The Witch Diggers
by Jessamyn West
1952 National Book Award Finalist
3 stars - would have been 4, but really bogged down in the last third
ALR Yellow - virtually no animals, but a barn fire towards the end of the book rattled me
The Witch Diggers takes place over a span of about eight months. It starts on Christmas Eve, 1899, and ends in August, 1900. The setting is Indiana.
Christie Fraser is making his way as an insurance salesman. After his mother's death, he's invited to visit with his Uncle and Cousin. During that time, he attends a party where he meets Cate Conboy. He is smitten. At the time of their meeting, he inquires after her father's line of business to which she replies "He's the head of an institution."
Here we get the first of many examples of what I found to be surprisingly modern writing:
Must be a prison, Christie decided, she's so touchy about it. I wonder what she does to help her father? Probably sits outside the gate with a shot-gun and shoots escaping prisoners.
As it turns out, Link Conboy, Cate's father, runs a poor house. Christie is invited for a visit and the reader is introduced to Cate's family, mother, father, sister, brother, and the residents of the poor house. Let's focus on the first two thirds of the story.
The writing is neither burdensome nor terse. I was surprised at how openly the author dealt with family dysfunction. She gets to the heart of all the complex interplay of married life as well as the ways in which our beliefs about good and bad, proper and repugnant, shape our children in often perplexing ways. Sex, nudity, and desire are particularly problematic for all concerned. Cate and her little sister, Em, sniff around the corners of the forbidden topics and, lacking sound guidance, often find themselves in a state of confusion over their own actions and desires.
The marriage between Link and Lib Conboy is discussed at length, primarily through the eyes of Lib. The author's observations are frank, sometimes discouraging, sometimes delightful.
Then there are the residents of the poor farm. Orphans, the elderly, simpletons, and drunkards. All with their own baggage.
Ms. West's descriptions of people and places are filled with vivid and delightful images.
Ordinarily, the Commissioners' Room smelled of stale tobacco, brass spittoons, damp leather, and some other uncertain odor: a urine-like smell, perhaps the smell left by the grief of old men, for the tears they shed there were rheumy and yellow. There was a political smell in the room too; the smell of country lawyers and their impatient sweat at the tedium and insignificance of Poor Farm happenings which nevertheless required their bored and exasperated presence.
Surprising and interesting vignettes abound. Like the witless Poor House resident who takes seriously the advice to treat a dose of the clap with the application of turpentine or the discussion of the bewildering world of women's fashion.
The plot, too, takes many unexpected paths.
Alas, I fear Ms. West felt the need to turn her writing to a more traditional style as the book neared its end. What had heretofore been a wonderful (if sometimes disturbing) character study slowed down to almost a halt as the reader was suddenly assaulted with long, philosophical observations from the minds of her characters.
I anticipated several ways for the story to end, but she chose an ending which I hadn't considered. Too bad. One of the things I liked about the book was how well it showed the multitude of experience that goes into being human without the need for dramatic events. But the ending was a dramatic event and instead of being left to mull over human nature, the reader was knocked about the head with symbolism and grand plan notions.