Way back in the mists of time, soon after I first discovered the wonders of Persephone books I read Fidelity by Susan Glaspell. So now sixty odd Persephone books later and I find I don’t remember Fidelity as clearly as some others I have read, although I know I enjoyed it. In February, I was bowled over by a Susan Glaspell short story From A-Z, in The Persephone book of short stories, it made me immediately want to read Brook Evans.
“She lay flat, eyes closed, Joe sitting beside her, but not touching her now, as if each would feel alone what it was they had together. She smelled her father’s hay from the field across the brook; her hand was on moss deeper and smoother than velvet; the trees were a large fresh sound, like something going over the world; the brook was tender and clear. She opened her eyes and looked up at the stars.”
Brook Evans tells a searing story of love in its many incarnations. In Illinois in 1888 Naomi Kellogg a nineteen year old farmer’s daughter is captivated by the country surrounding her home, especially the brook that divides her father’s land from that of their neighbours the Coplands. Naomi is in love with Joe Copland, and forced to meet in secret they meet on the banks of the brook, their relationship quickly becomes sexual but the two have plans to marry after the harvest. However Joe is killed in an accident and Naomi discovers she is pregnant with his child. Naomi is pleased her love will live on in Joe’s child, but Joe’s mother is not at all pleased, and neither is Naomi’s horrified family. Naomi had been previously proposed to by Caleb Evans, an older highly respected man with deeply held religious convictions. Aware of Naomi’s condition Caleb offers to marry her anyway and to take her to Colorado with him to start a new life. So broken hearted, and rejected by her family, Naomi marries a man she knows she cannot love and leaves a place she loves for one she never will. Her heart remains true to Joe, although all she has to remember him by is her lovely daughter named for the Brook by which she was conceived, and one small fading photograph.
The narrative then moves forward in time, 1907 and Brook Evans nearing eighteen is naturally unaware of how she came into the world. Her mother is faded and bent by the years with a man she cannot love, and the tragic loss of a younger child, her father a strict religious fundamentalist who views sex and dancing as a sin. Naomi is devoted to Brook, and lives only for her, saving the best bits of food for her, wanting her daughter to experience the passion and exhilaration that she herself knew for such a short time. Her desperation to give to Brook the kind of life she didn’t have leads to her making some odd decisions and puts a severe strain upon her relationship with her beloved daughter. Brook is repelled by her mother’s hatred of Caleb, and Naomi is unprepared for her daughter’s defiance. Brook turns more toward her father, and the women missionaries of their church who are always looking for someone willing to take up the missionary mantle. When Brook finally turns away from her mother, the reader knows it will break Naomi’s heart.
In the final section of the novel, time has moved on again and so has Brook. It is the late 1920’s and Brook is no longer an angry young missionary, she is a thirty-eight year old widow living in Paris with her seventeen year old son. As a mother, it is only now she can begin to understand some of what her mother meant. Her mother is now dead, it is too late to repair the ruptures and misunderstanding of the past and Brook is beset with memories and regrets. As Brook contemplates a second marriage with a friend of her husband’s, and plans a trip back to Illinois to see a dying Caleb (living with Naomi’s family in her old family home) for one last time, she meets a man who turns everything on its head for her. Brook now must make a choice, love or duty, a good honourable man or an unconventional adventurer who makes her want to act against own good sense. Brook only now understands what is was that her mother understood about love, and how a life lived without it, for them at least, was only half a life.
“Just what did her mother mean – those things she said about love? Was there something she – Brook – did not know? Was she incapable of knowing? There had been nothing in her own life that would have gone on living through twenty barren years. Mother had known only a few months of love – then loss, shame, and – oh, loneliness – long, relentless. But there was a light that never went out. It burned in tragic beauty until – until I put out all of her spirit, thought Brook. But she – Brook – was the child of that love”
In this beautifully written, almost unbearably poignant novel, Susan Glaspell explores the different kinds of love that exist in a family. There is a rawness of emotion throughout this novel, as these characters love and lose over and over again, the decisions of one generation felt by the next. Themes of parenthood and sacrifice sit alongside the painful stories of love in Brook Evans and make for a compelling and beautiful novel. I am slightly confused by the number of lukewarm reviews for this novel on Goodreads and Librarything because I loved this book – I can only assume the sadness was too much for some – it is sad but maybe I like sadness more than I realise.