Esther Forbes

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Alexander Laing

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The historical novel, latterly, has come to depend more and more upon the old picaresque formula which had, in its origins, nothing in particular to do with history. As if plotted upon a sine wave, the story must soar to a lush bit of four-poster ecstasy every fifteen pages, and plummet in the interstices into violence and cruelty. It is therefore something of a relief to come upon a tale [such as The Running of the Tide] which does not rely upon such gaudy devices at all. Miss Forbes approaches her task and material respectfully. The faults of her novel, in so far as it is faulty, are those of too laborious an attention to details. (p. 15)

The publishers,… to quote the dust wrapper, call it "a titanic struggle of conscience rarely equaled in American fiction." Given the circumstances, it could be such a conflict, but it is not. On the level of plot, the people and circumstances are rather more exasperating than piteous and terrible. The background is vivid, true, and convincing—if we allow for the historical novelist's almost inevitable quota of minor slips. The ethical problem is well stated, and inevitably worked out. The trouble is with the people. They are not unlike the personalities that lurk behind the letters printed in such old journals as Miss Forbes has drawn upon for much of her material. We think: "This is a real statement, from a real person, deeply concerned over a real problem." And yet it requires a separate act of the imagination to cut back through time and space into this real person's consciousness. It is because, in nearly every such case, the writer was not a creative artist.

A multitude of things, however true and orderly, may stand between us and the fact of character. In this story, they do. Miss Forbes uses a hundred pages to get the Victrix off to sea on her first voyage. All of these pages are good reading, but it is only at this late point that the nature of the moral conflict even begins to be revealed. The dramatic crises, thereafter, are almost muted. Frequently the action slides the circumstance. The stuff of a first-rate scene is foreshadowed. Then it is handled in reminiscence. So far as characters in immediate activity are concerned, it has never occurred at all….

No, this is Salem's book, from first to last. The fact remains that most of it is good reading, even if there is much too much of it at all points except the dramatic climaxes. Many of the minor characters are excellently conceived and drawn. The smell, the mood, the color of the town are always convincing….

Miss Forbes writes much more understandably of women than of men, and rather better about dogs than about human beings of either persuasion. But the true heroine of her book is a town and its personality. Some of the most loving writers about Salem have been the least endearing. It has become something of a tradition for hardshell reactionaries to hold up this particular accident of time, place, and circumstance as an example of what the whole country might still be, if no central government had ever meddled with it. Miss Forbes skirts this temptation with good humor and grace, admitting that her Inmans are not Jeffersonians, and letting the picture, as she has drawn it, point its own morals. It is too bad, I think, that she did not content herself with the task of writing the biography of Salem, rather than the insufficiently realized tragedy of the Inmans and the two women, aristocrat and peasant, whose lives they complicated into a tragedy that dwindles away in the telling. (p. 16)

Alexander Laing, "Salem's Aristotles and Magpies," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1948, by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 9, 1948, pp. 15-16.

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