“Look at it well, ” Father said. “It is the end of an era.” Later, much later, the young Westcotts remembered that night and morning. It seemed to them that it was then the change really began which was to end their innocence and that of the country they loved” – Margaret Craven, Walk Gently This Good Earth.
I chose to read Walk Gently… because I felt that I wanted a break from the somewhat heavier, sadder novels that I have been reading for a while. This is one of Margaret Craven‘s lesser known books, certainly far less well-known than “I Heard the Owl Call My Name.” This story, of which very little (not even a cover image) can be unearthed on the internet, began quite nicely, and as I read about Cathy, Neal Herbert and Judge Westcott, it was impossible not to think repeatedly of Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch. Craven writes early in the book that Cathy’s approach was to collide with life, and I felt that I had found the sort of warm, friendly book that I had wanted to read. But I was wrong. I could not enjoy Walk Gently… as much as I had enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird.
Walk Gently…, like Mockingbird is a book about life in small town America, the former taking place in Montana and Puget Sound, the latter in Alabama. The story of Mockingbird is concentrated into a time span of three years in the Depression Era. The story of Walk Gently… includes the same period, but is different in that it is a much broader swathe stretching from a few years prior to the Depression to the beginning of Carter’s presidency. But that is not a very important distinction when one looks at the similarities.
Both books are melodramatic, and both offer many moments when the breath catches and the hair stands on end. I wonder if this is an involuntary response felt by readers who are affected by a certain kind of English, a certain pattern of words and sounds, irrespective of the quality or tone of the writing. Mockingbird, narrated by Scout Finch seemed more strident in its description of events, compared to the calm and exasperatingly moralistic tone of Craven’s book. Yet, while reading half of the book standing in a line at the Chinese embassy, I felt the similar involuntary impulses of “connecting” with a book that I had felt when I started Mockingbird on a plane returning from China earlier this year.
Both stories include American politics during the eras in question, and Walk Gently… deals , in addition with the two World Wars. Even though the issues considered are disturbing in themselves – racism in Mockingbird, war atrocities and economic hardship in Walk Gently… .- neither story was very disturbing to read. Their discussion in the books seemed, at least to me, firmly entrenched in history, too simplistic for today. What pulled me in, was the story about the ties between children and their parents and their friends – things which seemed easier to relate to because they are as relevant today as they were when the stories are supposed to have taken place. The power of Mockingbird was not in the stance that Atticus took but in the way he explained and embodied that stance to his children. Judge Westcott and later, Keith-Hutton, in Walk Gently… seemed to me to be lesser Atticuses (should it be Atticii?) – principled and kind men in their own right, but taken up with their own small town, mostly Republican, moral issues. A Republican current runs throughout the book, some of its characters being involved in Republican politics, but it is a tempered Republicanism of religious, small-town, and well-informed families, nowhere near the machine of obfuscation that governs today. I did not have a problem with the politics of the book.
The problem with Walk Gently… is that there is too much moralizing. Almost all characters are good, conveniently brought together at crucial points in the story, religious without exception. The one character that strays, gets the brutal retribution of being married to a haemophiliac who bleeds to death. I felt that this was manipulative and not in good taste. About ten feet from the visa window, and half-way through the book, on reading this dispensation of divine justice, I shut the book for a moment and realized that I was not going to have as much fun as I had expected. With my perspective thus colored, the generally happy reunions of the Westcott family seemed sugary and contrived, fitting marvelously into a jigsaw designed by God.
Both books are written by authors reminiscing on their past. Harper Lee grew up in the Deep South, and Margaret Craven was brought up in Montana and Puget sound. Lee’s personality was infused into the rebellious Scout Finch, and, one guesses, Craven’s outlook on life was similar to Cathy’s and Kim’s. Still, Mockingbird seems to be narrated by someone who still carried a little bit of the tomboy in her. The tone of Walk Gently… though, swallows Cathy and Kim and their endearing modernity, places them perfectly in the circle of traditional life, grows them up as it were. I did not like that very much.