I’ve spent better part of the last year and a half reading Morris, a wild ride. As disorienting as his work can be, it’s joyfully immersive. There’s nothing tentative about Morris’s fiction. You enter his universe whole hog. However, the book I come back to, again and again, is “Plains Song.” I believe Morris needed to write 18 novels before he could, at last, return to home ground. It’s here that he takes up Ellison’s challenge and opens up with all he has. He does so, and this is key, by writing Nebraska from a female perspective. There are men in “Plains Song,” but they aren’t especially relevant. It is the novel’s women-centric vision that makes the novel so majestic.
“Plains Song,” a remarkably distilled novel which nonetheless spans the early years of the century into the 1970s, revolves around the women of the Adkins family. Sharon Rose has no business being born into this family of farmers and farmers’ wives. Her mother is dead. Her Aunt Cora and her cousin Madge live next door. One day it dawns on Sharon Rose as it does on so many of us, Wait, I belong to these people? And yet it is Sharon Rose’s relationship with Madge that tethers her existence, even after she flees the farm at the earliest opportunity, first to study music in Lincoln, then Chicago, eventually taking a teaching job at Wellesley. It is this contradiction that drives a stake through the heart of the book. As the two girls grow up, Sharon Rose can’t help but feel betrayed when Madge becomes interested in boys. After Madge becomes engaged, Sharon Rose shouts, “Is he looking for a wife or a housemaid?” Aunt Cora overhears this and whacks Sharon Rose with a hairbrush. But Madge calls out, in a remarkable act of generosity that catches my throat every time, “She don’t mean it the way you hear it.”
She don’t mean it the way you hear it. Maybe only somebody you’ve known your whole life could muster this sort of understanding? I read “Plains Song” once a year. I don’t reread it. I read it to remind myself, again, because I have, again, forgotten, how fleeting it all is. How the things I think I’ll be able to hold on to, my family, my young kids, my work, will be outside of my grasp soon enough. Will I ever learn? Time. Few novels that I know of capture the bewilderingly inconsistent nature of time quite like “Plains Song.” Years pass in clauses; people die midsentence. Sharon Rose’s mother, Belle, lives for roughly 19 pages out of a total of 227. I brace myself every time I reach the lines, “Belle had spells of moodiness and Orion might wake up and find her missing and have to search for her. Walking at night relieved her …”
And I think: Can’t she just live this time?
I could go on, and on, obviously. But let me say this, by the end of the novel, when Sharon Rose returns to Nebraska after 28 years, you might think it’s too late for her to find love. She had a chance at it, once, with Lillian Bauman, her classmate from Chicago. But that was long time ago now. It’s in the last pages that Morris pulls off a dumbfounding triumph. I tend to like my books morose or not at all. Yet “Plains Song” ends optimistically, and this ending, impossibly, takes place at a crowded motel in Grand Island where women from around the world have gathered for a convention.
“I’m coming,” Sharon Rose says. “I’ve not seen a sunrise since I was a child.”
Forget the desert island. Call “Plains Song” my deathbed book, and I hope to be holding it, trying to read one more sentence before the light goes out.
WRIGHT MORRIS: A STARTER KIT
One way to go with Wright Morris is to start with the last, and, if you listen to me, greatest book. But Morris contains multitudes and there are Morris novels for almost any mood one might imagine, and though he is always funny, some books are more mournful than others.
‘MY UNCLE DUDLEY’ Morris’s first novel is a quirky, often hilarious road trip from California eastward. Uncle Dudley and his nephew Kit sell seats in their car to seven random passengers.