Library of America, 1998
Originally published 1972
The past is no more open to help or hurt than was Father in his coffin. The past is like him, impervious, and can never be awakened. It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world , . . . calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears. It will never be impervious. The memory can be hurt, time and again – but in that may lie its final mercy. As long as it's vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due.In Eudora Welty's short novel, The Optimist's Daughter, Laurel McKelva Hand travels from Chicago to New Orleans in order to help look after her aging father who is undergoing eye surgery. Though Judge McKelva seems strong and in otherwise good health, he never recovers from the surgery and dies several weeks later. Along with the Judge's second wife, Fay (his first wife, Laurel's mother, died a few years before the story begins), Laurel accompanies her father's body back home to Mount Salus, Mississippi, for the funeral. There, Laurel is reunited with friends and family, and struggles with the strained relationship between herself and Fay. Fay's family arrives unexpectedly from Texas for the funeral, and causes much uproar. Tempers flare. Old wounds are reopened. Memories of the past come painfully alive in the present. But eventually Laurel leaves it all behind and returns to her new life in Chicago.
In his New York Times review of the book (May 21, 1973), Howard Moss called it "a miracle of compression":
. . . the kind of book, small in scope but profound in its implications, that rewards a lifetime of work. Its style is at the service of a story that follows its nose with the instincts of a good hunting dog never losing the scent of its quarry. And its story has all those qualities peculiar to the finest short novels: a theme that vibrates with overtones, suspense and classical inevitability.And that's basically pretty true. I especially admired the first part of the book – the hospital drama, with Laurel and her young stepmother locked in a sort of genteel mortal combat for proprietary rights to the Judge's care. But while I enjoyed the book as a whole, I must admit I was a bit disappointed with the second half of it. Once Laurel and Fay take their rivalry and the casket back home to Mount Salus, I felt the whole story sort of deteriorated into caricature and chaos. There seemed to be dozens of characters to keep track of, with nothing much to differentiate any of them, so that they ended up turning into a sort of Greek chorus of mourners. Laurel fades so far into the background, I was a little surprised when she emerged at the end for her final confrontation with Fay, who never really seemed like a flesh-and-blood character to me. And there's a rather heavy-handed use of symbolism in the last pages of the book when a bird gets trapped in the house and Laurel spends a night locked away from it, going through her mother's old books and letters. Perhaps in a longer work, that wouldn't have grated quite so much.
And as a Texan, I was more than a little disturbed by the fact that the nasty, loony people in the novel all seemed to come from Texas!
The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1973, and rightfully so. Even with all my quibbles I agree it's a powerful novel, with its themes of family, memory, and renewal. Before reading it, the only other Eudora Welty I'd read was her wonderful short story "Why I Live at the PO," which I'd loved. After finishing The Optimist's Daughter, I went back and re-read "PO" just to make sure I hadn't missed something. I hadn't. It's still just as wonderful. So, I guess you can't love 'em all. But that won't keep me from reading more Welty in the future. And although it wasn't my favorite read this year, I'd definitely recommend the novel to one and all.
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