A Canticle for Lebowitz: A Timely Classic

A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller Jr.

Published 1959

Read Feb 2022

It is not surprising to this reader that the book has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1959.   This reader listened to an audiobook version and read a hard copy.  This reader was in college when she first read this book which was coincident with negotiation of SALT II—a treaty to reduce the likelihood of annihilation of the world by nuclear weapons.  As this reader finished reading the book this time, the world is working again to avoid nuclear war while the Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues. 

Miller’s remarkable book has three parts, apparently originally written separately and then rewritten a bit to draw them together into one novel (1).  The first part, Fiat Homo (“Let There Be Man”) takes place 600 years after a global nuclear war (The Great Flame Deluge) that was rapidly followed by a backlash against knowledge and technology known as The Simplification. Shortly after The Simplification, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz was founded by Isaac Edward Leibowitz, an electrical engineer who had survived the war and who became a monk after he was unable to locate his wife who was presumed dead.  600 years after its founding, the monks residing at the abbey continue to work tirelessly to carry out the mission of their founder—to preserve books via memorization, copying, and careful storage of said Memorabilia.   The second part—Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light”) is set 600 years later as the world is beginning to come out of the dark ages following The Simplification.  Both outside and inside the abbey there are people who are rediscovering fundamental knowledge necessary to build such things as arc lamps.  Simultaneously, war between nation states is brewing.  The third part—Fiat Voluntas Tua (“Let Thy Will Be Done”) is set another 600 years later.  Much of the technology present during the Great Flame Deluge, including space flight and nuclear weapons, again exists.  As the section opens, there has been 50 years of potential nuclear war but the brink hasn’t yet been breached. 

In each part there is an interesting set of characters—the Abbott of the Abbey, a Brother in the Abbey, and someone else.  In Fiat Homo, the story opens as Brother Francis Gerard of Utah is enduring a Lenten vigil in the desert near some ruins and a “pilgrim with girded loins” comes by.  The unidentified old man identifies a rock for Brother Francis to use in building a shelter to protect him from the wolves while he sleeps.  Behind the rock is a metal door that leads to a bomb shelter.  This section then follows what happens after Brother Francis reveals his findings and his encounter with the “pilgrim with girded loins” to the priest visiting vigilantes to receive their confessions.  Much speculation springs up in the Abbey regarding who the pilgrim might be (is it Isaac Edward Leibowitz himself??)  Abbot Arkos works to mitigate the impact of the encounter on the canonization of Isaac Edward Leibowitz who had previously been beatified.  Monsignor Aguerra (God’s Advocate in the canonization process) and Monsignor Flaught (the Devil’s Advocate in the canonization process) join the cast of characters and visit the Abbey from their home base in New Rome (in an unidentified part of North America).  

In Fiat Lux, Thon Taddeo, a scholar and a bastard cousin of Hannegan, leader of Texarkana, wishes to review the Memorabilia at the Abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz.  He engages Marcus Apollo, diplomat from New Rome to Texarkana, to beseech Abbot Dom Paulo to have the Memorabilia transferred to New Rome so he can study it.  Of course, that request is denied and Thon Taddeo eventually goes to the abbey to study the documents.  Brother Kornhoer demonstrates an arc light that he has built in the basement based on his study of the Memorabilia and some of Thon Taddeo’s writings.  Thon Taddeo is quite amazed that a mere monk could create such an invention but is certainly happy to use it to see the Memoribilia by the arc lamp’s light vs only candles. 

Much of this second section involves intrigue around Hannegan’s intentions to expand his empire.  The author also, however, spends a chapter on a discussion between Abbott Dom Paulo and an old hermit, known as Benjamin and whom Dom Paulo calls an Old Jew.  Apparently the two men have enjoyed spirited discussions over the years.  In this chapter they speak about the differences in their spiritual faiths (the Three and the One), whether or not a new Renaissance is going to dawn, and what a new dawn might mean to the Abbey.   Benjamin claims to have been waiting for Him to come for thirty-two centuries which Dom Paulo doesn’t believe.  But, Benjamin also claims to be the man Brother Francis met six centuries previous and who buried him when he was killed on the road from New Rome and who told the abbey where to find his remains…..so who is he really? 

In Fiat Voluntas Tua, Abbot Zerchi oversees the greatly expanded Abbey.  The modern addition is across a busy highway from the original Abbey and there is an underpass that allows foot travel between the two.  Two superpowers have been in a cold war situation for the last fifty years and the brink of war is being crossed.  Abbot Zerchi receives an order from New Rome to proceed with a plan to send the Memorabilia and persons from the Abbey to join others who will all go to Alpha Centuri to start anew.  He works to convince Brother Joshua to agree to become a priest and spiritual leader for the trip. 

While there are some pretty dark moments in the book, including violent deaths of individual characters, the need for Mercy camps to identify individuals whose exposure to fallout means certain death, and Zerchi’s regular encounters with Mrs. Graves who has a second head growing from her shoulder, there are some wonderful bursts of comedy as well.  In section one, Brother Francis’s bumbling confessions and his discussions with Abbot Akros are quite funny at times.  In section two, the dinner Abbot Dom Paulo gives for Thon Taddeo is crashed by the Abbey’s not fully welcomed guest, The Poet, which provides wonderful comedy.  In the third section, Abbot Zerchi’s attempts to use the “Abominable” Autoscribe (which automatically translates input to the desired language) to dictate memos are quite amusing as are the Q&A sessions between reporters and the defense minister as he fields questions about rumors of nuclear tests. 

Some of the themes are quite universal and enduring including:  1) man’s desire to seek knowledge and create new technologies; 2) the desire of some to hold power over others and expand their empires at all costs; 3) man’s general inability to learn from the past despite the magnitude of the lessons; 4) religions, here in the form of the Catholic Church, will be ever-lasting and add value to the world despite their imperfections.    Miller’s work is quite impressive.  It was commercially successful as he uses engaging characters, wonderful dialog, occasional humor, and overall great writing to weave these ideas into a story that attracts a wide range of readers.

Miller (2) was trained and worked as an engineer.  During World War II he was a radioman and tail gunner and flew over fifty bombing missions in Europe.  The Benedictine Abbey at Mount Cassino was founded in AD529 and was suspected to be a garrison and ammunition storage area for the Germans so it was a target taken out in a mission that Miller flew.  After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism (2).   He wrote over three dozen short stories published in science fiction magazines.  After the success of A Canticle for Leibowitz, he withdrew from public and became a recluse.  A book he was working on when he committed suicide in 1996, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was finished as he requested by a friend and published in 1997.  It’s likely that Miller suffered from PTSD as a result of his bombing missions and especially the one involving the Abbey at Mount Cassino (1). 

This reader wonders if this book should be on (or return to) the reading list for high school students.

Remembering Laughter–Stegner’s Amazing Debut

Remembering Laughter

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1937

Read Feb 2022

This author continues to explore Stegner’s canon which is quite remarkable although not fully appreciated.  Remembering Laughter apparently was written as a submission to a contest held in 1936, which he won (1). The novella (about 160 pages) launched Stegner’s exceptional writing career. 

Elspeth moves in with her older sister, Margaret, and her husband, Alec, on their farm in Iowa.  Elspeth revels in her new surroundings and life.  Margaret seeks to find friends and potential marital matches for her sister.  Unfortunately for all of them, Elspeth and Alec make one fateful trip to the barn loft resulting in Alec’s only child, a son.  The discovery of the affair destroys all of their previous relationships but the three remain living together, along with their “nephew”. 

No page of this novella is wasted.  While telling this sad tale, Stegner also conveys marvelous descriptions of the scenery of the farm, exquisite perceptions of the rural social scene into which Margaret is trying to bring Elspeth, and conveys the frigidity of the relationships following the betrayal.   Even in his debut, Stegner demonstrates amazing gracefulness and ability to address human truths. 

Journal of the Plague Year—Can We Learn?

Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel DeFoe

Published 1722

Read Jan 2022

One of the book discussion groups to which this reader belongs chose this book for their consideration.  This reader first attempted to read a recent edition with illustrations but found it difficult to stay engaged with the relatively dry text.  Fortunately, an audiobook was located with a great reader which made the book much more interesting.  Certainly, one of the attributes of the book that doesn’t please this reader is that it is written in one long passage devoid of chapters or breaks. 

DeFoe suggests this book is the actual journal of someone who lived through the 1664 plague, perhaps an uncle.  DeFoe was only five at the time so had no direct knowledge of it.  He likely did a fair amount of research to put this material together which could appropriately be described as fictionalized journalism.

Of course, being in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic made this book quite popular and it is quite interesting to see the parallels between this pandemic and that one and to consider what is different and why.


  • A regular public record of data was available:  then:  Bill of Mortality gave deaths and number due to the plague was published by parish; now New York Times, CDC, departments of health give various statistics regularly
  • Distrust that the public records were really reliable
  • Hope that the disease would stay away from a person’s parish/country—but of course not the case
  • The disease spread across the city/country
  • Attempts to prevent the spread via some sort of lockdown—then:  people locked in their residences in London; now:  declaration of lockdown by various governing bodies
  • Attempts to keep immigrants/foreigners out and blame them for the disease
  • Lack of understanding of the method of spread at least during the early days of the pandemic
  • Lack of effective treatment but desperate attempts to apply various unsubstantiated methods of cure despite their dangers
  • More rapid spread in areas of high density
  • More impact on the lower income population—in London due to cramped living quarters and higher concentration of fleas and lice; in the US lower income filling jobs that must be done in person so having increased exposure in the workplace
  • Lack of full understanding of the disease leads individuals to form their own opinions about the disease


  • Scientific and epidemiological tools are currently available to study the disease at various levels—population, organ, molecule—which allowed rapid vaccine and treatment development compared as well as (eventually) an understanding of means of transmission

Th author spends much effort and pages on speculation of the means of transmission based on his observations and analysis of the data.  He also is quite adamant that locking people into their homes once someone in the household was infected both increased the spread within the household and did little to reduce spread into the community as it was easy to circumvent those assigned to keep watch of the household.

It is disappointing, frankly, that our reaction to Covid-19 has not been informed by the various bouts of the plague nor the various bouts of other deadly infectious agents—SARS, Eboli, Influenza.  The population in this country and others seem destined to fail to learn from any of this history and to have similar outcomes over and over.  Perhaps those reading this book and accounts of the 1918 influenza and other infectious disease pandemics might help break this cycle.  This reader isn’t convinced that will happen.  Those in the battle of treating the disease or dealing with various economic fallout of the pandemic have limited time to share their learning and will likely be fully consumed to getting their respective responsibilities back to somewhat normal as the pandemic winds down—-unfortunately. 

All the Little Live Things—An Under-Appreciated Master Work from Wallace Stegner

All the Little Live Things

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1967

Read Jan 2022   

While some descriptions of this book say something like “Joe and Ruth Allston return….”, the reverse is actually true.  This book was written in 1967 and the first book in which Stegner introduces us to Joe and Ruth Allston.   In this book, Joe is very recently retired as a literary agent.  The Spectator Bird was written in 1976 and Joe is seven or eight years into retirement.  The comment about them returning really reflects the situation that was true for this reader—hungry for more from Stegner after recently reading The Spectator Bird which won the National Book Award and Crossing to Safety (published 1987) which is also well known, and have already read The Angle of Repose (published 1971) which won the Pulitzer Prize, this reader turned to this book which received less fanfare but which, in this reader’s opinion, is even better than The Spectator Bird

Joe and Ruth Allston have recently moved to a currently rural area about 30 minutes from a university town in California.  They have purchased land from a developer who bought part of a farm that is still owned by one of their neighbors.  Joe and Ruth have built a house and are now working on landscaping.

The book opens with our narrator, Joe, lamenting about the death of Marion.  He is clearly impacted by this death—she was too young, too full of life, and someone he clearly loved.  After this prologue the book goes back to about the time Joe and Ruth meet Marion.  But first we are introduced to Jim Peck, a bearded philosophy student.  He seeks permission to camp on part of their property.  They grant it and he builds a tent platform on the other side of the creek from their home and a bridge to reach it that requires great balance and dexterity to cross.   Marion and her husband and young daughter buy and move into a house down the hill from and on the same side of the creek as the Allstons.

The Allstons become fast friends with Marion and her family quite quickly.  Marion chastises Joe for killing insects and animals he declares pests.  She loves all living things.  Her love of life is dazzling and engaging.  In contrast, Joe Allston becomes increasingly annoyed with Jim Peck as he expands his camp to include a tree house and as he invites many other young people to hang out with him day and night.  Jim Peck has tapped the Allston electric and water lines and even puts up a mailbox. Ruth is less annoyed and suggests Joe is just railing against the societal changes that young people are driving—free thinking and free love among them. 

This reader won’t share more of the story but will comment on aspects that make this book an even better one than The Spectator Bird in this reader’s humble opinion. 

First some similarities.  Both books have wonderful descriptions of the surroundings and of the events that occur.  In this book Stegner’s love of nature is very evident.  Joe’s descriptions of the antics of the birds that occupy hours of his time, of the battle he rages with the gopher who wants to undermine his garden, and of the tragic event that occurs on the bridge that all use to cross the creek to reach their property are all quite remarkable.  Both books comment on the encroachment of developments into land previously farmed.  Both books deal very well with the emotional transformations that accompany retirement.  Both books reveal the loss of the Allston’s only son by drowning in a surfing accident—or was it an intentional act—and the guilt Joe feels about this.   

Both books demonstrate Stegner’s value of marriage.  Joe loves Marion but only in a friendship way.  He comments she is almost like a daughter he wishes he would have had.  There is never anything untoward about their relationship but it is clearly special and he shares with Marion feelings about his life that he may never have shared with Ruth.  In The Spectator Bird, Ruth was becoming concerned about Joe’s feelings for Astrid and he admits to the reader that had he not been married he would have considered a relationship with Astrid.  But he was married so that consideration was fully off the table. 

So– what is different.  The Spectator Bird reveals a hidden part of Astrid’s life that has some intersection with Joe’s mother that is rather spectacular and something that a modern Netflix series could use for a very engaging series. Perhaps this is an aspect that made this book so much more popular than others he wrote.  All The Little Living Things has nothing similarly spectacular although there is an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that results from “free love” practiced in Jim Peck’s camp and which Joe disfavors.  In the end, much of this book is about a man wrestling with the fact that some of his long-held values are being challenged by a changing society—something widely experienced in the 1960’s.  Simultaneously Joe is experiencing a second loved one following a path he really doesn’t want them to take and he can’t make them change course.  The latter is a universal situation.  Sons and daughters sometimes take different paths than their parents hoped for and sometimes there are devastating consequences for all.  Friends make choices we don’t want them to make.   Stegner beautifully tells us one man’s trials and reminds us that we can’t always have things the way we want them to be. 

Mildred Pierce-Relevant Classic

Mildred Pierce

By James M. Cain

Published 1941

Read Nov 2021

The book opens with Bert Pierce doing a number of home maintenance chores around his suburban home in a development it turns out he helped create.  When he finishes, he tells his wife, Mildred, he will be going out for a while.  When she presses him for a time to expect him, so that she can appropriately plan dinner—-and how much to spend buying the food she will cook—their discussion degrades into an argument.  He won’t deny that he will be seeing another woman while out and Mildred asks that he permanently leave which he agrees to do.

Thus begins Mildred’s life as a single mother trying to support two young daughters in early 1930’s while the country is in a deep depression.  Part of her anger with Bert had to do with her cooking and baking being the sole source of income for the family for a while.  Bert’s partnership to develop a housing community in Glendale, CA had fallen on hard times as a result of the depression.  Bert and Mildred occupy one of the houses in the development and had enjoyed a lifestyle that included the possibility of Mildred getting a mink coat just before the bottom fell out for them.  The book follows Mildred’s path to finding her way as a beautiful young divorcee with no skills beyond cooking, baking, and cleaning. 

Mildred seeks employment but is loathe to take any position that requires she wear a uniform as that would telegraph her fall down the socioeconomic ladder.  She eventually does take a job as a waitress and hides her uniform from her daughter, Veda.  She becomes involved with one of Bert’s partners, Wally Burgan, who works out a scheme for Mildred to open her own diner in the development.  Before she quits her day-job to open her own restaurant, she meets a wealthy man, Monty, and becomes involved with him.  Mildred’s cooking, her famous pies, and her industriousness pay off and she seems well on her way to success and happiness.      

Of course, the path to success and happiness is often filled with ruts and Mildred’s story is no different.  An Illness takes her younger daughter from her.  Her older daughter, Veda, while enjoying the fruits of Mildred’s success, remains aloof and overtly looks down on anyone who has to work for a living, including her mother, and is willing to take advantage of people for her own benefit.   The conflict between mother and daughter is simultaneously an internal conflict for Mildred— Mildred wants the best for her daughter, wants to give her daughter anything and everything she wants and needs, but also wants her daughter to respect her and her accomplishments, and for her daughter to be a good person.  

The book was made into a movie in 1945.  The Motion Picture Production code in force at the time disallowed some of the elements of Cain’s story, in particular the sexual relationships that Cain includes.  But the relationships he describes are like real ones at that time and don’t include any graphic details.  Cain paints a real, unvarnished picture of the time.  The adult characters face real and complex issues and Cain doesn’t shy away from these either.  The themes Cain considers are quite universal and timeless.  These attributes make this book remains highly worth reading some eighty years after its publication.

Great Expectations–Expect a Great Read

Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens

Published Dec 1860-Aug 1861 serially

Published Aug 1861 in 3 volumes

Read Aug 2016

This reader very belatedly provides just a brief word about this magnificent work.  Apparently (1), in Aug 1860 Dickens formulated the basic plot for a “little piece” about an orphan boy who befriends a convict who later makes a fortune and anonymously supports the orphan through his education; the convict bequeaths the fortune to the boy but it is lost to the Crown.  Then in Sept 1860 Dickens needed to do something to save his weekly publication “All the Year Round” so began writing and publishing the story as he wrote it over the course of about a year. It was wildly successful.  It was later published in three volumes. 

This reader listened to the book while doing a summer of house painting.  What a wonderful way to ease the monotony of this must-do task!  The book introduces us to Pip, a seven-year-old orphan who lives with his much older sister and her husband, Joe.  In the first chapter, Pip encounters a convict, Magwitch, in a cemetery and is convinced to provide him some bread and a tool.  Pip’s life includes many twists and turns.  He is chosen to visit the spinster Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter.  Pip assumes it is Miss Havisham who has decided to pay for his tuition and living expenses to attend school and leave being a blacksmithing apprentice to Joe.  It is many chapters until we learn this isn’t the case.  And many more chapters of adventure, mystery, unrequited love, clashes of values, that tell what happens there after. 

This reader won’t give away any more of the plot and will conclude by saying this is a delightful book about a generally good character who lives through many ups and downs and remains hopeful.    

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Expectations accessed 2021-11-04

The Blessing Way and A Thief of Time and Tony Hillerman

The Blessing Way

Published 1970

Read Sept 2021

A Thief of Time

Published 1988

Read Oct 2021

By Tony Hillerman

The Blessing Way introduced Joe Leaphorn to readers. Hillerman eventually wrote 18 novels involving Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (both members of the Navajo Tribal Police).  In this first Joe Leaphorm novel, Leaphorn is actually not the primary character in this mystery, but he does play an important role.  The novel does have characteristics that are found in all of the Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels:  they immerse the reader in the geography and history of the Four Corners (Arizona/Utah/Colorado/New Mexico) region; they provide the reader insights into   Navajo culture; and they provide both an interesting mystery and a human story about one or more of the characters.

In A Thief of Time, artifacts from the ancient Anasazi people are being extracted from ruins and sold in potentially illegal ways.  People potentially involved show up dead or missing.  Joe Leaphorn recruits Jim Chee to help him understand what’s going on.

 A very powerful aspect of this book is that Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are both grieving the loss of a romantic relationship.  Joe Leaphorn’s wife of thirty years has died unexpectantly following surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.  His mourning has led him to a deep depression and to put in his retirement papers.  He becomes interested in finding an academic focused on Anasazi pottery who has gone missing shortly before his retirement date and he becomes engaged in understanding the situation.  Jim Chee and his girlfriend are splitting up, not for lack of love, but because neither can commit to living in the other’s culture and geography:  the Navajo reservation/culture or Washington DC/white culture.    Both men are hurting but both men rally to do their jobs.

This reader will continue to read through Hillerman’s 18 Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels.  The mysteries are interesting.  But the human stories and the language that describe them and the geography, history,  and culture within which they occur are the biggest draws. 

Lady Susan-An Unusual Austen Lady

Lady Susan

By Jane Austen

This short book/long story was written in approximately 1794 (when Jane was about 19) but it wasn’t published until 1871, long after her death in 1817.  It is written mainly as a set of letters between the principal characters with a conclusion by an unnamed narrator.

Lady Susan is about 35 years old, is recently widowed, has a sixteen-year-old daughter, and has no home of her own in which to reside so she relies on friends and family for a place to stay.  As the book opens, she is abruptly leaving her friends’ home near London to stay with her brother-in-law and family in the country.   She has deposited her daughter in a school in London, apparently to repair the effects of limited schooling she had while living at home. 

Many rumors follow Lady Susan to her brother-in-law’s estate including the reason for the abrupt departure (excessive flirting with the man of the house), cause for lack of home ownership (the property had to be sold to cover debts incurred by Lady Susan’s excessive spending), and the reason for her daughter’s poor education (Lady Susan had been too busy socializing away from home to pay attention to her).  The letters progress a story that demonstrates Lady Susan’s amazing abilities to deflect rumors, win over people who have a poor opinion of her, and generally manipulate anyone necessary to get what she wants.  Jane Austen’s chosen language for the correspondents is marvelous and paints a picture of a thoroughly self-absorbed woman who uses her beauty, charm, and articulateness to full advantage. 

Austen seemed to have much fun creating the Lady Susan character and using her to highlight constraints placed on women—and men—in this society and how they deal with them.  Some of Austen’s characters’ language and actions make clear a focus on the drive to marry for money with a hope that the bride will be able to stomach the husband and if not your lives can be conducted separately enough to tolerate the situation (or that he’s old and/or infirm enough to die soon).  Two couples—Lady Susan’s brother-in-law and wife and that wife’s parents—seem to have marriages that are more desirable and may involve a real love between the parties.  Lady Susan’s sister-in-law tries and succeeds in pulling Lady Susan’s daughter into her (much more) stable home.  But here again there is a continued focus by the sister-in-law on Lady Susan’s daughter’s successful marriage, this time to her brother.  The sister-in-law convinces her mother to join her in this campaign as Lady Susan’s daughter is seen by them as a deserving and desirable mate for the brother/son.

A 2016 movie, Love and Friendship, is based on this book.  It does a remarkable job of converting a story told through letters to a “live action” drama.  Much of the dialog is taken directly from Austen.  A few changes are made to help an American audience in 2016 understand things but the changes are generally quite minor.  The biggest change regards the marriage of Lady Susan to Sir James which is described in the narrated conclusion in the book.  Sir James has always been smitten with Lady Susan, but Lady Susan’s intentions through the story have been to marry her daughter off to rich Sir James.  Austen merely reports that they marry.  The movie provides a possible and very believable interpretation of what prompts the timing.   This reader/watcher suggests you read the novella and then watch the movie and be delighted by both. 

A Kiss Before Dying—a Classic Must-Read Thriller!

A Kiss Before Dying

By Ira Levin

Published 1953

Read July 2021

Ira Levin was only twenty-three when he wrote this now classic mystery/thriller.  He would go on to write Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, and a number of plays including No Time for Sergeants and Deathtrap, a long running comedy/thriller on Broadway.   

A Kiss Before Dying, published in 1953, is set in that timeframe.  Young men and women on college campuses smoked and flirted.  Young women lived in dormitories and some young men lived in rooms rented in town by widows.  Young men who had served in WWII were benefitting from the GI bill and were a little older than many of their college classmates. Some of these young men came to college with more “experience” and may or may not have been more likely to persuade their female classmates to join them in bed.  Regardless, college girls did have sex even in those pre- “pill” days, and sometimes found themselves in the situation of hoping their boyfriend would become their husband.  Such is the case for Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon.  When Dorothy’s older sister, Ellen, decides to investigate Dorothy’s suicide, things get very interesting—but you will have to read (or listen to) this book to find out why. 

This reader enjoyed being transported in time to 1953 to see some of the culture of the day.  But the primary draw of this novel is Levin’s expertise in building tension repeatedly and experiencing the jolts from the unexpected plot turns. 

Read and enjoy!!  

North and South—a strong young woman in a time of change

North and South

By Elizabeth Gaskell

Published 1855

Read June 2021

This reader began listening to North and South immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice.  This reader, like many others, found a number of similarities between the books as well as some contrasts.

The protagonist is again a young woman.  We initially meet nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale on her cousin’s wedding day.  Margaret has been living in London with her cousin and her cousin’s wealthy mother for the past ten years.   Once her cousin marries, Margaret returns to her parents’ simpler home in the southern village of Helstone.  There her cousin’s brother-in-law, Henry, an up-and-coming barrister, visits her.  They had enjoyed conversations while in London at the many social events.  Henry proposes marriage and is rejected by Margaret who indicates they are only friends and she couldn’t imagine feelings beyond that.  Shortly after his event, her father, the pastor of the local Church of England, decides to leave his position as a matter of conscience.  Further, with the help of his old friend, Mr. Bell, he has decided to move to a city in the north, Milton, and make a living as a tutor.  He informs Margaret and asks her to tell her mother, knowing his wife will be distressed. 

Thus begins the real story of this book.  Margaret helps her father find a small house to rent and outfits it as best as she can before her mother arrives.  She begins interacting with various residents of the town which has several textile mills that are the major source of employment for the town.  Margaret meets Bessie, a girl about her age, who is very sickly.  Margaret eventually learns that her illness was caused by breathing in cotton dust while she worked at the mill. She also gets to know Bessie’s father, Mr. Higgins, who works at the mills and is a drinker. One of her father’s students is Mr. Thorton, an owner of one of the mills.  We learn that his schooling had been truncated when his alcoholic father died and he had to work to help pay the bills.  He has since then become a successful businessman himself and is spending some time with Mr. Hale to catch up on classical literature he didn’t study when he would ordinarily have. 

As in Pride and Prejudice, Margaret is generally prejudiced against Mr. Thorton, this time due to being an industrialist vs a gentleman.  This corresponds to her general prejudice against the whole concept of the industrial north and she longs for her days in the south and the culture of the gentry.  Her mother shares her prejudice and can’t adjust to being in this town.  It’s implied that the environment is dark—air and water pollution?  It’s not clear.  At any rate her mother falls sick – likely a cancer irrelevant to the town–and dies.  She extracts a promise from an unwilling Mrs. Thorton (Mr. Thorton’s mother) that Mrs. Thorton will provide Margaret moral guidance if needed. 

Mrs. Thorton is quite concerned that Margaret wants to marry her son.  During a visit to Mrs. Thorton at their home, which is on the textile mill campus, strikers charge the house.  Margaret steps out on the porch and tries to calm the crowd (and is effective).   Mrs. Thorton is convinced this act was out of love for her son.  But (of course) Margaret has absolutely no interest in marrying Mr. Thorton and is only interested in the welfare of the workers and didn’t want to see them beaten up by the army that was on the way to break up the crowd.

Without revealing more of the plot, there is a misunderstanding that causes Mr. Thorton to protect Margaret from a lie she told.  She is mortified that he knows about this lie and hopes that it can be cleared up.  Mr. Bell, whom she asks for help in this matter, dies before he completes this task.

Pride and Prejudice, which was also contemporary to its publication, is set about 40 years earlier.  Both authors point out that women had few rights and limited opportunities to make their own way, especially if they are of the “gentlewoman” class.  “Service” is open to working women and, in the North, factory work is available.  However, that proved deadly for many, including Bessie.   After the death of her father, Margaret has no obvious option but to return to her wealthy aunt’s house.  There she has far fewer freedoms than she did either in her beloved village of Helstone or in Milton.  In these two places she was free to walk about, interact with her neighbors and other area residents.  In London, however, she must have her aunt’s permission to leave the house and must be accompanied by someone suitable. 

In this book, Elizabeth Gaskell also highlights the changes occurring in the country.  The South is still a land of land-owning gentry and the farmers that work the master’s land and who are afforded compensation for it.  The shopkeepers and merchants and even the lawyers and businessmen are recognized as essential but are generally outside the “gentleman” crowd.  (Though since only one son inherits the estate, the other sons generally have to go into some kind of occupation to make a living!).  The North is now populated with textile mills and other factories.  The master is now the factory owner and clearly not of the “gentleman” crowd, Mr. Thorton being an example as someone who has raised himself up from a very poor existence to that of master.  The relationship between worker and master in the North is also very different from tenant and master in the South.  The author highlights this with the strike and the willingness of Mr. Thorton and his peers to bring in Irish workers to replace their former employees to meet their contracts when the workers go on strike.  Margaret’s interactions with both the workers and Mr. Thorton help her understand the chasm between them and she seeks to heal it.  She convinces Mr. Higgins, a loyal union member, to ask Mr. Thorton directly for work in his factory.  His perseverance motivates Mr. Thorton to hire him which sets the stage for a different relationship between them.

Mr. Thorton in this book and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice love the respective protagonists and seek to win their love.  Mr. Darcy’s actions to repair damage he caused Elizabeth’s older sister and to save her younger sister from her reckless behavior demonstrated selflessness that won Elizabeth’s heart.  Mr. Thorton protects Margaret from a lie she told and is generally resigned to life without Margaret but that alone does not win her love but rather causes her embarrassment to be around him.  When his financial situation changes, and he seeks employment as a supervisor (vs master), his willingness to work with those he would supervise nullifies Margaret’s prejudices. 

Both novels have much to draw a female audience.  North and South’s focus on the industrial situation may have drawn male audiences as well.  It is interesting to note that North and South was first published as a serial in Charles Dickens’ Household Words in 1854 and 1855 at the same time that a his Hard Times was being similarly serially published in this journal.  Dickens required this title for the work over Gaskell’s preference of “Margaret Hale” or “Death and Variations”.  North and South was published in book form in two volumes of 25 and 27 chapters each and differed from the serialized version in several ways  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_and_South_(Gaskell_novel); July 18, 2021)

Both Austen and Gaskell have provided readers for over a century two interesting, strong women characters whose personal stories have and will engage readers indefinitely.  Their books showed women possible ways of being/thinking that weren’t “standard” at the time and as well provided some commentary on the impact of “standard” thinking on society in general.  These are classics that have been and will be read and produced in multiple formats well into the future.