This was a bit of a gamble as it always is when you do a re-read of something that impressed you earlier. Just as people change over time, so does one’s reading experience and this proved to be no different.
I think I had first read this back in the early 1990’s (need to check my records), and at that time, I was just reading for a good narrative, a good read (and that’s ok and there is nothing wrong with wanting or expecting that when you read). This time around, I approached it in a more critical manner (as in literary criticism, not in a grumpy complaining manner), and so it was a different experience.
This is a fictional story of a young woman who has grown up in Virginia in comfortable circumstances in the 1880’s. However, when her mother dies leaving her homeless and mostly poor, her choices are limited for her future. She was not trained (or expects) to work in any useful capacity, she’s not married, she has no marriage prospects, and so where could she go? (Women of the time were expected to be looked after and dependent on their husbands/brothers/cousins etc. no matter how far-reached the connection.) She ends up being sent to live in the wilds of West Texas with a distant cousin and his family, and it is there, where the wind blows strongly across the Plains, that she slowly loses her mind but finds her strength in some other ways.
Letty, the protagonist, ends up moving to Sweetwater, Texas, when her mother dies leaving her penniless and homeless. With few resources to pull from, Letty is forced to imagine what her new home will look like, and using the name “Sweetwater” as a guide, she conjures up a green lush world of rolling hills and streams. (Sweetwater is a real-life town in West Texas, and is just about on the High Plains region of the state: few trees, not much water, semi-arid prairie environment, Pioneer type of country and time.)
She is also very naïve and believes everything she is told, so when a friendly stranger on the train west tells her about the evils of the never-ending wind in this area of the world, she takes it to heart and during the long days she spends inside the small and simple house, her school-girl mind embellishes this.
Unhappy and lonely in her distant cousin’s house, teaching children who don’t want to be taught and feeling in the way, Letty becomes very unhappy. The plains are not developed with towns, Sweetwater just having a few houses, and so there is little to do and even less to look at apart from the wide vast prairie. The wind has little to break against, and with so little to occupy her mind, Letty obsesses over her sad new life and sees no relief. Scarborough develops the wind into a character in its own right, and as time passes, Letty’s mind wanders and she ends up terrifying herself with the continuous wind. Her boredom turns her fear into an obsession and the wind ends up determining her life. (Well, it’s really Letty who determines it, but she would far rather blame the wind.)
This was written by Scarborough but was published anonymously when it was first released, a marketing ploy by the publisher to sell more copies. However, unflattering as the story is about West Texas and published at a time when Texas was still clamoring for businesses to come, the Chambers of Commerce in the state were really fuming when they first read it and viewed the unknown author and the publisher’s decision to publish it anonymously as “lily-livered varmit” type cowards. How could someone publish such ugly fiction when West Texas needs all the economic development it could get? The horrors.
So the book had a mixed reception at first: general readers liked the story (not best-seller standards, but not too shoddy), and the business-related groups were angered by it. Scarborough was reportedly not in agreement with the publishers about the anonymity strategy, but left announcing her name as author so late in the process that it really had little impact on her publishing career in the end.
The narrative, itself, is not bad, but I found the protagonist to be very annoying and passive, refusing to take her life into her own hands. (Still, without money or education or a professional skill of some kind, I suppose there were not too many options for unmarried women at that time who had few family connections.)
So, apart from feeling impatient with the lead character, this had some good descriptions of life in early pioneer days in windy West Texas. With the recent wind and haboobs that we have had recently in our area, this made appropriate reading. It was just a bit too much purple prose and weak female lead for me. It’s better if you look at it from a more historical approach as opposed to a literary one, I think.