Esther Forbes James Thomas Flexner - Essay

James Thomas Flexner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The mood of Esther Forbes's charming novel "Rainbow on the Road" is that of a sunlit summer day, variegated with thunderstorms which pass quickly, leaving behind them an even brighter landscape….

Mrs. Forbes uses not sex—there never was a purer book—or dagger to lure the reader from page to page, but relies on a skill which most modern historical novelists seem to regard as secondary, on literary style, on the ability to evoke the wonders of everyday living. In brilliant passages, so simple that their artistry is never obvious, she reveals a clear morning, the strange personality of a ballad-singer walking the highways, all the luxuriant human life that pours out upon a traveler who knocks on many doors.

In other novels Mrs. Forbes has most effectively dipped her brush in somber hues, but this novel is so lyrical, so gay that when she uses darker notes for more than contrast they seem slightly out of key. The book does have a plot in the conventional sense—Jude Rebaugh is mistaken for a Robin-Hoodlike bandit who turns into a murderer—but all this seems an afterthought; the plot does not make a real appearance until we are halfway through her delightful pages. Although in themselves extremely well done, the scenes of violence necessitated by the plot—they are few—break the mood.

Mrs. Forbes … never forgets the difference between historical fiction and history. She pulls no actual characters in by the hair; she gives us no classroom lectures, but uses her vast erudition as food for her imagination. She treats the past no differently from the way other skilful novelists treat the times in which they themselves lived….

"Rainbow on the Road" will long be read and cherished not because of the facts it contains, but because of its imaginative power.

James Thomas Flexner, "New England Traveler," in The Saturday Review (Entire issue copyright 1954 by Saturday Review Associates, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 30, 1954, p. 19.