Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Being Friendly Persuaded

With the expansion of Vital Signs Blog (not to mention the development of our podcast service, Exposition 101; our new Russian-language website; and my assumption of teaching duties at a small inner-city church), my contributions here at The Book Den have become few and (very) far between. Sorry.

To remedy that, I am having Claire put on my schedule at least one hour a week designated exclusively for writing posts for The Book Den. Material will not be a problem – I’ve continued reading as much as always – so I think you’ll see a dramatic change here. In fact, given the fact that Claire has promised to crack the whip to see that that weekly hour is well spent, I’m sure of it.

That hour starts right now with a brief review of one of our recent Napoleons of Notting Hill selections, Jessamyn West’s The Friendly Persuasion. I hadn’t voted for this book when our group arranged our schedule last November but I nevertheless found the book interesting and enjoyable. At least, it was enjoyable when I began to realize that what Jessamyn West had written was not actually a novel, but a collection of short stories scrunched together to seem like a novel.

The stories were actually published in different American magazines over a period of many years. Understanding this allows the reader to forgive what would otherwise seem serious defects in the work. If you think The Friendly Persuasion to be a novel, you might (as I did) deem it awkwardly episodic and inconsistent in characterization, theme and purpose. But if you take it as a collection of short stories, the expectations shift and Mrs. West’s impressive talents can sometimes really delight you. And with those talents, she opens up a delightful assortment of homey adventures as lived by Midwestern Quakers in the mid-19th Century.

Some of the stories definitely work better than others. No surprise. And I should probably admit that I never became fond of the reappearing protagonists. In fact, one of them, Eliza Cope, I found downright irritating. But the plots of some of the chapters/stories were insightful and well-crafted, especially “The Battle of Finney’s Ford,” which explores the issues of patriotism, pacifism, courage, conscience, and family ties and “The Meeting House,” a tender description of how two of West's most compelling characters contemplate the bad breaks (and sheer brevity) of life. Very moving.

There were other chapters too that I really liked: “Shivaree Before Breakfast,” “The Vase” and the comic relief of “First Day Finish” – all which make for enjoyable and soul-satisfying reading on their own.

So, again, as long as you don’t insist on The Friendly Persuasion behaving like a novel, it has plenty of highlights that will illumine a few hours of your evening. Enough that it just might have earned, if only retroactively, my book club vote.