Sunday, November 21, 2010

Entry 22: "Now In November" by Josephine Johnson (1935)

Now that November is drawing to a close, Joshua and I decided to tackle a novel that would hold up a mirror to our Pulitzer journey; what better novel to do exactly that with than Josephine Johnson's 1935 Pulitzer-winning Now In November? It's probably a trite and cliche decision on our parts, but I've never been more satisfied with being cheesy after having finished the novel. It took me all of a mere couple of hours to read it, but that isn't to say that I was just breezing through it for the sake of getting it done—the truth is that Johnson's writing invited me to enter a world that I didn't, for the life of me, want to ever leave, even in spite of the tragedy, heartache, and drama that pervades every single paragraph throughout. Much like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I was left absolutely mesmerized at the end of each chapter and really should have stopped to catch my breath by the sheer beauty Johnson's words created in the ashes of her story, but I couldn't tear myself away from it. It was like being a marathon runner that hit the proverbial wall, but being so high on the thrill of the race, had to press forward without stopping to reflect on what I had already accomplished. I completely lost myself in Johnson's November, and am, even now, hoping and praying that December never comes.

To be honest, I didn't really have high expectations for this book. For one thing, I had never heard of Josephine Johnson and, so, had nothing in mind to form an opinion of her; secondly, this is a novel written in the 1930's, and, as I have made you well aware by now, most of the novels from the first 20 years of the Pulitzer Prize really haven't done anything for me. However, I am more than pleased to report that I have never been more surprised by a novel.

Joshua said it best: "This book wins the 'Diamond In the Rough Award.'"

Even a day after having finished it, I am still hypnotized by its raw beauty, its brutal honesty, and the hints of mystery and magic that wind their ways through its pages. When I finished the last paragraph, laying on my couch—my familiar reading position—, I closed the book, laid it on my chest, and just stared up at the ceiling, meditating on everything that I had just read, until I fell asleep, drunk on beauty.


Now In November is the story of a poor farm family in Anywhere, USA—the setting and time are never specified, but it is safe to assume that it is set in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. This family owns a farm that is wracked with debt and they are struggling to survive a massive drought that is destroying their land, their crops, their livestock, their farm, and even their family. The cracks in the hardened, clayey ground are indicative of the cracks growing between each member of the family. With all of the tension being imposed on the family by the threat of failing crops, foreclosure on their farm, homelessness, and even death, rather than coming closer together to lift each other up, they tear apart at the seams. It's almost unbearable to join them as they trudge through their lives, but with her intoxicating words, Johnson beckons you to come along so convincingly that you can't stand to turn down the invitation.

The novel is written in the first person from the perspective of Marget, the second-oldest of three daughters. It really seemed like Now In November is written less like a proper novel and more like a personal journal. The entries are short, concise, and written very "matter-of-factually," though contain these occasional bursts of sheer literary brilliance that are so magical, you almost have to stop reading to shake your head in disbelief: How is this woman coming up with such wonderful phrases? Johnson's novel is such a marvelous revelation.


 "We have no reason to hope or believe, but do because we must, receiving peace in its sparse moments of surrender, and beauty in all its twisted forms, not pure, unadulterated, but mixed always with sour potato-peelings or an August sun."

I have a feeling this is mostly true. There have been so many days in the past several months that I felt like I was suffering through my own personal drought—I've felt so unbearably dry, cracked, and barren inside. It's been as if there haven't been any rains and my spirit has been slowly withering away. I've been parched, thirsting for something meaningful and promising in my life—something that will inspire me and bring me back to life. Josephine Johnson, with these words, reminded me that all is not lost—all is never lost. She reminded me that, in spite of all the difficult circumstances I've been through in my life; in spite of all the pain and tragedy that surrounds me, and all of us really, that even if we cannot find, hard as we may look for it, reason to hope or believe, we must press forward. At the end of every hard-earned day, we must find some reason to believe.

Now In November brings to mind a poem that I read several years ago that I have been in love with ever since—"Try to Praise the Mutilated World," by Adam Zagajewski:
Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

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