Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

It is surprising that Mary Lee Settle is not better known. In 1978, when she received the National Book Award for Fiction for Blood Tie (1977), there were many critics who questioned the decision. Even since the completion of The Beulah Quintet, critical articles about her have been few. Yet her longtime admirer, George Garrett, himself an outstanding historical novelist, continues to point out Settle’s scope, the depth of her vision, the proficiency of her technique. In even one historical novel, to handle varied points of view and a multitude of characters so deftly and so clearly is a notable achievement. To juggle families, characters, themes, motifs, and historical details in five related novels without departures from a high level of craftsmanship and the consistent search for truth, clearly expressed, is a task at which few other contemporary writers could succeed. As a Southern writer, Settle is typically conscious of the burden of the past, of the anti-intellectualism and jubilant boorishness which are the inheritance from the frontier, of the stagnant smugness which accompanied the elevation in a new social hierarchy of those who had been inferior in an older hierarchy. Without family, wonders a lady in Know Nothing, what could the Yankee women at Egeria Springs find to talk about? Settle’s use of eastern Virginia-western Virginia setting is particularly useful in illustrating the social changes which accompanied the movement of established traditions into the resistant frontier. Yet with all of her regional and historical accuracy, Settle transcends mere local color and, like the best writers of the continuing Southern Renaissance, achieves universality in characterization and in theme.