The Peculiar People

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE PECULIAR PEOPLE is the last in a trilogy of novels about Quaker life in America by the Dutch writer Jan de Hartog, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. The novel begins in Birmingham, England, in December 1832 with Mordecai Monk’s disconcerting double discovery that he is the son of an itinerant American preacher named Basil Goodlove and that, something of a long delayed inheritance, he has developed considerable eloquence as a speaker. Perceived as a danger to his brethren (as well as their wives and daughters), Mordecai is shipped off to the more fertile fields of America, arriving just six years after the American Quaker church has split in two over the slavery issue. In Indiana, Mordecai finds a Quaker community committed to social activism (it serves as a station in the Underground Railroad) and temptations aplenty for a randy Monk, who will end up as both charlatan and Christ.

De Hartog’s plot is intricate and, like most of Mark Twain’s, shamelessly and sentimentally contrived. His characterizations are generally not much better, and his prose is at best serviceable and at worst wooden. Some of this may be deliberate, an attempt on de Hartog’s part to create in prose what “naive artists” did in paint (as in the best known of these works, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” also the title of the first part of de Hartog’s Quaker trilogy). Putting aside the book’s several flaws (if they are flaws) and putting aside as well the publisher’s claims concerning the novel’s “epic scope” and the characters’ “dramatic struggles” and “spiritual striving,” THE PECULIAR PEOPLE is of considerable interest for its activist theme, its probing of the line or link between the saintly and the sensual, and the generous manner in which de Hartog sees how human failings can be turned to advantage by what some would call divine providence but here looks suspiciously like hardnosed Quaker determination and perseverance.