Bliss is a feeling unsought, almost indescribable. It comes when the body, which is flesh with definite boundaries, escapes those boundaries and is a part of sunlight or wind, of starshine, or of the known and loved order of the pieces of wood called "furniture" in a building called "home." -Jessamyn West, The Life I Really Lived I"ve always loved this book in part because I love lyrical writers - writers whose imagery is startling and who use language like a poet - and West is one of them. Eudora Welty was a fan of her work, and I"m a huge fan of Eudora Welty. I"m also a fan of Willa Cather, and one of Jessamyn West"s shamefully out-of-print books about Indiana, Witch Diggers, could have been written by Cather. In The Friendly Persuasion, West"s lyrical gifts present us with cherries as bright as Christmas candles. When she notes the day the season turns and a "rose that very morning, round and firm to the eye as an apple, dropped its petals Ö as suddenly as if winter had exploded in his heart," she"s writing not to show off - she"s a Quaker after all. It"s in her nature to be still and pay attention, following St. Augustine"s advice: We shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise, in the end which is no end. When you read this book, you remember there"s such a thing in life as joy and wonder - those largely unexplored emotions in 20th century fiction. West had the heart of a mystic, and the mystic understands bliss. I like to be reminded of it. And the way her characters live within the natural and human world makes me homesick for something I"ve never really known. When I teach Midwestern literature classes, I focus on despair. It"s easy enough to do. My students love The Friendly Persuasion, I"ve often thought, in part because it comes in the middle of a semester of Native Son and Winesburg Ohio and Elmer Gantry and Sister Carrie and The Magnificent Ambersons. While most Midwestern literature (and most American literature) repeats this story of the fall from grace, The Friendly Persuasion is the story of how it might be partially regained. If everyone lived like the Quakers Jess Birdwell and his preacher wife Eliza, West argues, this place could be an Eden. The book begins in the garden, purposely, and in the tone of a fairy tale. The characters never stray very far. Their mission is to see and to live according to their faith. "You want to know the meaning of life?" Ray Bradbury asked when he spoke at Butler University several years ago. "I"ll tell you the meaning of life. "It"s to witness," he said. West would agree. "Eliza," Jess said, "when I get to heaven and the Lord says, "How"s things on Earth? I want to be able to answer: name the stars, say how the fruits are developing and what fish live in Rush Branch." If I were going to talk about the book and how it affects me personally, this sense of wonder is one of the things I"d talk about. And if I were going to talk about this book in this particular month as the evening news is filled with talk of war, I"d talk about it as an exploration of non-violence. It"s not an accident that the book came out in 1940 and stayed in print throughout World War II or that it went out of print and came back during the Vietnam War. And though I haven"t talked to anyone who helped make the decision to give The Friendly Persuasion One Book, One City status, it"s probably not an accident that we"re reading it now. When Eliza and Jess" son Josh wants to join the fight against Morgan"s Raiders, a just cause in a war against something Quakers stood for - anti-slavery - we experience the deepest conflict in the book. At the center of the Birdwells" faith is non-violence. When Josh makes the decision to join the militia, Eliza tells him calmly that she knows he might die - that that is in the Lord"s hands. What terrifies her is the idea that he might have to kill. In this book, and in others, particularly The Massacre of Fall Creek, West doesn"t back down from her belief in non-violence. That radical idea, as Vonnegut called it in these pages a few weeks back, is the other tenet that might bring this world back closer to Eden. How would I rate the book in the end? As necessary. There are always better books, always worse ones. It"s beautifully written. It makes me think, on a day when this place seems particularly gloomy, that there"s some beauty out there in the natural world if I"d go look for it. It makes me think about what I believe and how I live my life. You can argue that she avoids conflict in this book, but that"s part of her point. You can argue that the Birdwells are unrealistically blessed, but that"s also part of her point. It"s a fairy tale. In other books, she doesn"t flinch from the fall. She portrays evil, and not simplistically. Is she as good as Cather? Probably not. Should her works be remembered and revered? Yes, they should. They"re good books. And if you want to understand yourself and the place you live, you should read them.

0
0
0
0
0

Recommended for you