Having seen Booth Tarkington’s name mentioned in various places over the interwebs, I thought I would delve into his work and see what it was like. Somehow in the Lucky Dip of choosing, I ended up with this volume (written in serial form in 1914), and it was a fun little jaunt into earlier times and the mind of a young man who is deeply in puppy love with a visiting girl up the street.
With an omniscient PoV to enable the reader to see all, Tarkington has done a good job of satirizing the importance of one’s First True Love when you’re young, and all the complicated situations that are fraught with disaster as one tries to navigate that. Your parents are awful. Your little sister is a continual embarrassment. Your friends are rivals and the world is out to humiliate you at every turn. Oh, how we probably all remember these days regardless of which gender we are…
William S. Baxter is almost 18 and lives with his parents in a small town in Iowa. He has a young sister who is uninhibited with regard to his “secret” crush and joyfully young in her approach to the world and to her elder brother. William is a typical teenager, it seems, for he regards the world around him guardedly and is very over-reactive to life and its trials. (How important things seemed back then when you’re in the midst of teenaged emotions!)
Tarkington has a good eye for teenaged angst, especially the more-innocent angst of the early 20th century: the glance from a girl (and the one you love) was loaded with meaning, your friends were everything to you, and your parents were just impediments to your social stature (although well meaning at the same time).
So William is in love with visiting Miss Pratt who has a small white dog that she carries everywhere and who speaks in baby talk all the time. Miss Pratt is also very pretty and fully aware of the social powers that she carries with the local pack of teenaged boys who cluster around her all the time. This pack of young men consists of William and his friends and the existence of Miss Pratt throws their small world into confusion: they are both rival and friend to each other…
Although this volume does not really have any deep meaning to it, it’s a fun and light-hearted satire of Young Love in Small Town America during a more innocent time. (And – it must be said – it was also a lot funnier than I had anticipated.) It also reminded me of other “Prairie writers” such as Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis et al. although not sure if they overlap time-wise and they are a trifle more serious. His humor also reminded me of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer (although they were published much earlier).
Tarkington, however, was a writer of his times which means that there are some frequent cringe-inducing descriptions and dialogue of African-American help especially the Baxter family’s handyman called Genesis. It’s not surprising to read when one views this in a historical context, but it still creates a jarring read to come across this so smoothly integrated into an otherwise really good book.
Outside that, I enjoyed the read. Tarkington had a great sense of humor that came through in his portrayal of Willie and his tormented love life that summer. Tarkington ended up being quite a prolific writer and was named by Publisher’s Weekly as “the most significant contemporary American author” in 1921. Additionally, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two times, once in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons and once in 1922 for Alice Adams, neither of which I have read but I think I own the earlier book. I’ll need to check the bookshelves….
Cross-posted over at the Project Gutenberg Project.