(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Jessamyn West offers a heartwarming story of a rural Quaker family as they go about their daily lives. They are a sturdy and loving family, sincere and unpretentious in their religious beliefs. As repeatedly shown in the ways they interact with their neighbors, they practice kindness and respect toward others. Nevertheless, they sometimes confront issues that challenge Quaker norms as they develop their individual understandings of leading a Christian life.

In “Music on the Muscatatuck,” the first of the fourteen stories that constitute the work, Jess Birdwell feels happy and blessed. He loves his wife, Eliza, and their children. His nursery business is successful. He appreciates the beauty of nature that surrounds their house and orchards, including the Muscatatuck River. However, he ponders over something missing in his life: music. Eliza is a Quaker preacher whose emphasis on simplicity and plainness ranks music as frivolous and distracting. Jess has heard hymns being sung as he passes other churches, and he instinctively feels that his soul responds.

On one of his trips to buy supplies, by chance Jess encounters a man who sells organs, and Jess hears him sing and play. Jess buys one of the musical instruments, not knowing quite why, and he does not tell Eliza. When the organ is delivered, Eliza says she does not want it in the house. Jess and his farmhand Enoch continue to uncrate it. Recognizing Jess’s determination, Eliza, who is described as reasonable as well as pious, tells him that it must go in the attic.

One evening when their daughter Mattie is in the attic singing and playing the organ, Jess sees some men of the Quaker Ministry and Oversight Committee approaching the house. When they enter, Jess begins to pray aloud in a forceful voice, as one might do at the meeting hall. His prayer lasts as long as he knows Mattie is playing. The committee leaves...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Farmer, Ann Dahlstrom, and Philip M. O’Brien. Jessamyn West: A Descriptive and Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1998. Commentary on the works as well as a thorough bibliography that includes the date and journal in which each of the stories was first published, from 1940 through 1945.

Kibler, James E., Jr., ed. American Novelists Since World War II. Vol. 6 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 1980. The substantial reference entry on Jessamyn West provides basic information about her life and works, plus some commentary on the works.

Shivers, Alfred F. Jessamyn West. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1992. Discussion of the author’s life and works, with extensive commentary on The Friendly Persuasion. Includes details not otherwise widely available.