Mary Lee Settle

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Settle, Mary Lee 1918–

An American novelist, Settle is best known for her historical novels centering around the Appalachian region. A Southern writer in theme and technique as well as in setting, she is fictively concerned with love, death, and memory and has thus elicited comparisons with Carson McCullers. O Beulah Land is generally considered her best novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)

The Times Literary Supplement

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The Love Eaters almost accomplishes [the creation of its own world]. Miss Mary Lee Settle's first novel examines the loveless roots of the small American town of Canona, and in the process creates a microcosm…. It is a patterned small world, filled out and completed by doctor, lawyer, librarian, nurse, college boy—a world which, symbolically, centres on the amateur theatre of the Canona Thespians.

Miss Lee Settle measures and follows out the impact upon Canona produced by Selby Dodd and another stranger, Hamilton Sacks, the first professional director of the Canona Thespians. Hamilton Sacks is a cripple, cut off from love by his deformity, who puts in its place a faultlessly malicious sense of weakness and unhappiness in others. Selby has a complementary deformity, that of living for the love which he attracts and exploits and is unable to return. Hamilton and Selby understand one another, and each of them finds scope for full play in Canona. Miss Lee Settle's book is uncomfortably alive with the antipathies of small-town American society, which she analyses in the vigorous and rhythmic idiom of American speech, and, although this writer is a relentless analyst, the effect she achieves is a compassionate one.

"Personal Relations: 'The Love Eaters'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1954; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2729, May 21, 1954, p. 325.

Edmund Fuller

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There appear to be strong derivations in ["The Love Eaters"]…. Hamilton is bound to seem like a sinister modification of Sheridan Whiteside of "The Man Who Came to Dinner." There are country-club scenes and some domestic conversations reminiscent of "Appointment in Samarra." The book's philosophy, too, is about on the [John] O'Hara level. The author sees Selby as an incubus, feeding on the love of others—an explanation that fails to be adequate as character analysis.

Actually a substantial writing talent is latent here, with a vigorous dramatic sense. Sections of "The Love Eaters" are effective and have a strong occasional authenticity. Unhappily it simply does not cohere as a work of art, internally, or as a recognizable social portrait, aside from its random satiric thrusts. The result, as with so many contemporary novels, is a striking but basically artificial product.

Edmund Fuller, "Allegheny Upheaval," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 3, 1955, p. 5.

Dexter Allen

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Eventually enough characters to provide a proper denouement [to O Beulah Land] converge on an exceptionally beautiful valley beyond the Endless Mountains. Beulah … is the promised land; and in this setting Miss Settle collects all the budding American stereotypes. Everyone is quite vigorous; the differences are chiefly of intent. Perhaps the most important character is Jeremiah, an escaped bondsman from the colonies who finds amazing spiritual and physical freedom in the Virginia wilderness. He is the weakest and most convincing by turns. (p. 545)

Miss Settle, leaving the true dimension of Jeremiah's personality to us, has given the wrong signposts. Out of his subsequent, anticlimactic union with Hannah, however, comes a more consistent character: their son Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is sketchily drawn, but the most sympathetic personage in the novel. (p. 546)

Miss Settle's transitions are at best awkward, at times quite confusing. She is undoubtedly at her...

(This entire section contains 346 words.)

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best when her technique is sufficiently run-of-the-mill to pass unnoticed. She is a writer whose capabilities lie in the field of popular art—who only defeats herself by affecting the attitudes, without the insights, of serious expression. The opening passages ofO Beulah Land are painfully amateurish in their attempted impressionism, without the banal interest of a Frank Yerby, or the pleasure in balances of a Virginia Woolf. These seem to constitute the two basic influences on her style.

One has the sense Miss Settle is trying desperately to view that tragic footprint on the first page with both a Hollywood camera's perspective and a poet's sensibility. The mood is difficult, unless one has so calloused an ear that it is enough for ideals to occur merely in sequence on a page to fit together. In the area of common dialogue, however, the writer can be really superb. Particularly in moments given to Jeremiah, and to his son Ezekiel, the sense of reality and pathos is genuine and beautiful. (pp. 546-47)

Dexter Allen, "History in the Service of Popular Art," in Commonweal (copyright © 1956 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXIV, No. 22, August 31, 1956, pp. 545-47.

Charlotte Capers

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Remarkable for its inclusiveness, [the] historical novel ["O Beulah Land"] is head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries. The author's research in the British Museum has paid off in the realism with which she invests her characters. The pioneers of Beulah are not golden-haired hunters seven feet tall, but in many cases are natural enemies from antagonistic religious, social and economic backgrounds, bound together by common danger and a growing identification with the land.

Charlotte Capers, "On Common Ground," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1956, p. 5.

William Peden

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[Mary Lee Settle's canvas in "Know Nothing"], like that of most historical novels, is a crowded one, depicting a quarter of a century in the lives of a score of major characters….

The large number of Miss Settle's people is frequently an obstacle to the reader's understanding and enjoyment. Too frequently the author introduces a character only to abandon him temporarily; when the reader is later informed that such and such a character has committed suicide, or "come up in the world" and matriculated at the University of Virginia, he is unmoved for the simple reason he has forgotten him. This plethora of weakly-individualized people, together with the author's fondness for caricature and her confusing use of a floating point of view, is the major weakness of Miss Settle's novel. When the author shifts her focus from characterization to the depiction of events, she is considerably more successful…. Miss Settle effectively depicts events on the larger stage of actual history. The growing tensions between irreconcilable political, social, and moral forces…. are effectively projected. So too are certain phases of the social history of the period, such as the charming recreations of resort life at Egeria Springs. Miss Settle … knows her land and its people well and uses this knowledge effectively, and without pretentiousness, in spite of her occasional over-simplification of the differences between Tidewater and Western mores.

In concept, "Know Nothing" is of epic, even heroic, proportions. Miss Settle brings to her task literary integrity and admirable seriousness of purpose. Although the narrative occasionally walks rather than canters and the people are sometimes swallowed up in the background, "Know Nothing" is a welcome contrast to the mass of blowzy Technicolored so-called historical romances designed for those who prefer to read lying down.

William Peden, "Back to Beulah Land," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIII, No. 45, November 5, 1960, p. 33.

Anthony Boucher

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To readers of Miss Settle's earlier books, there should be much fascination in following [the] trail of violence [in "Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday"]…. One must regretfully add that, as a novel in its own right, "Fight Night" does not hold up. The writing is largely attractive. But Hannah's quest for meaning simply retreads too many well-trod paths of the Southern novel. The reader soon recognizes each new character, not as a human being, but as an expectable convention of that genre.

Possibly by now we have read enough about the problems of people hungering after a past "forever gone, forever yearned for, where life was ordered in dignity, and days were lovely, and there was no change." The meaning of Johnny's death never does emerge, largely because Johnny has never been made to live—save as the stock-figure of the delightful gentleman-wastrel. Edmund Fuller, reviewing the author's first book, "The Love Eaters" [see excerpt above] said that "a substantial writing talent is latent here…. Unhappily, it simply does not cohere as a work of art." The same words will do for this, her fifth.

Anthony Boucher, "Heirs of the Trail-Breakers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 24, 1964, p. 39.

Robert M. Adams

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Mary Lee Settle's impracticably titled Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday works out to a consistent, overall 86-proof Faulkner. The story in essence is Hannah McKarkle's (no kidding!) investigations into her charming doomed dead brother Jonathan. It is a story told with multiple flashbacks into the time past of the close family, the extended family, and the entire sordid little section of Appalachia which is Miss Settle's chosen beat. Indeed, the muddling of past with present is the story; but it will take an alert and almost passionately cooperative reader to undo the tangle which results. Faulkner imposes at least as heavy a burden of decipherment, but rewards us, at his best, with a bewildered, vociferous intensity; Miss Settle's prose is less radioactive by far. Besides, the charming doomed young man is a fragile, even volatile problem for investigation; the more specific reasons one finds for his condition—and Faulkner at least wouldn't have been afraid to have the narrator look straight at herself for a while—the less charming and doomed he is bound to appear. Thus the hard work of psychic understanding soon vaporizes away into unconvincing social commentary, and the villain of this book appears as white Protestant bourgeois respectability or technological unemployment or something like that. In a novel ostensibly devoted to him, Johnny himself never figures as much more than a pretext—which, with the proper ironies, might be all right too; but they're muted out of existence, and the novel struck me as a flawed performance. Eloquent in many passages it surely is, and interestingly, thoughtfully constructed; but not focussed or resourceful enough, to keep the reader content. (p. 16)

Robert M. Adams, "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: 'Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday'," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 11, July 9, 1964, pp. 14-16.

The Times Literary Supplement

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Mary Lee Settle, best known as an historical novelist, is, like most Southern writers since Faulkner, preoccupied with memory. In Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday the shadow of the past falls continually on the present, and the characters move through the half-light like figures in a trance, their speech a long, reminiscent lament. The whole book is a kind of mourning ballad for the futility and tragedy of the South….

[The McKarkles are] a predictable family built for melodrama, and Miss Settle succeeds only fitfully in raising their experience to the level of tragedy. Behind her accent on memory is a determination to find "the key place, the point, the place where a man stopped and pivoted"….

Miss Settle weaves her ballad in an intense, luxuriant style, sometimes choked with adjectives, sometimes drifting into a melancholy singsong….

Inevitably Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday recalls the work of Carson McCullers, who is able to write about the South with a calm, coherent pity that Miss Settle does not achieve. She is a hectic, uneven writer, whose prose is often tense and overstrained, but whose strength is a compassionate curiosity about the secrets of human behaviour.

"Southern Strains," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3285, February 11, 1965, p. 101.

The Times Literary Supplement

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Looking back across more than twenty years, it seems strange that the educated lance-corporal, whose voice, lyric or plaintive or poignant, added so distinctive a note to the literature of the Second World War, was almost never female. Why not, when the swathe of conscription cut through both sexes? A generation later, Mary Lee Settle has filled the gap with something more searching, because more precise than documentary. [All the Brave Promises] is experience not transmuted but filtered and refined by memory….

Miss Settle weathered [the problems] and was accepted. She renders it all with neither bitterness nor inverted romanticism: the insanities of discipline when administered by inadequate officers and n.c.o.s, the loathsomeness of mass feeding when nobody concerned in its management could cook in the first place, the oases of solitude and understanding, the dumb support of the herd, and the sheer, brutalizing boredom of it all.

"W.A.A.F.," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3399, April 20, 1967, p. 339.

T. A. Shippey

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The long road [in The Long Road to Paradise] is Corporal Johnny Church's path to execution at Burford in 1649, for refusing service in Ireland and trying to hold Cromwell to his promises. As an individual's the story is hardly an interesting one; we are told its conclusion right at the start, and the narrative style—continuous first-person recapitulation—has a quality more slow than dreamy. But Miss Settle is more concerned with historical perspectives that the fates of men.

Apart from the odd Ranter and a sprinkling of Bible texts, there is no marked sense of the religious dimension in the [British] Civil War, and while some play is made with the changed meanings of democratic, anarchical, liberal, and radical, it is hard to believe in a seventeenth-century regimental agitator who says things like "either/or".

Still, Miss Settle has chosen an interesting period and has picked out some good quotations to currant the story with. She might have had more success, though, by developing the character of Church's servant Lazarus: a village "cunning man" who knew his soul was a great bone within his body, and that when he died it would seep out through his toes like a mist. One would readily exchange some modern parallels for a few more ancient superstitions.

T. A. Shippey, "Parallaxed," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3799, December 27, 1974, p. 1466.

The New Republic

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In [Blood Tie's] dense and deliciously rich prose Mary Lee Settle weaves an intricate tapestry of the lives of seven … expatriates who with their few Turkish friends become the victims of political repression, and of their dreams of rejuvenated life in a new land. Settle's portrait of the clash of two cultures and the eerie criss-crossing of her characters' motives and desires is hypnotizing; her accounts of archaeological excavation and deep-sea diving are fascinating; and her portrayal of the ties of blood, love and loyalty that survive destruction is unforgettably powerful.

"Current Paperbacks: 'Blood Tie'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, Nos. 1-2, July 7 & 14, 1979, p. 39.

Anne Tyler

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The Scapegoat is, I think, an even better book [than Mary Lee Settle's last novel, Blood Tie. Like Blood Tie, it shows the inner workings of a prodigious variety of people, but these people are somehow closer to us, less brittle, more genuine, their contradictions and self-delusions more subtly dealt with. Hard-bitten Mother Jones ("sitting there dumpy like a sweet little old lady, about the shape of a keg of dynamite") grows as familiar to us as our own grandmothers. We see into the very soul of Annunziata Pagano as she coolly, firmly summons the Italian-mama hysteria that will help her control a crisis….

In one sense, The Scapegoat is a straightforward, linear novel. Its four parts cover, in proper order, a single period from 3 o'clock one afternoon to 8 o'clock the following morning. But in another sense, it's more of an octopus shape, with the repercussions from some events branching out to other events, years later, of which we're given glimpses. When I finished the book, I started re-reading it, telling myself that now I could pick up the hints dropped in Part I. When I found myself in Part II, still re-reading, I had to face facts: The Scapegoat is hard to say goodbye to. It's a whole slice of a long-ago world, with its leaves still rustling and its voices still murmuring—a quiet masterpiece. (p. 13)

Anne Tyler, "Mining a Rich Vein," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), September 28, 1980, pp. 1, 13.

The Atlantic Monthly

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Set in a coal rich valley of West Virginia in 1912, [The Scapegoat] teems with Italian miners, British bosses, downriver rednecks, Philadelphia-bred wives, Vassar-educated daughters, imported strike-breakers, even a learned Orthodox Jew or two. No one claims kin; no one makes friends. Lacey Creek is a place where people view each other with suspicion, keep their motives to themselves, and eventually take out their frustrations on the only real stranger in their midst.

With seemingly effortless skill Mary Lee Settle introduces us to the members of this microcosm during the course of a day in early June, the last day of a miners' strike. Emotions are running high, though for various reasons: the valley's old family feels undone by its recent loss of wealth; the immigrants feel undone by the harsh land which should have been golden; the men feel undone by the women, and the women by their dreams. It soon becomes clear where all this unhappiness will lead, though how remains facinatingly complex.

A tour de force of character portrayal, The Scapegoat's consequent flaw is that we want to know more about each of the people we meet in its pages. A few—mostly women, such as Lily Lacey, a delicate flower of southern womanhood with a thin veneer of liberal opinions and a complete lack of self-knowledge—are fully drawn, but many more are tantalizingly offered only to reappear as mere names. Settle is a fine writer, though, and manages to sustain a centripetal force that unites her characters in sympathy.

"Life & Letters: 'The Scapegoat'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 246, No. 4, October, 1980, p. 101.

E. L. Doctorow

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Readers and writers who mourn fiction's loss of subject would do well to catch up on Mary Lee Settle. I say catch up because this vigorous writer has since 1954 published eight novels that gobble up time and geography and make their way through the bloodlines of family dynasties, rendering the world from 17th-century England to 20th-century Turkey. And though she has had her champions …, she has experienced the peculiar lack of recognition sometimes suffered by strong-willed writers no matter how good or voluminous their work.

Miss Settle's ninth novel is "The Scapegoat," and it takes place in West Virginia in the year 1912. This is home territory for the author, the setting of her Beulah trilogy, a families-on-the-land saga spanning two centuries of American life. (p. 1)

The author's resolution of [the plot] is almost secondary. An act of violence occurs, a scapegoat bears off the inequities of Lacey Creek, and life here will never be the same. History rides through, and looming ahead is the large terror of World War I. What interests Mary Lee Settle is not plot so much as the irremediable longing of the human mind…. [There] is relatively little sense of action. Each event in the advance to the book's climax is played and replayed inside the feelings and perceptions of one or more of the many characters. This is a universe in which people suffer their fate in the act of meditation. (pp. 40-1)

For the most part, the characters are given to thinking expositionally about their personal histories. Since the book is constructed from multiple points of view, the characters often have to introduce and reintroduce themselves by name. Thus people thinking in the first person have the habit of telling themselves what their names are, which is not the way people outside books think.

It is true, too, that the author seems sometimes to love and lavish attention on a character beyond his proven consequence to the story. The suspicion rises in the reader's mind that the writer's design is not apparent within the bounds of this one book. It may be a publishing problem rather than a writing one; the family names …—Lacey, Catlett, Neill—will be recognized by readers of the Beulah trilogy; and the full effect of what is going on may only be felt by the reader who takes in all the volumes of Miss Settle's West Virginia saga sequentially.

But if these are criticisms they can be accommodated. The writer has a grand passion for what she's doing. And, if she sometimes fails to write along the nerve of her story, we don't lose faith in the enterprise nor the wish to read.

Miss Settle's powers of description are impressive. Her knowledge of the look of things in 1912—the furnishings of houses and clothes and materials from which clothes are made, the dressing of hair, the kind of food on the tables, the interiors of railroad cars and kitchens and mines—is authoritative, abundant. Above all there is the high drama of the subject and the palpable instinct of a novelist for panorama. Miss Settle's large ambition, her sense of scale, her capacity to take in the whole life, from the specific feeling of a moment to the vast historic forces in social conflict, are her great gift. The sense of the individual as a member of a family and as a political being in history is hers without question. (pp. 41-2)

E. L. Doctorow, "Mother Jones Had Some Advice," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 26, 1980, pp. 1, 40-2.

Robert Houston

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To some, it may come as a surprise that Mother Jones was a woman before she was a magazine, just as to many it has come as a surprise lately that something besides World War I happened between 1900 and 1920….

But Mary Lee Settle hasn't forgotten. The Scapegoat … remembers those years and people superbly. And if, as it appears, there is a renascence of interest in that perhaps deliberately forgotten "golden age" of native radicalism in America, The Scapegoat's timing is as right as its memory.

Though not a "strike novel," The Scapegoat uses as its focus a coal miners' strike in West Virginia in 1912. Whether it is based on a real strike is beside the point: it is fictionally real and fictionally accurate…. When you finish The Scapegoat, you know how it felt to be alive in 1912 during a coal miners' strike in West Virginia. The rest is quibbling.

Yet, to repeat, The Scapegoat is not a strike novel. We are shown only one afternoon, night and morning of the strike itself, though that brief period allows our imaginations to connect the dots for the rest. That's why focus is probably the best word to describe the function of the strike. The lives of the characters would most likely have taken their courses with much the same results had the strike not happened, and corporate capitalism would no doubt have gobbled up the country's mines just as inevitably. Yet the strike furnishes the unifying dramatic framework for a fictional treatment of those changes. (p. 469)

What The Scapegoat is about, then, is violence and change. And revelation. About change in that the decline of the Lacey family, which has been in progress for years, finally reaches a point of no return during the strike—as does their world…. The revelation the strike brings is that [the Laceys] and their social world have already lost the battle, that they will at last have to sell [their land], and that nobody, not even themselves, really gives a damn. (pp. 469-70)

The violence that change does to their way of living is counterpointed, however, by the more overt violence that happens in the valley below them, in the mines and strike-born tent towns where the money to build and keep up the house on the hill has come from. The Laceys are caught in the middle of the battle between the union and the new corporations, yes, but theirs is a padded suffering, a tragedy at an unbridgeable remove from that of the miners. The corporations are determined to break the strike, not settle it…. Enter Mother Jones, the 82-year-old union organizer; add a frustrated, humiliated Capt. Dan Neill, the detective leader, and the conflict grows to the point where only a blood sacrifice will do—a scapegoat, who like most good scapegoats is a total innocent.

Too briefly, that's what The Scapegoat is about. But how and how well does it work? First, it is the characters who are primary, as in all of Settle's fiction. You find no straight-line plot development here: flashbacks, flash-forwards, extended ruminations, an ironic interplay of voices, all give The Scapegoat its rich texture. It is those voices, in fact, that are most likely Settle's best achievement. Voice is the soul of fiction in any case, and by voice we should mean not the mythical and touted "author's voice." It isn't at all the author's voice that matters most, but rather the author's ability to capture a narrative voice appropriate to his or her characters, place, time, etc. And whether she tells her story from a first- or third-person point of view (the book alternates these), Settle makes The Scapegoat a symphony of her characters' voices, captured with an unfailingly attuned ear. So, for the most part, the movements away from the direct forward momentum of the strike story do not seem interruptions….

The book's scheme divides the world of the valley basically into that of the owners, the "redneck" miners and the immigrant miners. Among the immigrants, the Pagano family is the central one, as are the Laceys among the owners, and the Catletts (familiar Settle families, those) among the "rednecks." Yet the Laceys and the Catletts are far less representative of groups than they are collections of individuals—and their stories don't move us away from the world of the strike and the valley so much as they enclose it, define it.

Not so the Paganos. Somehow they remain Immigrants, Fine Noble Italians—a touch too romanticized for irony…. Perhaps if we didn't leave the primary world of the book for quite so long at a hunk, didn't spend quite such long spells remembering Italian grandfathers and rummaging about in memories of childhoods in Italian towns, the sense of frustration wouldn't have a chance to gain the head it does.

Too, the heavy lacing with Italian of both the narration and the dialogue becomes a problem….

None of this, of course, should really detract from the overall judgment of the book: it is as good a novel as anyone writing in this country today could have written…. Stylistically, it is [Settle's] best; some of the early tendency toward lushness in rhetoric is fully controlled….

A final thought: since Ragtime, much has been made of the virtues or vices of using real people in fiction, people who are almost (or are) our contemporaries. Maybe Mother Jones can settle the question for us, though in life she would no doubt have thought it a damn silly one to bother with. She is not one of the major point-of-view characters in The Scapegoat, yet she is dramatically very useful to it. In medieval drama, there was a common character since called by critics the Vice Figure, the stirrer-up, the catalyst, the tempter…. Mother Jones in The Scapegoat performs that vice figure function admirably: she is a delight, yet, as some of the characters realize, she brings something with her, consequences, that they know they must eventually face. That she was a real woman, a piece of history, should not be a consideration at all. She works fictionally and remains in character; The Scapegoat is a novel, not a historical text…. (p. 470)

Perhaps one reason Mary Lee Settle did not receive the recognition she deserved for so many years was that she steadfastly refused fads. During two and a half decades of too much solipsism in fiction, of clichéd "experimentalism," of form without substance, she has continued to write about such things as justice, the human heart, right and wrong—things it became fashionable to forget. In The Scapegoat she still writes about those things, and does it excellently. It is an important book. (pp. 470-71)

Robert Houston, "Blood Sacrifice," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 231, No. 15, November 8, 1980, pp. 469-71.