Esther Forbes Alexander Laing

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Alexander Laing

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 644 words.)