Nothing about Black Oxen Is Plodding

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The years like Great Black Oxen tread the world
And God the herdsman goads them on behind.
—W. B. Yeats

From it’s title, I expected Black Oxen to be a story of rural life. From its, author, Gertrude Atherton, I expected a fireworks plot that fizzled after a brilliant beginning, as her 1921 Sisters-in-Law did.

I was hopelessly wrong on both counts.

Lee Clavering, a young New York drama critic, is intrigued by an attractive, obviously European woman attending a bad opening night performance.

Clavering’s cousin says the woman must be the illegitimate daughter of Madame Zattiany, née Mary Ogden, a New York socialite with whom he and the city’s most eligible bachelors were in love 30 years before. The lovely socialite married a Hungarian diplomat, from whom she was later estranged, then widowed.

The mystery lady’s lawyer—one of the long-ago suitors of Madame Zattiany—refuses to be pumped by his friends. The mystery makes the lady even more attractive to Clavering.

Alert readers will figure out the mystery long before the besotted Clavering does half way through the book, but nobody could predict what Atherton will do with the story after that.

Black Oxen‘s extraordinary characters behave in totally plausible ways as she explores issues of generational differences, ethics, marriage, international politics, medical research, sexuality, and human motivation.

The well-crafted plot is enhanced by peripheral episodes whose irrelevance to the plot lends a strong sense of reality. And Atherton combines lyric prose with razor-sharp dialogue.

Black Oxen will knock your socks off, stand you on your head, and make you wonder what hit you.

Black Oxen
by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
A. L. Burt Co., 1923
Illustrated with photos from the screen version
1923 bestseller #1
Project Gutenberg ebook #25542

© 2013 by Linda Gorton Aragoni

Post-earthquake rubbish: The Sisters-in-Law

San Francisco burning during 1906 earthquake
This photograph by Arnold Genthe shows Sacramento Street and approaching fire. (from Steinbrugge Collection of the UC Berkeley Earthquake Engineering Research Center)

The Sisters-in-Law could have been a great novel if a Taylor Caldwell or John O’Hara had penned it. Gertrude Atherton merely churned out prose in large quantities.

The 1906 earthquake hits San Francisco as Alexina Groome comes home from dance where she’s fallen for Mortimer Dwight. His behavior in the quake’s aftermath wins over Alexina’s mother despite his lack of old money.

Mortimer’s sister, Gora, who has the brains and ambition Morty lacks, befriends a young Englishman unable to sail for home because of the quake. Gora falls for the Brit, but Gathbroke, like Morty, has fallen for Alexina, who refuses him and marries Monty instead.

Alexina, pretty and mindless, does nothing but spend money Monty doesn’t make. Their marriage comes apart so genteelly Morty doesn’t even notice.

Gora becomes a nurse and writes on the side, eventually becoming a recognized literary author. She and Alexina become buddies, united by their mutual disrespect for Monty.

When World War I erupts, both sisters-in-law go to Europe to serve behind the lines where they meet Gathbroke again. By then, Atherton’s plot is fractured so badly that any ending will do to get the story over.

Atherton’s characters might have been interesting if she’d let them speak for themselves, but she insists on telling us instead of letting them act their parts. The result is a lengthy disappointment.

The Sisters-in-Law: A Novel of our Time
by Gertrude Atherton
1921 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg E-text 8535
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The photograph above appears on the USGS website.