In 1963, I was a young mother with two daughters, ages two years and six months. I was looking for a book to read and enjoy during the girls' nap time. At the Rising Sun Library I spotted "The Moonflower Vine" by Jetta Carleton on display. The librarian suggested I try it so I checked it out. It has remained on my list of favorites and I recently read it again.
Eventually the novel went out of print, but in 2009 Harper Perennial published a new edition with a foreward by author, Jane Smiley. Smiley had included this little-known treasure in her list of 100 great novels.
Matthew and Callie Soames have a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century. Here they raise four daughters in rather primitive conditions. Matthew, an advocate for learning, struggles throughout his career as a teacher and principal of the small-town school. He finds himself innapropriately attracted to the bright, young girls he teaches. Callie has her own struggles, culminating in a brief affair.
The girls leave home to make lives for themselves in the broader world--some successfully, some not. Author Carleton (1913-1999) left her rural Missouri farm for college and a career in television in New York. The early pages of the novel are narrated by the daughter most resembling the author. The daughters have come home to the farm one summer for an extended visit. It is a time of remembrances both good and bad. We learn of a tragedy that haunts the family always.
The rest of the book relates each daughter's life as an adult--lives that the parents find hard to understand. Adding to the characterizations of these diverse lives are lush descriptions of the natural beauty of the Missouri countryside.
Understanding each other and choices made cause dissention but there remains familial loyalty and deep-seeded attachment. The farm remains the glue keeping them together.
The moonflower vine and its nightly flowering is a focus for Callie and the girls, symbolizing redemption, continuity and, in no small way, security. A complex scenario but the telling is fluid, embracing and intimate. "The Moonflower Vine" is a reading treasure.
Recommended by Ruth Ann Johnson