Nancy Hale’s “The Prodigal Women” and “Where the Light Falls”

When I discovered Nancy Hale about ten years ago, I believed I had found a hidden portal to a Nancy Hale Elysium. Nobody had heard of Hale, none of her books were in print, even the university library had discarded all her books but one (A New England Girlhood). By chance I read one of her stories in a 1930’s anthology of New Yorker Stories, so I ordered a used copy of Hale’s 1942 best-selling novel The Prodigal Women – which was the easiest of her books to find online, and at that time was very cheap.

The Prodigal Women is a ripping good read, a fun “literary pop” novel, saved from melodrama by Hale’s extraordinary plotting and life-like characters. The style is sometimes awkward, as if Hale’s thoughts were rushing ahead of her pen, but the women’s relationships and, most important, their actions, keep this scintillating novel alive. The heroine, Leda March, morphs from sympathetic outsider to a cold horrific bitch. (Don’t be fooled by the allusion to the Marches in Little Women.) As a lonely New England schoolgirl, she meets the Jekylls, an unconventional southern family who moved to Massachusetts so flamboyant Mrs. Jekyll could conquer Boston society (which of course doesn’t happen). Leda and Betsy Jekyll become inseparable, and the two girls worship Maizie, Betsy’s beautiful, popular older sister. But as an adult, Leda ruthlessly falls in love -without conscience! – with Maizie’s husband, Lambert, who is in turn a talented artist and a vicious philanderer, who psychologically tortured Maizie until she submitted to an illegal abortion on their honeymoon in South America, the results of which permanently ruin her health. (Lambert says she is malingering.) Betsy goes to New York and is breezily happy until she falls in love with an abusive writer. Are you saying, WOW!? All this in a single book! Well, it is a very long book, and it influenced Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Jacqueline Susanns Valley of the Dolls.

Nancy Hale is a smart, unflinching literary writer, but she doesn’t mind descending into pulp fiction, and that’s one thing I like about her. In recent years literary writers – or rather, the very few that read Hale – seem to prefer her short stories. And perhaps the stories are more consistent, though somehow I do not read her for style. She seems to me to be a talented sidewalk painter of vivid, offbeat portraits of New Englanders and Southerners, with a genius for conveying a sense of place – and at the same time there is an endearing sloppiness. Mind you, I am the only reader who does not entirely admire her style, but that doesn’t mean I love her any less.That said, I am very enthusiastic about Where the Light Falls, Selected Stories of Nancy Hale, edited by Lauren Groff, and published by the Library of America in 2019. Most of these stories are well-crafted, some of them brilliant, and I found myself flying through them. Though some of the stories are slightly dated , we are entranced, because they capture historical events and attitudes in real time. The stories span the years 1934-1966 – and you will always recognize the specificity of the period.

Her 1942 story, “Those Are As Brothers,” is very much a World War II story. It is a Connecticut idyll, but the Nazis and concentrations camps cast long shadows. It begins with a glorious running sentence, which contains a subtle statement about American “freedom” – in Connecticut!

The long, clear American summer passed slowly, dreaming over the Connecticut valley and the sound square houses under the elms and the broad living fields and over the people there that came and went and lay and sat still, with purpose and and without but free, moving in and out of their houses of their own free will, free to perceive the passage of the days through the different summer months and the smells and the sun and the rain and the high days and the brooding days, as was their right to do, without fear and without apprehension.

Nancy Hale

Wouldn’t we all love summer in Connecticut? But not everyone in Connecticut has this experience of freedom – certainly not the German immigrants and Jewish refugees. Every night the German governess, known as Fräulein, who takes care of Mrs. Mason’s two little boys, chats with Mr. Loeb, the neighbor’s German Jewish gardener. Mrs. Mason, too, befriends the quiet Mr. Loeb, who becomes a member of her extended family of evening visitors. But one day his miserly employer threatens to report Mr. Loeb to the refugee committee because he talked back when she accused him of painting the fence too slowly (painting fences! an American allusion to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Mr. Loeb is terrified, haunted by the concentration camps, and believes he will never get another job. But Mrs. Mason says she would never let anything happen to him. And will she be able to protect hie, or is it the naivete of Connecticut? I prefer the former.

One of the saddest stories is “Who Lived and Died Believing.” Elizabeth, a compassionate young psychiatric nurse, stops in at Massey’s Drug Store for a soda before work; her boyfriend, Dave, a medical student, works at Massey’s during the summer. Elizabeth tells him that her patient, Mrs. Myles, is scheduled for shock treatment in the morning, which upsets Elizabeth, because it does not seem to benefit the patients. Elizabeth thinks it would calm Mrs. Myles if Dave stopped in after work, so Mrs. Myles could see an ordinary couple in love in ordinary life. And then Hale portrays the garbled thoughts of poor Mrs. Myles, sitting by the window in the “vicious heat.” “And a little part of the rotted grapes that rolled about her brain watched the faces…” But Mrs.Myles is impressed by the love between Elizabeth and Dave, long after they have ceased to be a couple.

My favorite story by far is “How Would You Like to Be Born…” about New England duty. One thinks of Henry James. Miss Florrie Davenant, whose sister Laura has just died, finds herself alone in the family house. At first, as the new Miss Davenant, she imagines breaking all the family customs. Why on earth, when she is poor and can’t pay the bills, should she send money to defend “the Negro adolescents in Georgia who were going to be tried for the murder of a white farmer”? But the impoverished Davenants are descended from abolitionists, and they always give money to such causes. She tries to break other rules – she wants to befriend the common people in her neighborhood – but nobody smiles at her, and people imitate her aristocratic accent. Are the rules there for a reason? Miss Florrie Davenant is frightened, and we are frankly frightened too for this naive woman alone in the world.

Remarkable stories and extremely enjoyable, even if you are not a short story person. I jumped breathlessly from story to story, experiencing each situation as if I were there.