“There was a run-down old tollbridge station in the Shoestring Valley of Southern Oregon where Uncle Preston Shiveley had lived for fifty years, outlasting a wife, two sons, several plagues of grasshoppers, wheat-rust and caterpillars, and a couple or three invasions of land-hunting settlers and real-estate speculators, and everybody else except the scattering of old pioneers who cockleburred themselves onto the country the same time he did.”
I‘ve been thinking a lot about this project lately; it’s been on my mind. You know, Joshua and I have been plugging away at it for four years now; since January 7, 2010. With only 13-15 books left to go each, we are so close to the finish line, but still so far away.
Of all the books I have left to finish, H.L. Davis’s 1936 Pulitzer-winning novel, Honey in the Horn, has been the one that’s taunted me the most from its place on my bookshelf. One explanation for that, of course, could be the incredible amount of taunting I endured while procuring the book in the first place. Another thing that’s been so intriguing about it was the fact that it’s wedged between two gems: Now in November and Gone with the Wind.
Is it possible that the Pulitzer committee chose a truly great winner three years in a row that early in the Prize’s existence?
SPOILER ALERT: They didn’t.
Honey in the Horn falls in a category that pops up every few years in the first couple decades of the Pulitzer Prize: pioneer novel. Honey in the Horn is a novel about life in the homesteading days of Oregon, 1906-1908. It is about the coming of age of an orphan boy named Clay Calvert, but it is also the about the trials of the pioneers who came to Oregon following the American Dream. Through the characters that Clay meets along the way, Davis introduces the reader to the various occupations of the settlers of that era – ranchers, wranglers, lumberjacks, farmers, wheat harvesters, et al.
No pioneer novel, of course, is complete with appearances of Native Americans, gunfights, covered wagons, or horse-thieving – Honey in the Horn is no exception!
What was missing, though, in this particular pioneer novel, was the romantic stereotyping and moralizing that could be found in much of the regional literature of the time. Instead, this is essentially a coming-of-age novel with complex, finely wrought, often humorous characters who are just trying to make a life — though the going isn’t easy.
While Davis is a good writer, however, Honey in the Horn is not a very good book.
My biggest problem with this book is that it seems much less like a proper novel and more like a very talented writer’s fever dream. It’s a book written by an amoral crank a little besotted with the scenery and unmindful of the plot.
It rambles on and on without much of an engaging story and more of a regional study. The plot (term used loosely) is just a vehicle for Davis to explore the type of people that populated the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century and to celebrate the natural setting, the Oregonian landscape; and, to be clear, Davis is masterful at both of those things. If I ever wanted to read a book about the PNW between 1906 and 1908, I would want to find one written by Harold Lenoir Davis. As the only native Oregonian to win a Pulitzer Prize, and a fiercely proud native Oregonian at that, he has a tremendous understanding of the culture of the region in those times.
But the book as historical fiction?, as outstanding literary achievement? – more like Pulitzer Blech.
Davis is the most plodding, narrow-visioned, and single-minded of authors – the novel cares about only one thing, and that is contriving events so that the main character, Clay, meets one example of every kind of person living in Oregon in 1906-1908, and sees one example of every kind of occupation and natural environment to be found within the borders of the state in those years.
Besides that, his satire is thin and rarely well-targeted, his wit isn’t witty nor charming, his humor isn’t funny, and ultimately the book is a self-indulgent ramble. The story is too cluttered with details about Oregon and Oregonians to be interesting as fiction, but too hackneyed and far-fetched to be plausible as a genuine account of the time and place. He doesn’t know how to pace things, he doesn’t know how to tie threads together, and his payoffs aren’t worth the setups.
Characters are established then disappear without making much of an impact; and because they didn’t leave an impression on the reader their reappearances over the course of the novel aren’t nearly as meaningful as Davis intends them to be. There were main characters that I found myself literally forgetting about; then they come back later and something “big” happens to them but it has no effect on me because I forgot they were a thing to begin with!
This was a terrible, terrible book. I am shocked to find so many positive reviews of it elsewhere.