Friday, February 7, 2014

Friday's Forgotten Books: Thorofare by Christopher Morley

"The cat got into the milk at the same moment that Uncle Dan arrived from America."

How can you not love a novel with an opening line like that? And as a matter of fact, that line captures the essence of the novel: the juxtaposition of the little events with the big ones and the resulting texture of life's big picture.

Thorofare is not quite like any other novel I've read before. What the novel is about is not really the point. In the literal sense, it's about—meaning it follows the fortunes of—a young English boy who travels to America with his uncle, a professor at an American college, and a spinster aunt who is going to keep house for them. But it's how their story is told that's remarkable. It's a big novel composed of little details. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes—the light miscellaneous back-and-forth of conversation, sometimes laced with deeper thoughts; the interplay of different personalities—the culture of neighborhoods and towns and nations. Being told mostly from the viewpoint of a child, it hones in on all those little things which loom large in a child's eyes. Through this method it brings to vivid life the late-Victorian/early-Edwardian era in the book's multiple settings: a village in Suffolk; a steamer at sea; the city of Chesapeake, Virginia; a boarding-house in the Blue Ridge; a Virginia plantation. The overarching theme of the book, lingering in the background all the while, is the link between England and America, the two nations who share a language and baffle each other with their different use of it—the bonds between them, the barriers to their understanding of each other's cultures and personalities.

It's the kind of book that's so rich in detail you like to take it in small slices, like a rich food. I described it a little more fancifully in my journal while partway through the novel—like a symphony with all the instruments playing at once, down to the littlest thing in the percussion section. It's got a rhythm, in rounds, with counterpoint: the rhythm of everyday life, which is sort of the same whatever century or country you live in. When I put the book down I could almost hear it myself, going on in my own home. Morley managed to capture that and put it between the covers of a novel. For the reader, it's the equivalent of putting a magnifying-glass on humanity and on a particular time and place, and it's a marvelous reading experience.

Thorofare was first published in 1942, and is evidently out of print, but used copies may be found at places like AbeBooks. (Isn't that original dust jacket delightful?) Friday's Forgotten Books is a weekly blog event, hosted by Patti Abbott.


Hannah Scheele said...

Looks good. I think that time period--from the late 19th century on to the 50s--was a great age for children's literature. Some of the best stuff I've ever read came from that time period and focused on a young main character. :)

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Thorofare isn't children's fiction; it's an adult novel. But I'd definitely agree with you—most or all of my favorite children's books come from that period!