Monday, August 1, 2011

Against a Darkening Sky: Life in the 1930s

Janet Lewis

Janet Lewis wrote Against a Darkening Sky in the early 1940s (published 1945) about the life of women with families in Encino, a suburb of San Francisco, based on her own experiences and those of her friends during the 1930s Great Depression. Ms. Lewis, whose real name was Mrs. Yvor Winters, lived in this area with her family and, as did her neighbors, grew vegetables, raised goats and chickens, and undoubtedly had to tighten the family's belt in the 1930s downturn. Credit cards were not even on the horizon during that prolonged recession.

The novel is not thickly plotted but chronicles on the life of the Perrault family, particularly the mother Mary Perrault, who came to first Canada and then California from Scotland, and her young adult daughter Melanie. Mary is married to a French Hugenot immigrant Aristide Perrault, who has a job with the water company but also breeds rabbits as a sideline source of money and food. The Perraults raise vegetables for their own consumption, keep a cow for milk, and eat the fruit of their orchard, producing as much of their own food as possible.

Near Kennebunkport by Abbott Fuller Graves, 1900

Mrs. Perrault is a busy woman, working from early in the morning til into the mid-evening before sleep, baking bread, cakes, and pies; preparing meals; gardening; canning vegetables and fruit; keeping their four-room house clean; washing and mending clothes; and watching over her children: Melanie and three younger boys. She is also active in her community, chairman of the PTA and involved with her neighbors. There are no luxuries; there is no telephone. The Perraults never eat out, but there is always room for guests at their table.

The book begins on Friday afternoon in the early summer, as Mrs. Perrault receives a visit from her oldest friend, Mrs. Alice Hardy. Both women are in their early 50s and enjoy a short stroll to the garden and chit chat about their children and neighbors. "It was a day so like a long procession of tranquil days that nothing could have warned them that it might be the last. And yet years afterward Mary Perrault was able to look back into that afternoon, as into a scene framed and set aside, and remember trivial words and gestures, trivial things observed, which assumed thereafter a dignity and a permanence beyond the words and gestures of any other afternoon."

From this point forward, although the Perraults do not lose employment, their home, or their two acres, the times become increasingly difficult. At all points, Mrs. Perrault exhibits remarkable patience, courage, and care for those around her, which encompasses her neighbors. Indeed, the families Lewis describes, particularly the women, work together to stay on top of what is happening in households and to bring succour when needed. Services and food are exchanged, as money becomes scarcer. Women, as does Mary Perrault, seek outside, part-time employment, to keep things afloat.

Unlike Hollywood, Janet Lewis is not a sentimentalist, and her portrait of her own friends and neighbors--Against a Darkening Sky being the novel closest to her heart--likely can be relied upon as an accurate portrayal of times for a certain strata of working families during the Depression. Those who have watched movies of the late 1930s and early 1940s such as The Human Comedy (1943, based on the novel by William Saroyan), The Clock (1945), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and Four Daughters (there are more), will recognize the courageous spirit of Americans and their habitual willingness to sacrifice for others. Lewis' novel seems to indicate that the films are less of an exaggeration than we would be comfortable to think.

Mary Perrault and her neighbors are not, however, members of the "greatest generation" but were born in the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century--before World War I draped a pall of pessimism over Europe and the United States. Indeed, upon attending the memorial of a hapless neighbor at a funeral home where a minister delivers a eulogy about someone he never knew, Mary Perrault begins to think that

"there was hardly anything abut a funeral such as this which she did not dislike, small items which summed up a discreet commercialism. Yet, it was not entirely the fault of the morticians.... The fault lay in the lack of faith, the lonely and independent lives--every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost--the shifting communities whose constant change made it impossible for anyone to live as she had lived as a girl, in a community as in the center of a family.... It was the loss of faith that grieved her the most. About her own children, growing up in this world, could they have, as she now had, security of faith without a literal belief in the things which she had been taught as a girl? All the honey of that old discipline was now hers, distilled in many precious and life-giving phrases, but how could she convey to Melanie what these phrases now meant to her?"

Sunday by Edward Hopper, 1926

Lewis leaves no doubt that for her, Mary Perrault is a civilizer, whose dedication to family and charity to neighbors pushes back what Mary Perrault herself calls the "moral wilderness." Against a Darkening Sky--a good book for our times.

1 comment:

Jodi said...

Thank you, Linda, for this wonderful review. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. I agree with you - it certainly sounds like a good book for our times.