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The Girls From the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage – The 1976 Club goes to Montana

October 13, 2021 21 comments

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage. (1976) Not available in French.

Take five girls anywhere, at any time. Three will be all right, and one will make it. One won’t. There they go.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is Elizabeth Savage’s semi-autobiographical novel. It is set in Missoula, Montana, The Garden City where the Five Great Valleys meet: the Mission, the Missoula, the Blackfoot, the Hellgate, and the Bitterroot.

Five girls, Hilary, Amelia, Doll, Kathy and Janet. We’re in 1934, the summer between the girls’ junior and senior year in high school. Doll struggles with school, she knows she won’t go to university; the others will and Hilary, their leader, knows that this year is a turning point in their lives.

The novel is set during the Great Depression but among families who are doing fine. Hilary’s father has a coal & ice business that is struggling but he’s been investing in land to secure their future. Amelia comes from old money. Doll’s father has kept his job, money is tight but they make do. Janet’s father is a doctor, he replaced the old GP after he retired. Kathy’s father is a professor at Missoula university, a stable job that doesn’t pay well, as Savage cheekily points out: Kathy’s father drank but only right after payday, since that is the only time professors can afford it. Of course, the mothers have no job.

Hilary has a purpose. She wants to succeed and be someone. Her next step is to get into a Greek sorority and she trains her little group for that. She understands how things work and she intends to play by the rules, even if she doesn’t totally agree with them. She has great social skills and understanding of social status. They certainly weren’t city girls, but the fact of the Rocky Mountains didn’t make them country girls, either. They need a clean reputation and it means sticking together and avoiding getting too involved with boys.

Three characters are more developed than the others, Hilary and his ambition, Doll and her acceptance that she’ll marry young and will probably live like her family and Amelia who struggles to find her true self between Anne, her arrogant and selfish mother and her disabled little sister. Her father died (committed suicide?) in a car accident and she feels responsible for her mother and sister.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a vivid picture of Missoula’s middle class in the 1930s. Hilary is the main character but we see her parents’ point view and Anne’s too.

Hilary’s parents, Myra and Hank, have a solid and loving relationship, a traditional one. Myra, the mother takes care of the house and defers to her husband for all decisions. Hank wants to provide for his family and free his wife of any financial concern. The couple has a daughter and a son, they are better off than their parents and impersonated the American middle-class dream.

Elizabeth Savage was born in 1918 and spent her youth in Missoula, where her father was a teacher at the university. She went to Missoula County High School before going to Colby College in Maine. I assume that Kathy is the character who looks the most like her.

Savage draws a portrait of western life and western mentality as opposed to the East and to California. We’re in the 1930s and it’s not good to be openly communist in Missoula. It costs Mr Barry, a teacher, his position at the high school, and it’s not only his ideas that are different:

And Mr. Barry did other things that were not wise. He wore a hat. To this day in the Garden City Where the Five Great Valleys Meet, men wear hats. But proper hats. Proper hats are Stetsons. They don’t make Stetsons anymore, but Monkey Ward makes a sort of Stetson and so does J.C. Penney. That kind of hat indicates that though you may not be a rancher, you live near where the ranchers live and have in mind the welfare of the West. Mr. Barry’s hat had a narrow brim. He said it was a Borsolino and he said it was the finest hat ever made.

It’s not good to stand out, in Missoula. Hilary understands it perfectly. And although Hank approves of Roosevelt’s politics, he will never acknowledge it publicly.

If the truth were known, in some ways Hank agreed with Mr. Barry. Everyone knew the big companies had too much muscle. He even agreed about the new President. Hank hadn’t voted for him, but next time he probably would. That didn’t mean he was going to go all around town saying so.

I enjoyed The Girls from the Five Great Valleys for its sense of time and place. I always love picking up details about everyday life. I was surprised that Capek’s play R.U.R was played in drama class in Missoula high school. I didn’t know that Milky Way candies already existed. (You took a sandwich and a Milky Way.) And I still wonder what eggshells do in coffee. (Then in a crisp housedress and in the kitchen, she started to make the coffee with eggshells in it, the way her husband liked it.)

I also relished in Savage’s sense of humor and observation skills. They come out in statements like Weak people often are unhappy; strong people can’t take the time. Or If your mother is plump it is comforting to know your father is not attracted to storks. Or You can put up with a real mean man; one who is trying to be mean is meaner, maybe because the one who’s naturally mean doesn’t have to try so hard.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a way for Elizabeth Savage to write about Westerners’ ways and let her reader know about her youth in Montana. You learn facts of life from the area like that Any young person in Montana knows that chasing stock is not allowed. It makes them lose weight and it makes them drop their young. or that People on ranches don’t like knocks on the front door because anyone who belongs comes in the back.

As always when I read books set in the 1930s in the USA, I’m surprised by their way of life compared to Europe at the same time and how much we have been Americanized since then.

And the tradition of having a cabin up the mountain to roughen it up was already there and alive. Amelia’s family has one, by a lake, where people go swimming and (trout?) fishing.

No cabin was named, nor did any sign proclaim its owner. This was the result of the same agreement that forbade running water. You had an outhouse and a shallow well with a hand pump. You washed outside if you felt you must wash. Half the fun was pretending to be your own ancestor.

Right!

This is my participation to Karen’s and Simon’s 1976 Club.

Thank you for organizing this event, it’s always a fun way to explore one’s TBR.

I’m looking forward to reading other reviews about 1976 books and hope you’ll pick another year for the Spring.

Check out my billet about The Last Night at the Ritz, another excellent book by Elizabeth Savage.

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage – it deserves to be rediscovered

March 14, 2021 9 comments

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage (1973) Not available in French

The worst scars don’t show at all, but you can learn to live with them. Believe me.

When I read The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, I went to Wikipedia to read his biography and discovered he’s been married to writer Elizabeth Savage. (1918-1989) I’d never heard of her –but would have I heard about her husband without Gallmeister? – and I got curious.

I am thankful for e-books and Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust because I could easily put my hands on The Last Night at the Ritz (1973) and The Girls from the Five Great Valleys (1976), her most famous novels. A woman of her time, Elizabeth Savage only started to write novels when she was 42, after her three children had grown up a bit, I suppose. I haven’t read The Girls from the Five Great Valleys yet.

The Last Night at the Ritz is set in Boston, at the end of the 1960s. The narrator of the book remains unnamed, so, we’ll call her the Narrator. She’s a middle-aged woman and she’s meeting with her fried Gay, her husband Len and her friend Wes for a luncheon at the Ritz. Gay and the Narrator have been friends since they were teenagers. They went to high school and college together. Gay and Len met in college as well.

We know from the start that there’s something final about this Last Night at the Ritz and Elizabeth takes us there in the last pages, building the suspense –you can’t help wondering what happened—and at the same time promenades us through the Narrator’s past and the present days issues.

The Narrator relates that luncheon, which turns into booking a room at the Ritz and attending a party organized by Len’s office. (Len works for a publisher, he’s an agent. Gay and the Narrator studied literature in school too but never made a career out of it.)

The Narrator is unreliable, and if the reader doesn’t guess it, she says it candidly: Nobody — except for Gay—has ever trusted me. And for good reason.

The Narrator comes back to her lifelong friendship with Gay. They are very different in their approach to life, Gay trying to tick all the right boxes and the Narrator doing whatever pleases her.

My poor friend: she is so good and so grave. And so vulnerable. She really thought she knew just how it’s done. First you work hard and thoughtfully and win all the prizes. Then you marry your true love and live passionately forever after. And your children call you blessed because simplicity and discipline and truth gird you in triple brass. It isn’t all that simple. You are going to say that I am jealous, and perhaps I am—it is an idea that I have entertained. But I think I love my friend, and I think I honor those fine and wholesome notions that she has. I just haven’t found them practical. In my book, it also takes a little laughter.

Gay sounds like a lady who behaves by the book, through discipline and a bit of blindness. The two girls had an unusual childhood. The Narrator lost her parents at a young age and was raised by an eccentric aunt. Gay was raised by her grand-parents, among a swarm of uncles. Her grand-mother was a literature teacher at university (like E. Savage’s mother) and the house was full of books. Her grand-father was a drunkard.

Having met the grandmother, I understood Gay’s passion for order; after I met the grandfather, I understood her passion for temperance

The Narrator comes back to Gay’s marriage to Len, her relationship with their children, especially the oldest, Charley. We learn about her first marriage to Barry, her pain after his death, her long affair with Wes and her marriage to Sam. While her time with Barry was tumultuous, her affair with Wes was limited since he wouldn’t leave his wife, she now is into a calm, mature and loving marriage with Sam.

Her flashbacks alternate with the day’s events. Len and Gay are worried about their son Charley, who’s in Canada, fleeing the Vietnam war. Len is obviously tense and the Narrator suspects he had bad news about something. Gay doesn’t approve of Wes, wondering if her friend is cheating on her husband Sam with him. The Narrator says that Sam should be here, that she should call him but she doesn’t and we only learn in the last pages why she doesn’t.

Gay and the Narrator are like oil and water and I wondered how their friendship lasted so long. The Narrator muses:

The fact of the matter is that what everyone is looking for is total acceptance and unqualified approval. Some one person in the world who feels that everything you do is right. Not someone who tries to be a good sport while you make the old mistakes.

Usually, we have this unconditional love from our parents, maybe from our siblings. Gay and the Narrator didn’t have this kind of love, and may have found it in their friendship. Perhaps this deep need is the cement of the relationship between these two very different women.

Besides her life story, the Narrator comments on the changes in Boston. She obviously loves the city very much. The town destroys older building to build brand new skyscrapers. Old shops disappear, downtown neighborhoods aren’t as safe as before at night. She describes hippies on the street and a new way-of-life emerging from the 1960s. We’re in the Mad Men era, here.

Despite her flaws, and maybe because she owns them with gusto, I couldn’t help liking the Narrator. She lives with her mistakes and losses and doesn’t wallow, not because it’s the right thing to do (You know, the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) but because it doesn’t make sense to wallow. As she points out, if you sulk your life away, who has won? I liked her attitude, even if she sounds careless sometimes.

She also accepts other people’s flaws and doesn’t judge them for being human. I think she’s a bit jealous of Gay, of her landing Len and having children but deep down she knows she wasn’t cut-out of that kind of life and had she been in Gay’s place, things wouldn’t have turned the same way. She has the kind of lucidity I am drawn to.

And last but not least, who wouldn’t like someone who thinks that It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.

Highly recommended, especially to readers who enjoyed The Eastern Parade by Richard Yates.

PS: This is not available in French. Hence the Translation Tragedy Tag and Category.

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