Chapter 29: “The Able McLaughlins” by Margaret Wilson (1924)

5140After a somewhat disappointing foray into the 1990’s, I decided I should go back in time and pick up another, what I thought was, pioneer novel.

I had so much fun reading The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, and if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think I was entirely ready to leave that world.

So I pilfered through the giant box of Pulitzer novels sitting in the corner of my bedroom and scrounged up Chicago-native Margaret Wilson’s 1924 winner, The Able McLaughlins.

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This was the very last book I bought along this journey this past December, two days before the new year. Somehow, I couldn’t find this book anywhere, not even in Chicago, despite Wilson being a Chicagoan. In December, though, my coffee shop had a secret Santa gift exchange and I received a $25 Borders gift card—which I used to purchase this book from the Internet.

Is that cheating…? I don’t think so. Not in the state of desperation I was in to finally get my hands on it.

When I finally got it, I read the back of the book and was surprised to find that it didn’t actually say anything much of what the book is about. It reads:

Originally published in 1923. Pulitzer Prize novel in 1924. The work is particularly successful in the deftness with which a variety of Scotch characters are drawn. It is a capital story: its characters are wholesome, lovable, well-rounded human beings, and the atmosphere of the whole book breathers of the fresh prairie winds and rugged hardships of the life it portrays. THIS IS THE STORY OF A SCOTCH COMMUNITY IN THE MIDDLE WEST DURING THE 1860’S. It is a story of the McWhees, the McNabs, the McNorkels, the Gillicuddies, the McElhineys, the McDowells, the Whannels, the McTaggerts, the Strutheres, the Stevensons, the McLaughlins and the Sprouts. It is also a story of Scotchmen who left their native land and settled on the incredible prairie; acres from which no frontiersman need ever cut a tree; acres in which a man might plow a furrow of rich black earth a mile long without striking a stump or stone. It is also a love story of Willy and Chirstie, set against the conflict of customs of the old world and the new. It is a triumphant story of love and live and of human frailties.

No, seriously—that’s what it says on the back of the book.

The ironic thing here, though, is that in all of that nonsensical rambling, the only things that this book was actually about was that there are Scottish people in the book, and Wully and Chirstie being in love. But I digress.

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I was exceptionally pleased with this novel. Note: pleased. I wasn’t blown away, I wasn’t amazed, I didn’t fall in love with it. I was pleased. It’s a pleasant little book with some pleasant little characters living pleasant little lives. Nothing to shout about here, nothing to shout at here. I must make mention, however, of how immensely relieved I was that this 1920’s Pulitzer-winner wasn’t at all another example of American pseudo-Victorianism, like Poole, Bromfield, Wharton, and Tarkington. For the most part, this book had very little to do with societal concern, had absolutely nothing to do with aristocracy, and everything to do with family dynamics and the ties that bind. I cannot tell you how satisfying it was to read a 1920’s novel that wasn’t about stuffy, rich white people griping about the way Old New York is devolving.

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Now, despite the fact that I wasn’t particularly amazed by this novel, I will say that it did captivate me. Margaret Wilson is a wonderful storyteller and she held my attention throughout the novel. In fact, I read the entirety of it in a mere two or three days—Joshua will tell you he had the same experience. She’s terrific at pacing the story—speeding through unimportant details, and pumping the brakes at all the right times—, she has her own voice, and she has such a firm grip on human relational and familial dynamics. And, truly, the characters in this novel run the gambit of human emotions.

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One thought on “Chapter 29: “The Able McLaughlins” by Margaret Wilson (1924)

  1. I was very interested in your review as well as the project you and your friend have undertaken. Rather funny since I and a friend have our own little Pulitzer project going. Ashamed to say that we are quite lazy, however, and just react to the books during walks or over coffee. Have thought of doing something more formal but have only come up with a big party at the end of the 86 to celebrate.

    We’re reading the books in order and have an informal discussion. Not impressive but nice to have a goal.

    Neither of us felt that The Able McL deserved the prize. Perhaps it was shocking for the time and received a lot of attention…like Love Story of the 60’s or Bridges of Madison County.

    Judy

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