In all of her novels and short stories, Elizabeth Spencer has been particularly interested in the conflicting needs of individuals for security and for freedom. On one hand, Spencer’s characters recognize the value of belonging, which for many comes through an established family with an established tradition. On the other hand, even those born with an assured place in society may feel smothered, while those who because of circumstances or temperament feel themselves to be outsiders in a stable society generally flee from that society. In The Night Travellers, Spencer once again deals with her customary themes. This time, she traces the conflict between these two human needs through the life of a young woman who is denied a chance to find her own identity both by her conservative, ambitious mother and by the radical opponent of the Vietnam War for whom she deserts her family, her career, and her country.
Although in its emphasis on a political issue it recalls Spencer’s novel The Voice at the Back Door (1956), a story of racial injustice, in many ways The Night Travellers is more like No Place for an Angel (1967), whose characters have drifted to New Orleans, searching for something that they could not find in the places they left. Spencer pictures Montreal similarly, as a temporary refuge, not a home, for those who have fled there from their lost homes in Europe or from places in the United States that they no longer claim as home.
None of the major characters in The Night Travellers have the warm, secure, traditional background against which some of the characters in Spencer’s other fiction rebel and to which many of them eventually return. The novel begins by establishing the tension between Mary Kerr Harbison, the protagonist, and her mother, Kate McCanless Harbison. When Mary’s kitten is troublesome, Kate takes it to use in her research laboratory, thus proving not just her insensitivity but a real cruelty, probably triggered by her jealousy of the easy affection that her husband and her daughter feel for each other, as well as, profoundly, by her own social insecurity.
Kate McCanless has been reared in rural North Carolina. She is the first of her family to finish college and, later, the first to live in town. When she meets Don Harbison, she is not interested in him, even though he is a law student and she has considered marrying a lawyer. When she discovers the importance of the Harbison name in Kingsbury, North Carolina, however, she decides to marry him, and for a time, even though Don does not make a great deal of money, she is happy with her social elevation, with her travels, and with the big family home in which they live. After her husband’s sudden death, Kate is more interested in Mary Kerr’s keeping her social advantages than in her daughter’s grief for her father or her sense of loss when, in her absence, Kate sells the family home and moves out. What is important to Kate is that Mary Kerr make her debut and marry an appropriate man. When Mary Kerr begins to see Jefferson Blaise, whose associations are unsavory and whose future is uncertain, it is not surprising that Kate is appalled. She sees her daughter throwing away everything that Kate herself had struggled so hard to give her.
On the other hand, perhaps because she has always been a Harbison, Mary Kerr is not particularly interested in her place in society. It is her father’s love that gives her what sense of security she has; when after his death she is left to her mother, who is sometimes affectionate, sometimes abusive, Mary Kerr feels lost. It is only in her dancing that she finds a sense of purpose.
Ironically, like Kate, Jeff Blaise wishes to shape Mary Kerr’s identity. Early in their relationship, his own prejudices become clear. Although he is himself a Southerner, of a family that remembers past affluence, he dislikes what he calls “Southern belles,” and therefore refuses to use the typical double name and renames Mary Kerr just “Mary.” His subsequent conduct is similarly arrogant. Although he expects her to share his own fervor for his cause, Jeff consistently ignores Mary’s own passion for dance. He wants to have her with him; therefore she is to share his exile, even at the cost of her own career, the career that alone can fulfill her own deepest needs in addition to being Mary’s only means of supporting herself and her child after Jeff has left her stranded in Montreal. While Jeff’s subsequent silence is driving Mary almost mad, it appears that he is completely selfish. Late in the novel, however, when a number of Jeff’s letters to Mary are finally delivered to her, it is clear that he has been worried about her and their child and that he has assumed they were both being...
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