Apostles of Light, by Ellen Douglas

by Robert A. Parker

This 1973 work is an old-fashioned novel, for which it might be difficult to get a publisher today. Primarily because nothing much happens in its opening chapters, which is filled with family member talking extensively as they decide what to do with their surviving older generation. We follow long speculative conversations as they discuss their responsibilities when Aunt Elizabeth dies, and their elderly Aunt Martha survives. They convince themselves that they want to do what is best for Martha, and yet they are also concerned with the financial implications of what they do decide.

This is a tedious process to follow, as the younger generation decides to convert Martha’s house into a home for old people, called Golden Age Acres. Martha agrees, on the condition they accept her long-time boyfriend Lucas as a resident. The idea for the home originates with smooth-talking cousin Howie (keeping it in the family), who managers the facility and who hires Mrs. Crawley as its nurse. These two characters become the villains of the novel, as they pursue their personal success and the home’s financial success at the expense of its residents. Meanwhile, the responsible family members, Albert, George, and George’s son Newton persuade themselves of the benefits of offering a home for a half dozen or so older people, for it both contributes to society and brings companionship to Aunt Martha.

But this is not the life Martha wants. She wants to be independent and to enjoy life with Lucas. He is a doctor with whom she has been romantically linked for decades but has never married. Indeed, their search for companionship and happiness becomes the emotional center of this novel, and the suspense builds as we read to learn whether or not this elderly couple will indeed assume control of their own lives. For independence to them means they will leave Golden Age, which, in turn, means that it will likely fail. And, of course, Howie and Mrs. Crawley oppose this. Indeed, they lie to the family about their careful care of the elderly and resort to drugging not only Lucas but other patients in order to control the situation.

And so, the novel’s main issue is: will Lucas and Martha find happiness together? It is unusual to have a novel centered on such elderly characters, but the work creates considerable power as they pursue their independence. The couple even seeks the aid of Homer, a black caretaker, which complicates the novel, since this story is set in Mississippi. We delve rather deeply into Homer’s mind, in fact, as he plots not only to help Martha and Lucas but also to protect his own black family. And this is not a sidetrack, because he eventually becomes their only hope.

At this point, I decided that, given the tone of the novel, Douglas was more likely to come up with a positive ending. But that she would create a more powerful work if Martha and Lucas failed. Without giving away the solution to their problem, I must say Douglas’ ending does not work for me. Basically, it fails my standards of humanity. First, it introduces too much violence. It is dramatic, yes, highly dramatic, but this reader was completely unprepared for the direction it took. And second, a major individual, for me, acts completely out of character. The author seems aware of this, given some internal dialogue, but such musing does not succeed with me.

One must be familiar with the Bible to grasp the significance of the title. As the book cover says, “Trapped in a nursing home, [the couple] are the victims of the biblical ‘apostles of light,’ the deceitful do-gooders who profess righteousness.” For me, however, the purpose of this title is not to suggest that Howie and Mrs. Crawley are major characters, but to emphasize the situation that these righteous do-gooders put Martha and Lucas in. That is, the title is intended to be ironic.

The blurb goes on to day: “In subtle, elegant prose Ellen Douglas recounts a gripping story of their brave attempt to free themselves from a dreadful plight. They must confront both their corrupt and evil custodians and their well-meaning younger relatives who are tempted by greed, ambition, cowardice, and indifference.” Thus, the family also plays a major role in this situation, seeing itself doing good, when it truly is not. As a result, Douglas draws an effective portrait of a Southern society striving to get ahead on one level, and yet still locked into its old traditional attitudes. That is, it truly captures the texture of Southern society.

To review, even with its slow beginning, much more typical of a novel of 45 years ago than of one today, I was willing to give full attention this family. Because its people were well grounded. I grasped their relationship to one another, their sense of responsibility, their individual priorities, and their sincere effort, even if misguided, to resolve Aunt Martha’s situation. And then, as they tried to adjust to the villainies of Howie and Mrs. Crowley, the author creates the tension that any novel, any drama needs. And so, by the time Lucas and Martha realize that they need to act, the suspense has reached a fever pitch. This is no longer the quiet novel of the opening chapters.

And the literary world recognized this achievement, when it nominated Apostles of Light as a finalist for the National Book Award in 1973. It did so, I believe, because its portrait of Southern society recognized the relationship between whites and blacks, because it created a viable family that worked together even when at cross-purposes, and because the novel as a whole dealt with the responsibilities of both individual families and society for the elderly.

Did it offer this recognition despite the ending, or because of it? For me, it was an ending I was unprepared for—in fact, a cop out. As if the author could not come up with a logical and dramatic success, or a logical and dramatic failure, for the couple, and decided to resort to high drama instead—to go for a surprise. And my personal reaction is that the tone of this surprise and the tone of the violence violated the prior tone of the entire novel.

This novel does not encourage me to look into more of Douglas’ work. (April, 2018)

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