at almost any point, and while she is sometimes able to express some passion and promise, she is so self-limiting at most other times that I was wondering if she was really dense or obtuse. I have to admit, I kept on reading waiting and waiting for her to snap out of her goody-goody ways, but that never happened. She remains pretty much the same person all through her life. Meanwhile the readers can see the world and attitudes change around Jane as we follow her from her teens to grandmotherhood. That was probably the best part of the book for me.

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Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge, Pulitzer Winner of 1930

“Laughing Boy” by Oliver La Farge is another book that gives the reader a glimpse into the life of an ethnic minority – Navajo Indians. This story takes place in 1915. Laughing Boy is a young, traditional Navajo who falls in love with a Navajo girl called Slim Girl. He marries her although she is an outsider. Slim Girl has no family, she was raised by Anglos in a boarding school, which alienated her from her native culture and where she was horribly mistreated. Her miserable childhood makes her despise White people but Slim Girl is willing to use them if necessary to reach her goal – to become Navajo again. She tries very hard to emulate the more traditional lifestyle, learns to weave and so on, while also making money more or less as a prostitute or “kept woman” of a White man (unbeknownst to Laughing Boy of course). She wants to use the money to buy a better life on the reservation for her husband and herself. While I was reading about this I kept worrying about Laughing Boy finding out and when he does, tragedy ensues, although not as horrifically as expected (I thought he would kill her). Laughing Boy ends up shooting the white man (not fatally if I recall correctly, it has been a few months since I read the book) and the couple are both on the run. Eventually fate catches up with the two, although again not in a way I expected and I found the end unsatisfying. Another Navajo man who has a grudge against them shoots at the couple, and Slim Girl dies.

This story is interesting for me for a few reasons. Not only do I live in the Southwest and have traveled all over the Navajo Nation, I have woven two (very simple) Navajo rugs so far and have learned about this fascinating culture. The book deals with a time when traditional people could no longer avoid running into white people, tourists or traders. Children were forcefully removed from their families and carried off to boarding schools where they grew up to be neither Indian nor White, poorly equipped to survive in either world. The traditional lifestyle was about to disappear.

Oliver La Farge was a teacher on the reservation for many years which enabled him to describe the landscape and people fairly well. Again, there is controversy over whether a White man can truly write from a minority perspective. Some Navajo say the book is all right, others disagree, and some First Nation authors dismiss this type of literature altogether. I was unhappy with the book for different reasons. For one, the prose sounds really dated and when the Navajos talk (or think), their language sounds stilted, a bit like “movie-Indian” talk. Something else I didn’t like is that the author had to make the woman the tragic figure of the pair. I liked that she was very resourceful and cunning, and in many ways at least equal to Laughing Boy in their relationship, but in the end she dies and I really don’t know why that was necessary. I expected her to get killed when Laughing Boy finds out about her secret life, but in the end it happens in an unrelated incident, which made me feel as if the author (god-like, from the heavens, as it were) wanted to punish her for being so “uppity” that she thought she could turn her life around.



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Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin, Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1929

Scarlet Sister Mary is the first Pulitzer winning novel that was not written from a white person’s perspective. Every character in this story is black. White folks are mentioned on occasion in a vague sense but we never meet them. The story unfolds in the South after the Civil War, so people are no longer slaves, but they live on (or near) a plantation and are poor. This book’s author Julia Peterkin on the other hand is white and lived on a South Carolina plantation in the early 1900s, which presumably gives her some authority on the subject. She wrote several books and short stories from the black folks’ point of view which I suppose would be considered politically incorrect today. But more about the book’s back story later.

Sister Mary is a young woman hopelessly in love with July who is a notorious womanizer. He marries her, but she’s already pregnant and when the baby (named “Unexpected”, nicknamed “Unex”) is born, everybody knows and people are talking. July disappears soon after his son’s birth and Mary is heartbroken. She knows July is after other women so she visits the local witch doctor to get a love charm and win him back, but July stays away. Mary then turns to other men for comfort and over the years has a number of children out of wedlock. This is just fine for her, she enjoys her brood and they are all healthy, well-fed and happy. The village however is aghast and she’s thrown out of her local church for being a scarlet sinner. Mary takes this in stride. She has learned to take pleasure from men, she wants nothing else. Here is what the books says she was thinking:

Men are too much alike, with ways too much the same. None is worth keeping, none worth a tear; and still each one is a little different from the rest; just different enough to make him worth finding out.

Years go by and Unex, now an adult, leaves to find work in a bigger city. Then July returns and wants to get back together, but Mary refuses. He disappears again and not too long after that, Unex returns with a baby. He has gotten married, but his wife died from an illness shortly after giving birth. Mary is overjoyed to see Unex and takes both in, but Unex is also sick and dies. Mary then has a “come to Jesus” moment. In a dream she finds out how badly she has sinned and vows to atone. This eventually works and she is accepted back in the fold of the village church. However, in the very last sentence of the novel, Mary seems to hint that her slutting days are not over because she still has her love charm.

What did I think about this book? It took me a while to get into the story just because of the way the dialogue is written – in a local dialect (see: Gullah). Here is an example from the book:

“You say July begged you to marry em? July! Great Gawd! Dat’s the biggest lie ever was! Gal, you ain’ shame to talk such talk? You like to a popped you gizzard-string a-tryin to get July. Evybody in dis Quarter knows dat. You’d jump up an’ crack you heels wid joy evy day Gawd sends, if you could a caught him,. You know dat too, good as me.”

I kept reading on though, because I wanted to know what Mary would do next. Interestingly, she appears to be quite guileless about having all these children, there is just no worry at all. Completely unrealistic, in my opinion. And the village, while disapproving of her lifestyle, leaves Mary be for the most part. Other than being cast from the church there seems to be no punishment and Maum Hanna and Budda Ben, her adoptive mother and brother continue to be supportive, albeit critical. All the while Mary has some relatively modern thoughts about how to deal with men. The end however was disappointing. Why have Mary go through all those prayers and repenting when she is not going to give up men and sin?

There were some more creepy things about the novel. Of course it is strange to read a book that is steeped in the culture of a minority – written by a white woman. How authentic can this be? Maybe the author felt that a village this isolated could not exist anywhere else? And of course some of the context provided is highly questionable, e.g. are several hints to how close to nature (read: animals) these black folks are, how much they like working, why, harvesting cotton is like one great party!

In other words, I’m conflicted. On one hand, it is great that we get a glimpse into a life that is rarely heard from. On the other hand, why did this particular story need to be told from a “poor black perspective”?  Does the author think a promiscuous lifestyle comes more natural to black women? Seems demeaning to me and jarring, given the deep religiosity of the majority of the village. And of course there are plenty of people who feel that a white person is unable to tell authentic stories from the perspective of a person of color. These conflicts probably led to the dismissal of Peterkins works.

And to return to the back story about Scarlet Sister Mary: The book was considered obscene at the time (there is no explicit sex, just Mary’s frankness about her “sins” was apparently enough to raise numerous eyebrows) and was banned by a South Carolina public library. Furthermore, one of the Pulitzer judges resigned because he did not feel this book was worthy of the award. As it turns out, according to The Pulitzer Project blog, the guidelines for judging the nominees were changing:

The Pulitzer committee wanted to change the scope of the Pulitzer from “a novel which presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standards of American manners and manhood” to become “a novel which preferably shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life.”

I have yet to find more about these guidelines and changes on the Pulitzer website itself. I can see why they took the “wholesome” part out of the equation, especially in light of Sinclair Lewis’ criticism a few years earlier. The other judges certainly went out on a limb in regards to the character’s moral aptitude (or lack thereof). Of course, Scarlet Sister Mary seems quite tame in today’s standards. What stands out though are Julia Peterkin’s old fashioned ideas of life in a black community, so it is probably just as well that this book has been largely forgotten.


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Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, intended Pulitzer Winner of 1926 (declined)

“Arrowsmith” brings us the life and times of Martin Arrowsmith: from boyhood to College and Medical School, then marriage, and various attempts at finding a good position and making a career. Which makes this a long book. Too long for me. There are so many chapters in Martin’s life and each one is written in lavish detail. There are a lot of good things, satirical views of the medical profession in general as well as snarky comments about the necessity to choose between becoming a physician who sees patients, a medical professional at the health department, or research scientist with an eye on the next big discovery that will save the life of millions – and garner fame and fortune. And all the while poor Arrowsmith would love nothing better than to be left alone in his laboratory.

I grew tired of all the twists and turns in the story because ultimately I did not get a feeling for Martin at all. He seemed like a pawn that got pushed from one square to the next. There are a huge number of supporting characters and all of them feel like cardboard cutouts. There seemed to be a lot of similarities to “Babbitt,” another famous book by Sinclair Lewis, which I could not finish because I loathed the shallowness of the main character. Sometimes authors can overdo getting their point across.

Things turned around to an extent when Arrowsmith and his wife travel to a tropical island that is ravaged by the plague, in the hopes of applying Martin’s research to saving the population from disease and death. Things all of a sudden “get real”, as they say. The tension mounts and tragedy strikes. This experience allowed the character of Martin Arrowsmith to mature in my eyes. He tries one more time to work within the medical research establishment before giving up on that life and moving into a smalltime lab where he is finally able to concentrate on what he loves best – research.

Note: This book was supposed to get a Pulitzer Prize but Sinclair Lewis declined it. Lewis has been quoted as not being convinced that the Pulitzer criteria were valid:

All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment. (taken from:

I find this quote interesting because I have not been able to find much information about the judging criteria elsewhere. Admittedly, whenever I hear the term “wholesome” I also hear “staid and boring,” so I can relate to this explanation. On the other hand, Lewis’ attitude towards the Pulitzer might have been skewed because he already had been nominated twice for “Main Street” and “Babbitt” but lost out to “The Age of Innocence” and “One of Ours”. Maybe he was just bitter at that point. In the end, he gladly received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, Pulitzer Winner of 1928

“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” was a book I enjoyed a lot. It was refreshingly different from the books I read so far. The first part of the book takes the reader to Peru in 1714. A bridge collapses and kills the five people that happened to cross it at that moment. A monk, Brother Juniper, wonders if the collapse was an accident or divine intervention and wants to find out everything he can about these victims, to see if they were sinners or what other reasons there may have been that God wanted them to die. He compiles his findings in book form.

The next parts of the book are the life stories of the victims of the bridge collapse. A noble woman and her young female servant, a young man, and an old man accompanying a boy. As the lives unfold before us it becomes clear that they all connect somewhere. However, what is just as clear is that none of these people deserved to die. While none of them was a saint, there also was no criminal or extraordinary sinner. And this is what Brother Juniper is getting to realize. Since merely questioning God’s reason is heresy back in the day, he soon suffers the deadly consequences of his honestly well-intended quest. At the end we are left with the few people who knew the victims of the collapse – the mother of the young boy, the daughter of the noble woman, the abbess of the convent where several of the travelers were headed. They come to the conclusion that our lives really do not matter in any other way than how we affect those around us.

I liked the well constructed life stories. The idea that someone would review a person’s life to determine if they “deserved to die” is an interesting concept. It certainly drives home the point that we could go at any time and the only thing we can try to do is live well. Compared to the other Pulitzer books so far this was definitely the most thought-provoking.

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Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield, Pulitzer Winner of 1927

When I started reading “Early Autumn” my first thought was “‘Age of Innocence’ all over again!’ There are too many similarities. Upper class family – check! Female Cousin returns from overseas after dissolution of marriage – check! Said cousin is considered immoral by conservative family members – check! Love triangle – check! But I read on, wondering how this book would differ from Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel .

For one, the story takes place in New England and revolves around the Pentland family who goes all the way back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Then, our protagonist is female this time around, so her love interest is not the cousin (a little too progressive?), but the neighbor, an Irish businessman, considered unworthy and an upstart by the upper-crust Pentlands. Olivia Pentland, 40-year-old mother of two and wife of John Pentland who is more interested in the family history book he’s working on than his wife and children, is forced to consider what is more important – her own happiness or the family name. It takes a while for Olivia to discover the feelings the neighbor has for her, but I saw it coming from a mile away. And sadly, this lowered the book towards romance novel stuff for me. I raced through the remaining pages wondering “is she or isn’t she???” (This is when I wonder if I should give the ending away. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t)

What I liked about the book: the description of the Pentland family and their home paints a picture of a haunted house, that was well done. But besides that, the story felt predictable and the ending was a letdown (you probably have guessed now how it ends anyway).

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So Big by Edna Ferber, Pulitzer Winner of 1925

“So Big” was another sojourn into farming life, but this time with none of the nostalgia. After the death of her beloved father in 1888, Selina Peake, an educated but poor 19-year-old woman from the Chicago area, is an orphan with no prospects. To make ends meet she takes the school teacher position in High Prairie, a farming town mostly populated by Dutch settlers. Selina stays with the Pool family and quickly finds out how harsh life on the farm is, not because she is lacking food, but because people around her are distant and rather cold. They don’t appreciate her sophistication and sense of beauty. The only person she finds a connection with is Roelf Pool, the Pool’s 12-year-old son who had to quit school to work the farm full-time. Selina encourages him to read her novels and pursue his wood carving hobby.

Eventually, Selina marries the widower Pervus de Jong and they have a son Dirk (“So Big” is Dirk’s nick name). Life on the farm with Pervus is a source of seemingly never ending toil. Although she has read about new methods that could improve the farm’s yield, Pervus refuses to try any of Selina’s suggestions. He gets sick and dies and leaves her and 4-year-old Dirk behind. Because Selina is a woman she can’t manage things such as selling the harvest. Men will not accept her as a business partner, so things are starting to look even more grim. By sheer coincidence Selina then runs into a friend from her youth who is well off. The friend’s father can see Selina’s determination and likes her ideals. He helps her out with a loan and that get things rolling. Fast forward in time and Selina is becoming quite successful so that Dirk can go to good schools and study architecture – and he hangs out with shallow high society friends. After working as an architect for a while Dirk changes tracks and against his mother’s will becomes a stock broker because he can make more money that way. In the end this decision leaves him disappointed, when he realizes that in spite of all the wealth, his life is dull and meaningless.

What I liked:

The book is well-written and the descriptions of hard life on the farm ring true. It is interesting that in the beginning, High Prairie (not sure if this is a fictional name or if there ever was a town or village with this name)  seems to be way out in the middle of nowhere, but at the end of the book it is much closer to Chicago because the big city has grown so much and is swallowing up the surrounding farm lands.

What I didn’t like:

Selina is way too angelic. She is pretty (in her own way), always cheerful and positive, smart, too good to be true in other words. She might as well wear a halo. But on the other hand she ultimately was not able to save herself and Dirk. For that she needed some crazy coincidence so that a friend’s father could give her a loan. That coincidence part was unbelievable. It felt to me as if the author had cheated and allowed Selina a short-cut instead of  giving her the ability to come up with the money without “connections”. And then, the ending. I felt bad for Dirk because it was never quite clear what kind of person he was. It was obvious that he did not have Selina’s sense of the aesthetic and artistic streak. Maybe he had inherited this lack from his father? I never had the sense that he cut off a promising architectural career in favor of cold, hard cash. Rather that he did not feel passionate about architecture. Why should he feel guilty about not fulfilling his mother’s dream? After all, she was the one who married a dull farmer who was her complete opposite – why should she be surprised that her son was more like his father than herself?

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The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson, Pulitzer Winner of 1924

The Able Mclaughlins is a story about several families of devoutly religious Scottish immigrants on the lonely Iowa prairie just after the civil war. Young Wully McLaughlin returns from the war ready to marry his sweetheart Chirstie McNair when he finds out that she has been “shamed” by Wully’s cousin Peter. In other words, she has been raped and is pregnant. He threatens the cousin to leave and never return or else and then hurriedly marries Chirstie to save her reputation. When her pregnancy shows too soon after the wedding it becomes clear what is going on and Wully’s mother in particular is unhappy because she assumes that her son is to blame for Chirstie’s condition. She does stick with Wully though and everything is fine when the baby boy is born, who turns out to be a particularly bonny child. As the boy is about a year old though, Peter returns. He shows up at Wully and Chirstie’s house while Chirstie is alone and frightens her so that she almost has a nervous breadown. Wully is beside himself and goes off to confront him but Peter has disappeared again, apparently on the way to his parent’s house. The community sets out to search for Peter which makes for some awkward situations because other than Wully’s parents (Chirstie eventually broke down and told her mother-in-law the real reason for her pregnancy) nobody knows what Peter has done while Wully is entertaining furious thoughts of revenge. After several days of searching Peter is given up on and life goes back to normal. Some time later, Wully and Chirstie unexpectedly find him, but he is sick and dying. At first Wully is so incensed that he wants to abandon him to die alone, but eventually he reconciles himself to the extent that he is able to bring the sick man home to die.

I enjoyed this book, I got through it in just a few days because I wanted to know how it would end. It does have a nostalgic and one-dimensional feel to it though, like an old movie from the 40s or 50s.

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