Glen Huser’s Book and Movie Picks for September, 2012

My Book Pick: A Year Down Yonder

About a year ago I read Richard Peck’s The Teacher’s Funeral and thoroughly enjoyed it. The Young Adult Book Club I belong to chose to read another of his novels for our September meeting – A Year Down Yonder (Dial, 2000). In many ways it was similar, examining shenanigans in a small rural community many decades back, and I think most of our reading group wished we had chosen something different. But I have to say I absolutely fell in love with A Year Down Yonder. Peck is a master storyteller and here he manages spin a tale that plays with the New England language of terse commentary, understatement and clipped delivery that dances around a series of episodes that verge on being tall tales. I can see how the jury for the Newbery Medal was enchanted and awarded Peck’s novel its top award in 2001.

A Year Down Yonder is woven around the growing affection between an uprooted city girl and the crusty old woman she lives with with for a school term. When her family’s fortunes are at their lowest ebb in Chicago in the late 1930s, fifteen-year-old Mary Alice’s parents send her older brother Joey to take a job on a Roosevelt work project in the west, while Mary Alice is sent to the country to stay with Grandma Dowdel:

As the train pulled out behind me, there came Grandma up the platform steps. My goodness she was a big woman. I’d forgotten. And taller still with her spidery old umbrella held up to keep off the sun of high noon. A fan of white hair escaped the big bun on the back of her head. She drew nearer till she blotted out the day.

You couldn’t call her a welcoming woman, and there wasn’t a hug in her. She didn’t put out her arms, so I had nothing to run into.

Mary Alice feels that, apart from the portable Philco radio and her cat Bootsie, she has nothing to cushion the dreadfulness of the coming months with a woman who is the terror of the small town. Needless to say, the experience turns out to be very different from what she expects. Grandma Dowdel may not be demonstratively affectionate but she turns out to be a champion of those who may need a helping hand – including her granddaughter. And she is wise indeed in the ways of this enclosed world of hillbilly bullies, Halloween pranksters, Christmas concerts, turkey shoots, and snooty DAR meetings. Wise…but also handy with a shotgun.

I found myself laughing out loud many times as I read the novel. And then, as Peck oared the story closer to the end of Mary Alice’s stay, I have to admit to being moved to tears in places. Reading is such a subjective activity and I had to wonder what connections were happening (even though I’ve long accepted the fact that I come from a family of criers). I think maybe the connection had something to do with the fact that my own grandmothers – on both sides of my family – were forces to be reckoned with. Strong, compassionate women who lived through similar difficult times on their hardscrabble farms in the 1930s. Like Grandma Dowdel, they knew how to survey the territory of approaching trouble and the steps to take to forestall or ameliorate it.

But when I think about it, unlike Grandma Dowdel, they were more ready with a hug to run into. It remains for Mary Alice to teach Grandma Dowdel how to open those arms.

My Movie Pick: The Night of the Hunter

While browsing through bookstores along the U.S. West Coast during the summer, I came across a copy of The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of the Film by Jeffrey Couchman (Northwestern University Press, 2009). The movie has long been one of my favorites and I devoured Couchman’s analysis of the film and its genesis. It’s a wonderful book if you enjoy looking in depth at the process of translating the printed word to cinematic terms. And, of course, I had to rewatch the picture after reading Couchman’s book.

Ultimately The Night of the Hunter is a journey saga, and with much of its story unfolding as children flee in an old boat on a river, it’s impossible not to sense the echoes of Huckleberry Finn. “I am river born,” Davis Grubb, the author of the novel wrote (I quote from Couchman), “and…the music and grandeur of the Ohio River has never left me and I think it never will.”

The Night of the Hunter is the only film the actor Charles Laughton directed. On its release it was anything but a moneymaker and the general public was perplexed with its blend of stylized sets and camera-work with the lyric realism of a voyage along the Ohio River and the odd, troubling tale of a psychopathic preacher pursuing two children after murdering their mother. This blend, though, coupled with Laughton’s adept ability to work with actors in a scene, is exactly what appealed to a number of critics at the time and a growing number of fans over the fifty-some years since it came out. The Night of the Hunter is a film quite unlike any other I’ve seen.

Robert Mitchum, always good at suggesting the darker underpinnings of human nature, is the cold-eyed psychopath posing as a preacher, with the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across the knuckles of his right and left hands. There’s the odd spot in the film where I wish Laughton had directed Mitchum to be a touch more subtle (and maybe the screenplay is more at fault), but in most of his scenes Mitchum can make your hair stand on end.

Shelly Winters, as the widow of the bank robber who has stuffed the loot into his daughter’s doll, seems like she could be picking up on the characterization of the mousy girlfriend in A Place in the Sun. But she’s good at it. As in the Dreiser story, she ends up dead in the water, but here, in an amazing scene, we get to see her roped into a submerged Model T, her long hair flowing along with the river weeds.

Billy Chapin was an experienced child actor (both on stage and in film) before he took on the role of John Harper, older brother to Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) who hangs onto her loot-stuffed doll throughout the picture. Much as Phillip Alford seemed a perfectly cast Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapin slips with similar ease into John’s worn shoe-leather. He has to carry a good deal of the film – and he holds his own in a cast of power players.

In smaller roles, James Gleason is an effective old barge captain with a fondness for the bottle who befriends John, and Evelyn Varden is the meddlesome store/restaurant-owner who pushes Winters into the arms of the preacher. You can’t take your eye off her as she heads a lynch mob later in the picture.

But the other great performance in Night of the Hunter is Lillian Gish playing Rachel Cooper, an aging farm woman who collects stray children and adds Pearl and John to her brood. In my book pick above, I celebrate the depiction of Peck’s Grandma Dowdel in A Year Down Yonder. Gish’s Rachel Cooper might be Dowdel’s more gentle sister, but she, too, is not above guarding her front porch with a gun. Gish, as a young woman, was one of the great stars of the silent screen who went on to play character roles in sound films. Her soliloquy at the end of Night of the Hunter as she extols the enduring power of children is as dear to me as the words of a well-loved Christmas carol.

Lillian Gish - a woman to reckon with

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