Lamb in His Bosom is about a poor white farming family living in the wiregrass country of south- central Georgia in the two decades before the Civil War. It's about the life and extended family of Cean Carver Smith, beginning with her marriage to Lonzo Smith and their setting up housekeeping in their newly built tree-chiseled home among the pines, six miles west of her parents' farm.
Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for Lamb in His Bosom in 1934. The book was a bestseller, as readers could see, in the story of how the Carver-Smith family endured the harsh difficulties of life in antebellum Georgia, a mirror of their own struggles to survive in the Great Depression's meanest years. I would not be surprised if John Steinbeck drew on Lamb in His Bosom for his 1939 Grapes of Wrath.
Conrad Richter said his novel, The Trees, was heavily influenced by Lamb in His Bosom, which is one of the reasons I made an immediate beeline for it. Miller's novel is historically authentic, writes historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in the book's afterword. How the farmers and their families did everything -- from building a house to making dinner to sowing their crops to butchering a pig -- is authentic, along with the characters' dialect and reliance on the Protestant religion. Fox-Genovese notes:
Miller understood the context of the lives of those she was writing about. Her accounts of the business of everyday life ... conform in extraordinary detail to what we know about the Old South from a myriad of sources. It is difficult to think of a single other text that could give students of antebellum history as complete or accurate an account of the lives of nonslaveholding whites.I thought the main character, Cean Carver Smith, was fully drawn, and I felt close to her most of the time. We see the anguished work of her soul as she struggles to physically and emotionally survive one catastrophe after another. None of the stories seems implausible, but only too painfully true of the difficulties American frontiersmen and women faced and persevered against.
Miller may in part be indebted to Sigrid Undset for the richness of her portrayal of Cean and other characters; she told an interviewer for the Atlanta-Constitution in 1933 that she liked Sigrid Undset "better than a dozen others all rolled together." In comparison with the female heroine of Richter's Awakening Land trilogy, Cean Carver Smith is a real woman. However, most characters in the book do not fundamentally change over time, including the heroine, so I do not come away with the same sense of closure I felt upon leaving Undset's Kristin Lavransdattar. The book's momentum derives from the unfolding lives of the family and the challenges they overcome, or, in some cases, as in any family, are unable to overcome, and their deep faith in God and His love for and tutoring of their souls.
Lamb in His Bosom was Miller's first novel, published when she was 30 years old. She never went to college but was mentored in literature by her high school English teacher, whom she married and with whom she bore three sons, who were collectively nicknamed "the three twins," her niece reports. Her impetus for writing Lamb in His Bosom was the hard time she was having keeping house and minding her children! As she told an interviewer:
When my twins were two years old (and Billy was four) I thought I would break under the strain of trying to take care of them and do the hundreds of other little things any normal wife and mother is called upon to do. But one day it suddenly occurred to me that I was not half so weighted down with duties as the pioneer women used to be. Even my mother and grandmother, who had such large families, seemed to get through with much less effort and energy than I was expending. I couldn’t help wondering why. They had something, something very real, very tangible, yet almost indefinable, that anchored them and gave them faith and courage, and I needed that something so much.
From that day I turned to the examples set by the pioneer women of Georgia. I gathered my material around Baxley and in the surrounding country, and it has been a wonderful help to me. Needless to say, I feel that I have derived more benefit from writing the book than my readers could ever obtain through reading it.
Miller began collecting stories and information from her family. Her own parents had buried six infants, including two sets of stillborn twins, and two toddlers. A preacher in the book is modeled on her great-grandfather who built a New Light church in the area. With her children in tow, she visited people beyond her town of Baxley, in the Georgia countryside:
I’d get in the Ford and ride about the country and talk to the people. I’d buy chickens and vegetables from them, and they’d tell me about their lives, in the language which even today preserves many of the picturesque and graphic figures of speech which their ancestors used. These people are obscure, but they are an important part of our history. Their forbears fought in the Revolution, and in the Confederate army. They are loyal Americans, patriotic citizens, and people of high moral character.
And while I found my book among these people, I also found something which helped me. I discovered the fine spirit in which they met the hardships and tragedies. What they suffered and their nobility in the midst of desperate conditions made my own problems less difficult. I hope that I have captured something of their patience and courage and faith, not only in my book, but also for myself.
In its liveliness of speech and description, its authenticity, and its story, Lamb in His Bosom, listed by Abebooks as a "lost Pulitzer," is ripe for revival.