Thursday, 12 July 2007

E.L. Doctorow: Sweet Land Stories (2004)

Published: Abacus, 2007

Sweet Land Stories is a collection of five short(ish) stories, all but the last published in the New Yorker in the first few years of this decade. In order, A House on the Plains describes a young man's discovery that his mother is a serial killer, enticing men to a midwest farm to kill and rob them; Baby Wilson is told from the point of view of the boyfriend of a young woman who steals a child from a hospital; Jolene: A Life describes the disastrous relationships of a young woman who initially marries at fifteen to escape a foster home; Walter John Harmon is the story of a cult whose founder is a garage mechanic who was caught up in a seeming miracle; and, finally, Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden is about the choices made by an FBI agent initially called in to investigate the discovery of a boy's body in the White House grounds but later instructed to be part of a cover up.

The first four stories share many themes; the fifth one is a bit different (and is the one not from the New Yorker). This can be seen in the setting; while Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden takes place mainly in Washington DC with an episode in Texas, the others are all set mainly in the midwest. Like most (if not all) of Doctorow's work, they look at America from the points of view of the little people, the outsiders in US society: those who remain the poor and downtrodden, despite the inscription below the Statue of Liberty. A House on the Plains and Baby Wilson go so far as to use a secondary part in the drama as a narrator; the main character is even denied a voice in their own story. Again, the final story is a little different, but achieves a similar result by making the dead boy the outsider, a victim of political machinations, while the investigator can do little but look on and wrestle with his moral dilemma: it subverts one of the normal rules of the crime genre, which is that the story is about the mental battle between criminal and investigator. All the stories make a point which is critical of American society (even if the stories are set in the past, which is at least apparently the case with the first three), with the final tale being overt political satire, with the boy a symbol of those without a voice in modern US politics.

The title of Sweet Land Stories comes from the US patriotic song, My Country, 'tis of Thee, which describes the country as the "sweet land of liberty". Liberty and sweetness are clearly in short supply in these stories, but Doctorow is not the first to use the sweet land quotation ironically - there is a film of the same name, about the struggles of a German girl who travels to Minnesota during the war to marry a farmer there. The use of lyrics from a patriotic song as the title suggests a link to Steinbeck, specifically to The Grapes of Wrath. Though less downbeat, there is something about the stories which is also reminiscent of Steinbeck, which is only partly thematic.

The cover of Sweet Land Stories describes the book as "by the author of The March". This seems an odd choice from Doctorow's past to me, unless the assumption is that readers of literary fiction only remember the author's most recent other work. There are other Doctorow novels which are far more like this collection, such as Ragtime. A more personal objection: why is it that from such a distinguished career, full of novels I enjoyed immensely, why pick the one I found unreadable as a comparison?

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