3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A daughter's gift...,
This review is from: Winesburg, Ohio (Penguin Twentieth-century Classics) (Paperback)... Isn't one of the ultimate benchmarks of successful parenting when your child selects a book from her bookshelf, and says: "Here Dad, you may enjoy this"? Of course I had to overcome that instinctive shudder when I recognized the not very "zippy" title as belong to one of those "school assignment" books I had so successfully dodged. Yet considering it is far past the time to reconsider that initial aversion, and that the only teacher I have to please is myself; and then there is the matter of the pedigree of the recommender... so why not?
I did not get past the introduction before I uncovered a recommendation that reinforced the others. Sherwood Anderson was a mentor to both Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, no small matter in itself. The not very fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio is based on the very real town of Clyde, Ohio, wherever that is. It proves to be located not that far off the shores of Lake Erie, between Cleveland and Toledo. Clyde still has only around 6,000 people, and their website promotes the virtues of small town living. But where is their most famous writer? You have to "drill down" two levels in their website, to find a brief, two sentence mention of the writer who literally "put them on the map." They'd rather talk about their Civil War General, James McPherson, or the Whirlpool plant. So, perhaps the ultimate endorsement: he had told too much about them, a realistic assessment of the town that jars with the "pro-business" image the website promotes, and thus numerous folks today are still not fond of him.
The book itself is composed of 24 short stories; many of them could be "stand alone" in their excellence. In some cases the character appears only in that story, such as The Reverend Curtis Hartman in "The Strength of God," or Enoch Robinson in "Loneliness." There are other characters, such as Helen White, and George Willard, who is a reporter for the local newspaper at 18, and is a thinly disguised Sherwood Anderson, who appear in multiple stories. Anderson's introductory story, entitled "The Book of the Grotesques" about a writer who: "All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques," which may be a bit harsh, but clearly this book is peopled with life's outliers, and many "lives of quiet desperation." Issues that haunt the papers today were covered by Anderson then, such as the male teacher who may have placed his hands on the boys once too often, and was run out of town, and the female teacher who had "a thing" for a lad 12 years her junior. There is also the voyeuristic preacher, and the farmer who is an instrument of "God's will." All not your normal Chamber of Commerce fare.
Anderson's prose is lean; his characters are drawn tightly and swiftly, and he seems to have a knack for the specific detail that says so much more about the person. There is also much normalcy in the book; much concerns the longing of the human heart, the figurative and literal groping with the opposite sex that is part of the coming of age process, and beyond. As in real life, the relationships can become complex and ambivalent, and Anderson even speculates on the nature of the solace his fictional mother may have been obtaining from the local doctor. Some reviewers were concerned that everything didn't tie together in the end - but I figure that is the essence of real life. In the conclusion, George Willard, just like the real life Sherwood Anderson, boards the train, and leaves town, seeking his place in the wider world. The irony is that the material for his finest writing was obtained during his first 18 years, in Clyde.
Much belated apologies, certainly for myself, as well as those 1-star reviewers, to the English teachers who tried in their Sisyphean task. Mea culpa. And thanks to my daughter for this solid 5-star read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on December 18, 2009)