14 December 2011

Mary Dutton: Thorpe (1967)

There are several reasons why I didn't give up on this book: sheer determination, the enticing obscurity of it, and the endearing fact (to me as least) that this is one of those rare animals — an only published novel. It was also something of a discovery, being a Southern book (set in Arkansas, where Dutton was born) of which I was previously unaware.

The single novel element, plus the racial issue and the (eponymous) young female protagonist with a father of great integrity, almost inevitably lead to comparisons with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and memories of Scout and Atticus Finch, so it's hardly surprising to read the front page of the dust jacket announcing 'A Story of Innocence and Terror...As memorable as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD'.

However, although this book is undoubtedly well written, Dutton's novel just doesn't merit any other comparison with Mockingbird: the pace is too slow, the power isn't there, and — crucially — I had (at least until the end) severe problems deciding if race was the main issue, or just family difficulties. It seems to lose its path for a very large number of pages.

The blurb on the rear flap quotes Dutton: 'I think what I was trying to say is that a "little bit" of evil cannot be isolated. It grows and touches, like the rain, both the just and the unjust — those who ignore it and those who are unaware of its existence.' Er, certainly it is clear that racism in the Jim Crow South of the mid-thirties was unavoidable, and that there was much social and often economic pressure for people to at least go through the motions of supporting the Ku Klux Klan. Not too sure about that meteorological analogy though.

On a lighter note, the cow called 'Dammit' is a nice touch, and reminds me of the euphemistically-named dog 'Cough' in Anthony Burgess's Time for a Tiger.

The rear cover tells me that Mary Dutton was born in El Dorado, was living in Borger, Texas at the time of publication, and was a school teacher. I'm not too sure why she published nothing else: as I have a book club edition, and as there are a number of copies of this book for sale online, the suggestion is that it was popular enough. But then, if she took ten years over this, how many would she take to complete the usually difficult second one?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

It was the COW named Dammit, not a dog.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thanks, that was obviously a stupid typo, but is now altered.

Anonymous said...

Thorpe is one of my favorite books.

It is one of my go to books when I have nothing new to read.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thanks: I'm really pleased that people are commenting on such an obscure book.

Alan said...

I just finished re-reading this book. Re-reading because I first read it as a teen when it came out in its book club addition. Seems that everything most people say about it rings true for me -- the emotional power, especially for a younger reader, the understated message, the comparisons with Mockingbird, etc. Funny that I came upon your blog in trying to find out -- after my current reading -- more about this obscure author and this book.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Many thanks for the comment, Alan. I couldn't find out much about her online when I tried a few years ago, but if you want to add any snippets about her you discover please do so: I can always include an addendum to the post attributed to you. Feel free to email me.

Anonymous said...

I read this as a youth right after it was published. I am looking for a copy I have stored away at this time and will purchase online if not. Most, if not all the people in this novel, contrary to "work of fiction) lived in the area I was raised and everyone in that area knew who each character was. Those people have long pass away, but in each of their homes you would find a copy, some out in view, some hidden away. Not a knock off of To Kill A Mockingbird, but fictional account of real events and people.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

That's an interesting comment: thanks. I'll now have to see if I can find anything about this online.