Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2245
Despite praise from Granville Hicks, Malcolm Cowley, George Garrett, and other major critics, Mary Lee Settle is a novelist whose career has been marked by neglect and confusion. Many newspaper and television critics who were angered by the selection of Blood Tie as the winner of the 1978 National Book Award for Fiction, confessed they had not read the novel nor did they bother to find out what Settle had written previously. Since 1954, Settle has published ten novels.
Settle’s latest novel, The Scapegoat, is the fourth in “The Beulah Quintet.” Perhaps the confusion that surrounds these five novels is due in part to the conflict between Settle’s changing conception of the whole and the order in which each was published. When the first three books, O Beulah Land (1956), Know Nothing (1960) and Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday (1964) were ready, Settle wanted them published as a trilogy, but Viking, then her publisher, refused. They were later published as a trilogy in paperback by Ballantine Books. Settle also claims that her editor cut Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday so drastically as to disturb its relation to the other novels, and she is now rewriting it to make it connect with them. That it was originally entitled The Killing Ground further complicates the pure picture she wishes to see emerge from the five books.
If “The Beulah Quintet” is to be read in the related order Settle now intends, the physical order of publication must be discounted. The novels should be read chronologically as follows: Prisons (1973), set in England in 1634; O Beulah Land, the region that is now West Virginia, from 1755-1774; Know Nothing, West Virginia between 1847 and 1861, leading to the Civil War; The Scapegoat, West Virginia in 1912; and Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, West Virginia in 1960. Although any one of the books may be read without any of the other four, the delineation of families and characters and the changing land is enhanced by the proper order.
Settle was born in and spent a major portion of her life in and around Charleston, West Virginia. Although the four books growing out of this geographical area are not autobiographical, she combines personal elements in her life with intensely researched material and imagination to allow the reader to perceive events of history from within a personal structure. The ancestral tree, its branches extending from Johnny Church in Prisons to Hannah McKarkle in Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, provides the characters for each of the novels. Johnny Lacey, Johnny Church’s descendant in O Beulah Land, establishes an estate in the valley west of the Endless Mountains before the area became West Virginia; in Know Nothing, Peregrene Catlett is descended from Johnny Church and Johnny Lacey; The Scapegoat includes several offspring from the Beulah dynasty—Jake Catlett, Beverley Lacey, Mooney McKarkle; and Hannah McKarkle in Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, named after the first Hannah in O Beulah Land, becomes the chronicler of the collective history of Beulah land.
The events around which Settle shapes her narratives are sometimes ritual (marriages, feasts, funerals) sometimes broader historical crises (the English Revolution, the Civil War). In The Scapegoat, the characters gravitate around and converge in major strikes in the coal mining area of West Virginia that eventually led to the Matewan Massacre in Mingo County in 1920.
The axis of The Scapegoat is a seventeen hour period from 3:00 P.M. on Friday, June 7 until 8:00 A.M. on Saturday, June 8, 1912. Although Settle uses fictional names for the creeks and towns, the location is very probably the sharp, jagged mountains between Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in Logan County, West Virginia. This sparsely settled mountain region expanded because of the increased demand for coal. Many of the natives thought it was bad luck to work underground and so the coal mine operators turned to two sources for their manpower supply: the cotton-growing states of the South and the over-crowded slums of central and southern Europe. People from those two areas were tempted by agents of the mine operators with offers of free transportation, steady work, good wages, and company houses. Once these men, with their families in many cases, were transported to the foreign soil, they had no choice but to work under intolerable conditions and often for unscrupulous mine owners.
Union organizers in 1912, moved into the territory and in April, seventy-five hundred miners went on strike. Others chose to continue working. They had families to support. As the threat of violence grew greater, the county sheriffs were unable to police all the mining camps. To cope with this situation, each coal company deputized one of its employees to serve as the keeper of the peace in the camp. Mine guards came in from outside, mostly supplied by the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and were called “Baldwin Thugs.” The mine guards, in their black coats and hats, and the company sheriff became the chief law enforcement agency in the coal counties. The mine guards loaded the striking miners’ household goods into freight cars, hauled them across the lines of the company property, and dumped them along the railroad tracks. Homeless and hungry, the strikers and their families were forced to find shelter in caves, tents, and improvised shacks on privately owned lands. “God is everywhere, on land and sea, but He has not visited Paint Creek and Cabin Creek recently.” This crucial time and place is the setting of The Scapegoat.
The large number of characters grows from the two established families, the Lacey’s and the Catlett’s, and includes numerous townspeople, several of the Baldwin detectives, women and children of the miners, and even Mother (Mary) Jones, the “Miners’ Angel” who did not bring trouble, but appeared where trouble was. Paralleling the conflict between the striking miners and Mother Jones and the Baldwin detectives (the strike breakers) is the conflict between Beverley Lacey, owner of Seven Stars mine that is not on strike, and Jake Catlett, who feels a strong loyalty to Beverley, but is now on the side of the Union, and who allows the striking miners who have been dispossessed of their homes to erect a tent city on his property.
The three Lacey girls, Mary Rose, Lily, and Althea are central to the novel; they are the stabilizers, the shoring that keeps personal disaster from occurring because of respect for the Lacey family and the protective attitudes of the other characters. These three girls live on the edge of the impending violence, are involved in complex relationships with other characters, and are engaged in competition with one another, yet they are curiously untouched as they continue their lives in different directions, each wishing to escape in some way their narrow environment. Whether they have accomplished escape in the end is ambiguous and depends upon the angle by which each perceives her final destiny.
The novel itself seems to hang over a precipice as its characters experience premonitions about the future. Mother Jones, meeting with the miners, suddenly feeling her eighty-two years, “had a flick of a vision, like a glimpse of her death or the intrusion of a dream.” Eduardo, the intended “scapegoat,” kept “listening for something down the mountain. He didn’t know what it was. Something worried his peace he didn’t want to recognize.” The women felt “Their ears were cocked listening for something to happen, they didn’t know what. They knew it with their skin.”
Like Carlo Michele, the unintended “scapegoat,” who planned when he came to this country to travel in a circle, Settle’s characters travel in an unplanned circle; after many missed opportunities, they come to the realization of an event that is genuinely significant to them and to those with whom they interact. These convergences tighten the novel and enforce its power. Because the characters are not fully aware of the significance of their actions and thoughts, they are held in suspense and somehow barely miss participating fully in those suspenseful developments. The subtle, complex relationships among the characters of The Scapegoat and their already built-in more complex relationships set in motion in earlier books of the quintet form a network that links them all together in a spiderweb design. As the five novels have evolved from one, in The Scapegoat, one event breeds another, and the characters circle around these events in confusion, apprehension, memory, and speculation. In this sense, Settle may be compared to William Faulkner, although her digressions from the main focus of the story are not as complex as Faulkner’s. The complex shifts in point of view, with their consequent changes in style, and the shifts in time and place demand a great deal of attention and flexibility of the reader.
From the beginning of her career, Settle, not only in this quintet, but also in other novels and in her autobiographical account of her service in World War II, All the Brave Promises (1966), has used a variety of point of view techniques. In Prisons, Johnny Church tells his story in the first person, and in Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday Hannah McKarkle speaks. In Know Nothing, Settle projects the action through the third-person central intelligence point of view of Jonathan Catlett. In O Beulah Land, she employs the omniscient point of view. In The Scapegoat, she combines all of these techniques, moving back and forth from first- to third-person central intelligence to omniscient points of view. Settle’s shifting point of view techniques produce a structure that corresponds to the structure of the mines of West Virginia. Sometimes Settle’s vantage point is the top of the mountain, looking down at the fragmented relationships among her characters; then she enters the mind of one character after another, exactly as one might explore the separate subterranean compartments. Suddenly, she shifts to the illuminating first person, as though turning on the light on the miner’s cap. Occasionally, it is difficult to follow what appears to be an omniscient beginning to a paragraph, but is actually third-person central intelligence point of view. Here the shift occurs in a single sentence. “Francesco had changed in all their eyes, but not in his own.” Settle seems in such instances to lack control of point of view.
While the actual events occur in a single day, Settle diverges from chronology. In three of the novel’s four parts, Settle plays with the time factor. Although the first part is labeled “3:00 P.M. to 5:30 P.M., Friday, June 7, 1912,” Mary Rose projects almost a year later, as she talks about appearing before the Senate Committee headed by Senator William H. Borah of Idaho, formed to look into the mining situation in Logan County. In this same section, however, Settle returns to the immediate events of June 7. In Part II, she advances fourteen years into the future, as Althea looks back to June 7, 1912; within this same section, not only does Settle shift the time again, this time to 1921, but she also sets part of the narration in France as Lily participates in World War I as a nurse. Despite transitory confusion, all these shifts seem to work. There is an underlying compulsive thread that must be fully unwound; although the thread loops in its unwinding, it finally reaches the present, where the action is immediate and coincides with the characters’ experience and consciousness. Events in The Scapegoat sometimes proceed at a very fast pace, sometimes come to a standstill, but eventually converge at some predestined point.
As the coal mine and its extensive effects on the characters and on the land underlie the novel, the mine also becomes symbolic. Lily, who has been away at Vassar and who has come home afire with new liberal ideas and the stubborn wish to help the miners despite her father’s opposition, begs Eduardo to take her into the mines so she can know what the miners experience; when he refuses, she enters the mine alone one night. As she stumbles along in the dark and the silence, she “had never felt so lonesome in her whole life until now as she stood on the balustrade, watching the trees along the Ancre gradually defined in halos of mist.” She knew with a startling clarity that “she was trying to get a thrill by sticking her nose in where she had no business.”
Contrasting the black coal dust, the white dresses the Lacey girls always wear, and the colorlessness of the bleak mountains, Settle develops a symbolic color motif. She sets it up in the first few pages, as Mary Rose speaks.That was the year I was finding colors for everything, like when you say you’re blue—or they’re blue in the face, or a black look, or a purple passion, or you see red. You know. Well, a pink revenge is slow and light and bedroomy and interminable and almost undetectable and absolutely killing. Althea is the queen of the pink revenge. She inherited thin hair.
This motif is repeated throughout the novel, even when the omniscient narrator speaks or through the voice of other characters.
Mary Lee Settle, with her passion for historical events and her almost obsessive dedication to the research of those events, and her vision of character situations that develop within these monumental crises, has created in The Scapegoat characters who will certainly go on to form their own story. Wherever Settle goes next, in whatever complex manner, she is certainly worthy of following.