“Never does He forget a child o’ His’n. ‘Tis His children that forget that He is rememberin’. Get on yere knees and climn on them up to the shelter o’ His arms. Knock on His ears with yere prayers. Creep into His arms, Cean Smith, and lay yere head on His bosom, and He’ll hold ye closer than inny man ye ever love can ever hold ye. He’ll lay His hand on yere head and ye’ll stop yere restless fightin’ against His will. He’ll shut yere pitiful little mouth from complainin’ against Him. Ye’ll hush and be comforted….”
Now that I’ve read it, I really wish I would’ve put a little more effort into reading Caroline Miller’s 1934 Pulitzer-winning novel, Lamb In His Bosom, during National Women’s History Month, in March. I especially wish I would have read it immediately proceeding Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1937).
I shall forever rue my lack of ambition that month.
Despite the fact that these two novels won the Prize a mere three years apart from each other and Joshua and I are trying as best as we can to read novels that are spaced out a little more than that, these two novels would have gone together as a companion piece perfectly. Both of them were written by women, both of them take place in Georgia before and after the Civil War, both of them feature strong-willed, independent women and their equally strong-willed, independent men as their protagonists, both of them have a strong Irish influence… It’s almost as though the two novels were meant to be paired together.
And perhaps that’s a reason the Pulitzer committee selected the two of them to win the Prize.
Lamb In His Bosom is a beautifully written account of a handful of families and their experiences in rural, pre-Civil War Georgia. Caroline Miller’s writing is genuine and poetic; whether describing the landscape, or narrating any particular scene, or developing her characters—giving them their personalities, their quirks, their charms, their appearances—, she does so with a keen perception of the significance of her own words. What I mean is, not a single word she uses is taken for granted. Each is perfectly and, I’m sure, painstakingly placed by Miller to such a degree that the novel seems much more important and significant than the story of it actually is.
And herein lays my complaint.
While I very much appreciated Miller’s obvious talent for the written word, I’m not sure how much less I could have cared for the story. Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t that it’s a poorly written story, or even a bad story by any means; it just wasn’t really my cup of tea. The simplest way to describe the plot of this novel is to say that it’s more of a character study than it is The Great American Novel. There wasn’t a whole lot of action, there wasn’t a whole lot of plot. But there sure was an awful lot of character development.
We meet Cean and Lonzo; they have a baby; we meet Lias and Margot; they have a baby; then Cean has another couple babies; then Margot has a baby; then Cean has another baby; then Lonzo dies; then Margot marries again; then Cean meets Dermid; then Cean has another baby; then Dermid goes off to War; then Dermid comes back; the end.
Every couple of chapters, one of the female characters was having a baby. And, honestly, after a while, I just gave up caring about the book all together. I was so bored by the lack of action, the lack of really intense drama, the overabundance of narration. I was so bored, in fact, that I started spending most of my time reading pondering who the “lamb” was and whose “bosom” that lamb was in!
However, in the last couple chapters of the novel, there is a scene that was so powerful it almost moved me to tears; and not only did this scene provide me the answer to my ponderings, it also gave me a fresh appreciation for the novel: Lonzo has died, and Cean is grieving his death and her life; she can’t get used to life on her own, raising four or five children (I lost count by this point) with a minimal amount of help, and no support. She feels the pressures of her life closing in on her and she confesses to Dermid O’Connor (the Irish priest she later falls in love with).
That scene was so powerful, so moving, so authentic. And it was after that scene that I realized that the novel actually had very little to do with plot, and rising action, and climax, and resolution; this story was really meant to be a study of everyday life—life in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
This novel was written during the Great Depression—a time when not a single person in America wasn’t touched by misfortune, a time of overwhelming circumstances. It could very well be that Miller wasn’t as concerned with writing a best-seller, or even an attention gripping page turner. Rather, she wrote a reminder to her fellow Americans that, despite the incredible amount of odds against them, there is hope. Because after that powerful scene with the Irish priest, God suddenly becomes a major part of Miller’s writing, whereas throughout the course of the novel leading up to that scene, He wasn’t. And this scene was really the turning point—everything proceeding it is a walk among the roses compared to everything preceding it.