Drums, by James Boyd

As one begins this 1925 novel, one immediately becomes immersed in the world of the 1770s, just before the American Revolution. And one also becomes exposed to that world of more traditional literature that reigned until the 1920s. It was usually a world of rich description and little forward movement. Far different from what is soon to evolve, in which human beings drive the action, in which the story must move on.

Here, the initial effort is to create the world of rural North Carolina in the months before the Revolution. What concerns the people of that era? What are their lives like? What are their homes like, their fields, their clothes, their food? So much detail has been researched by this author to enable him to recreate that world of 150 years earlier. So much that it is clear the author wants his readers to experience that world—before he wants them to identify with his main character, the teenager Johnny Fraser, an insecure boy who respects his father and mother and is unaware as yet of the challengers of the adult world beyond the limits of the family farm.

But soon the novel will introduce both him and the reader to that adult world, beginning with rural North Carolina where the British administer that colony but where some of the local people are unhappy with the new taxes and their own lack of political control. And where tension rises as word reaches them about a rebellion in the North.

Much of the novel focuses on the youthful Johnny. His parents send him away from their farm to a local seaport, Edenton, where a preacher, Dr, Clapton, educates him in Latin and prepares him to be a true gentleman, not a farmer like themselves. There, Johnny meets more worldly people, and another kind of education begins. He meets and is impressed by Captain Tennant, the British officer who represents the King and administers the colony, although he is confused by Tennant’s sassy daughter Eve. He meets the worldly and friendly Captain Flood, who transports him to and from his family farm. He meets the distinguished Sir Nathaniel, who raises horses and organizes cockfights, and is impressed by him, as well as by the wealthy and pretentious Wylie Jones. He also meets the Merrillees, and is fascinated by, but confused by, their beautiful daughter Sally.

The character of Johnny ends up being elusive, much as was the political thinking of that era in North Carolina. Throughout the novel, in fact, Johnny is analyzing the faults of others, as well as doubting himself and his own faults. He also sees people’s good qualities, and he strives to adapt many of those for himself. But he is confused by the various attitudes he observes among his fellow North Carolinians when word first arrives of the unrest and then the military action in the North. For they reveal mixed feelings about whether one should be loyal to the King, or whether one should strive to be free of England.

Johnny has even greater difficulty, however, is in reacting on a more personal level to the attitudes shown by young women, particularly Eve Tennant and Sally Merrillee. Note, however, that there is no discussion here of the status or the freedom of their black slaves. Indeed, the care given here is that the dialects of the Negroes be as accurate as possible—along with the spoken language found in the rural South or in the formal clubs of London. Any discussion of the rights of slaves does not arise, not until nearly a century later, and then only in the North.

Meanwhile, when news of dissension does spread southward, Johnny’s family sends him to England, both to enable him to avoid making a choice in the potential conflict, as well as to preserve some family investments abroad. And that London world is richly drawn as well, from its social scene to its political scene, as well as from its pubs to its clubs. Once again one marvels at the brilliance with which that far different world is captured. For Boyd again captures the details, in order to bring that distant European reality to life—a sedate and peaceful life for Johnny, which is soon disrupted by battle scenes. These are aboard an American warship under the captaincy of John Paul Jones. For Johnny has at last chosen sides in the American rebellion. And, following a brief interval in Brest, France, Johnny rejoins Jones and his crew on a newly refurbished Bonhomme Richard, which encounters a British warship and overwhelms it in a famous battle.

Whereupon, a wounded Johnny returns to North Carolina to heal, and to witness the arrival of the Revolution in the houses and taverns back home. And we realize that this novel is not so much a portrait of Johnny Fraser as it is a portrait of the Revolution seen through the eyes of Johnny Fraser. He has been less the hero of our novel than the vehicle with which we watch a cross section of society experience this dramatic period in American history. The novel itself is not dramatic, even as the events themselves range from mundane on one level to truly dramatic on another. In fact, we do not even identify with Johnny, even as we see that world through his eyes. And, at the end, when we do see in him a final maturity, there is also an open-ended conclusion about how his life will continue, especially a love life that has until now been unfulfilled.

This novel has been called “the best novel of the American Revolution ever written.” And I would not argue. Well, I loved the smaller scale April Morning by Hoard Fast, but not least because it was about the Battle of Concord and Lexington, near where I grew up. And, in fact, to support Drums’ pedigree is a later decision by Scribner’s to bring out a special edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The title, Drums, refers to the drums of war. Before he leaves for England, a youthful Johnny encounters an old Indian who explains that the drumming he hears is that of nearby Indians who have heard reports of rebellion in the colony, and their reaction to the rumors is to send out a message, as they have long done when their own tribes prepare for battle. Boyd also recalls this incident in the last lines of the novel, when Johnny, hailing a distant soldier, “raised his stiff arm in the Indians salutation….[and] the distant figure lifted a long black rifle against the sky.” It is a final touch of the artistry that went into this novel. (March, 2019)

The Arsonist, by Sue Miller

I love Sue Miller because she writes about real people in real situations. She writes about family and interlocking human relationships. And she writes, in this 2014 novel, about how even in small towns the big world out there becomes part of everyone’s life.

In this case, the big world begins with Africa, and the good that NGOs bring to its people, in the face of poverty and poor public health. This is the world that Frankie (Francesca) Rowley has served for fifteen years. But now she has come home on leave, and is undecided whether or not to go back—back to this world she has dedicated herself to and found a deep satisfaction in. Because she also feels frustrated, at not having been able to make a permanent difference. And doubts she ever will. And so wonders what her true calling in life is.

She returns to a family she left in order to find out who she truly is. To a father, Alfie, an academic the family sacrificed itself for, but who never fulfilled his own intellectual promise. To a mother, Sylvia, who not only led that sacrifice but who also paid much less attention to the well-grounded and intelligent Frankie. Instead, paid more attention to her flighty younger daughter Liz, who is now, ironically, settled, happily married, and a mother.

The Rowleys have moved to their summer home in Pomeroy in northern New Hampshire. The bulk of this story takes place there, where the father has just retired to in order to write a long-planned book. Frankie is not sure how long she will stay, but as she meets the town’s residents, both summer and year-round, she and gets to know this town.

Two events dominate this work. They are unconnected, but they bring her, and us, closer to the town’s quiet environment. First, on the night Frankie arrives, a neighbor’s summer house, vacant, is burned down. It is the first in a series of fires set by an unknown arsonist who gives the book its title. It also lends moderate suspense to this novel that is otherwise laid back, like its heroine, like the town residents themselves.

But its main purpose seems to be to bring more of the big world out there into this small town. It is a variation on the world of terrorism which Frankie first encountered in Africa. That is, the world’s social tensions have entered even into “this little, closed-in world” of Pomeroy. And are fostered by the burgeoning differences between the townies who live there year long and the summer residents who come and go. For it is the latter’s homes being torched. Is a message being sent to them? And by whom? Perhaps by a person who may be encountered on the street at any time?

As Ron Charles writes in the Washington Post, Miller is “interested in the friction between modest folks who maintain the town and ‘chatty, self-assured summer people’ who expect it to remain an accommodating setting for their leisure. The fires force everyone to consider ‘who owned the town and who merely used it.’”  Which expands the context of this novel, even as it focuses on the individual participants.

In the second event, Frankie meets Bud Jacobs, a newspaperman who has just bought this small-town weekly as an entrée into a kind of life he always yearned for. Sparks slowly ignite between them, and their relationship becomes the heart of the novel. It is a passionate affair, but the author makes it clear merely through suggestion, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the prurient details. But the main question does become clear: will Frankie sacrifice her ambition in the big world out there for the love, the deep connection, that she has found here after yearning for it for years?

It is the pursuit to find the answer to these questions that pulls the reader through these pages. Who is the arsonist? And will love prevail? And in the first pursuit, we follow the conflict between the summer folk and the full-time residents, whether they are worshipping together or mixing at the town dances. And we probe deeper into life of the town, such as the emergency procedures of the volunteer fire department in responding to the fires, and, with Bud, the normal procedures of his weekly newspaper.

There is also a secondary story that lends substance to Frankie’s family life. Her father, Alfie, begins to have spells, and then memory lapses, finally wondering off into the woods alone, drawing a search party from the entire town. As a result of Alfie’s condition, Sylvia reveals to Frankie her true feelings about her husband, which surprises both Frankie and the reader. But it also prompts Frankie to consider her responsibility to her mother. As well as reflect Miller’s own interest in family responsibility among the generations. And, finally, Alfie’s status also brings to a head Frankie’s own relationship with Bud.

And from here, the novel’s two primary issues work themselves out. Not really in a dramatic way, but in a way that is truer to life than it is in most fiction. As a result, the two outcomes leave the reader with no major impact at the end, no rush of emotion that so often makes the reading of a novel so fulfilling. As Jean Haney Korelitz notes in The New York Times, “This may be intentional, but it might also irritate readers hoping for a more concrete resolution of Frankie’s conundrum, and of the arsonist’s identity.”

But if I myself was not moved, I was content with the novel’s resolution. For it works in the context of the quiet, daily lives of these characters, both the Rowley family and the many townspeople. And it is complementary to the quiet drama of this novel, the drama of arson in which no one is ever hurt, and the drama of a love affair that belongs to its own world, the world of two disparate people who find love where and when they least expect.

I look forward to more novels from Sue Miller. Family is her subject, and family has long been a major literary subject by the great novelists. How they begin, how they endure, and how they end.

(December, 2016)