Book Review for “Now in November” by Josephine W. Johnson.
Summary: “This unforgettable novel tells in shimmering language the story of a middle-class family driven into poverty by the Depression. Three daughters struggle to survive with their parents as farmers, battling against the elements and trying to come to terms with their harsh, unresponsive father. The brief narrative movingly evokes the torment of isolated individuals driven by powerful, if unexpressed, feelings of love and hatred, and paints a harrowing picture of the Depression and Dust Bowl years.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary, USA – Missouri; Other Categories: Novel, Vintage, Depression, Dust-bowl era, Debut novel, Pulitzer Prize Winner.
Well, talk about your beautifully written novels, because this certainly is one of those! It is no surprise to me that this novel won the Pulitzer Prize, but what is a surprise is that it was not only a debut novel, but when Johnson won this prize, she was only 24 and therefore the youngest person (male or female) to ever receive this award, a title she holds to this day! So, now I’m wondering why I haven’t heard of this author up until now? Okay, so… I’m guessing misogyny played a large part in this hole in my literary education, and possibly because this novel, despite its amazing beauty, has been out of print for quite some time. So, first and foremost, enormous thanks to Scribner for bringing this book back, as well as making this available on Edelweiss.
Now, another possible reason why this book hasn’t been in the public eye, is probably because when it comes to novels about the Depression and the era of the Dust Bowl, I’m guessing Steinbeck had that market pretty much cornered. To this day Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is considered the definitive novel about the era. That novel was published in 1939, and it also won the Pulitzer Prize, four years after Johnson got hers. The big difference between Steinbeck and Johnson is that one delves into migration caused by the Depression, combined with a prolonged drought that saw farmers forced off the land; Johnson’s cast of characters aren’t as quick to leave the land, but they suffer no less. Furthermore, if I may hazard a guess (again), a novel from the viewpoint of a daughter in an adult novel, might not have been as commercial as an adult male point of view.
Still, you would think the sheer poetry of this novel should have kept it more in the limelight, and that’s what totally boggles the mind for me. Yes, I’ve seen reviews of this book that says it doesn’t have the depth of Steinbeck’s book. We could put that down to sheer length, since “Grapes” has almost double the page count as Johnson’s story. But I don’t think that depth can be assessed in page counts alone, and I felt that what Johnson offered us here was very intense, and complex. Mind you, at the beginning, I was wondering if the poetry might not overshadow the story line here. Thankfully, by about halfway through simply enjoying the beautiful prose, the picture of this struggling family came through. From then on, I felt that the lyrical writing started to meld into the plot, and there was more of an equilibrium between the two. This didn’t stop the novel from having a luscious quality to it, even though the scenery was very bleak and sad.
What was probably the most poignant of this novel is how the narrator, Marget, slowly falls in love with Grant Koven, the neighbor who comes to help the family on their farm, despite their age disparity – since Marget tells this story in retrospect, 10 years after the action takes place, when Marget was only 10 herself, and Grant already in his 30s. Obviously, this isn’t a romance novel, since Grant seems more interested in her younger sister Merle, even though the most beautiful of the three is Kerrin, the eldest. As the drought gets worse, and the family’s situation deteriorates along with it, so too does Marget’s hope that Grant will look at her as more than just another family member who works on the farm. There’s an interesting dance going on here between Marget, grant, and the land itself, as well. It is pretty hard to explain unless you read it yourself, but I found it all fascinating to watch as the story unfolded.
Yes, there’s not doubt why this novel won the Pulitzer, and such a shame that it has been generally overlooked ever since. Mind you, I was a bit confused by the timeline here to begin with, but this did straighten out in the long run. Also, while this is quite an emotional story, I was a touch surprised that I felt a slight distance from Marget, and that Johnson didn’t succeed in getting me to cry for her. Despite that, it was such a marvelous read that I’m going to give it 4.75 stars out of five, which needs to be rounded up to five for the star graphic.
Originally published in 1934, Scribner re-released “Now in November” by Josephine W. Johnson July 19, 2022. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.