Settlers of the Marsh
by Frederick Philip Grove (nee Felix Paul Greve)
In this country there was a way out for him who was young and strong. In Sweden it had seemed to him as if his and everybody's fate had been fixed from all eternity. He could not win out because he had to overcome, not only his own poverty, but that of all his ancestors to boot. . . .-----"Well," he said, "people here think more of their machinery than of their houses; more of their farms than of their lives. The house is merely a piece of the farm, a place to sleep in while you are not at work. I want a house of which the farm is a part, the place where what is needed in the house is grown. These people here, when they get anywhere, are rich at best. Their life has slipped by; they have never lived. Especially the women."
Oh dear. What a troubling book this has been. I'm going to start with a run down of the plot, and then I'll talk about what some of my problems with the book are, and then I'll touch on some of the thematic or formal issues in the text.
Settlers of the Marsh tells the story of Niels Lindstedt, a Swedish immigrant to the Canadian prairie intent on making his way in the new world. He had been held back by the poverty of his parents back in Sweden even after their death, and rather than fighting against class distinctions he opted to make a fresh break. Niels worked hard in Canada and built up an enviable homestead on the sweat of his own brow, owing nothing and incurring no debt. Over this time, he falls in love with the neighbour girl, a woman named Ellen. He doesn't speak to Ellen for years, but after her father dies he begins to develop a friendship with her. Eventually, he speaks of marriage, but she tells him that she can never marry because of a promise she made to her mother -- her mother was dreadfully brutalized and regularly raped by her father, and she raised Ellen to be capable of being completely independent of men. So Ellen tells Neils that she can only ever be a sister to him, not a wife. Neils flips out and doesn't speak to her for like 13 years. (Bear in mind, please, that this is his supposed best friend who has just revealed to him her most horrific and painful experience of witnessing her mother being raped by her father... His response is to whine about how shitty his lot is and head for the hills.) In this thirteen years, Neils accidentally sleeps with a female acquaintance, the widow Mrs. Vogel. In his chaste and innocent world view, he believes that having sex with this woman means that he has to marry her, so he does. Eventually, he realizes that he has married the town whore. Oops! The relationship deteriorates over time and eventually she cheats on him out in the open in order to make a fool of him to other people in the community -- but he gets the last laugh when he shots her to death (and then kills his favourite horse)! Take that, bitch! Oh, and then he goes to prison for ten years. BUT AT THE VERY END, he meets up with Ellen again, and she apologizes for causing his downfall, and they don't kiss, but they reach an understanding. Let me tell you, after all the tragedy, it's extremely satisfying to see nothing happen. Lovely.
So, yeah. I have a lot of problems with the book as a whole, mostly with the depiction of women in the text. Depictions of women here are extremely ambivalent. The independent woman in the text, Ellen, is only strong and independent because she is damaged. Her desire to not rely on men is pathological and is seen as a weakness. That she doesn't want to depend upon Neils actually keeps him distant from her because he doesn't know how to interact with her. In the end, she is punished for her independence -- because she didn't marry Neils, but couldn't marry anyone else because of her love for Neils, she never has children, and we learn at the end of the novel that children were all she really wanted. Why is Ellen punished in this way? All she does is respond to the trauma of her childhood by making a promise she doesn't fully understand to her dying mother. That bitch! Her independence makes Neils fear her
and stunts her ability to grow as a person. Perhaps the caution here is one against her extreme response, but it is hard to imagine what her response then ought to have been, if not an extreme one.
And then there's Clara Vogel, the town whore. Listen, I'm not going to say she's perfect or anything, and she certainly does some despicable things, but it seems to me that the punishment (death by shotgun) doesn't really fit the crime here. It's interesting that when the case goes to trial, Neils really should be sentenced to death, and refuses to give the judge anything that could be considered a mitigating factor in the case. The trial, then, never hears about the things Clara Vogel did within the marriage. Instead, the judgement is based upon the fact that Clara Vogel was a prostitute before she was a wife -- killing a wife gets you the death penalty, but killing a prostitute-turned-wife gets you only ten years. Violent people take note: it totally pays to marry a former whore.
I don't get what the message is here, especially because the real tragedy here is that Clara actually loved Neils, until he withdrew from her. Re-reading the narrative, he withdraws before she does, and her increasingly destructive behaviour is really a response to his chill at his own realization that he has married the wrong woman... for him. Neils is plagued by a major flaw throughout the text: he is unable to communicate. Because he can't express his real feelings to anyone, he is always stuck where he doesn't want to be. Had he expressed his desires to Ellen earlier, he would have had time to pursue another woman before falling so deeply in love with her. Had he expressed to Clara that his desire to marry her was out of guilt, she would have refused the marriage and Neils would have learned a little something about the world's oldest profession. Neils is punished, sort of, in that he goes to prison -- but he ends up with the woman he wanted all along, and where Ellen is denied children, Neils already has a surrogate son in his farmhand, Bobby. So does Neil really pay, in the end, compared to the cost to the women characters who are no more to blame? A product of the times, perhaps, but certainly more overtly troubling gendering going on here than is some of the other books of the period. It's especially interesting because the female characters are exceptionally real -- unlike Cohen, who shies away from multi-dimensional women, or Klein, who just omits the women -- and their realness makes the resulting outcomes all the more upsetting.
Interestingly, the stand-by-your-man types, like Mrs. Lund, are ridiculed for their naiveté and weakness. Women on the prairies, it seems, just can't win for losing.
I think, overall, to me anyway, this is a book about the importance of action and forthrightness. Neils lack of action in approaching Ellen and his lack of forthrightness in dealing with his wife is ultimately his undoing. Characters like Bobby, who know what they want and act upon it, are the real victors in this story. Everyone else has lesser degrees of loss. I think Neils loses the least, compared to what Ellen and Clara both must give up... But he still loses 10 years in prison and suffers through the same horrible marriage as Clara (though he doesn't end up with a bloody death... basically, anyone in the book who doesn't get shot is at least a bit of a winner). Sticktoitiveness is also valued here -- another reason why Bobby is so successful, and perhaps that willingness to work is what shelters Neils from more overt failure.
On a final note, this. . . . book . . . . uses. . . . way too many. . . . ellipses. I can't figure why he ends nearly every thought with one. . . . All I could think about was an evocation of the vastness of the prairie. . . . but . . . . I feel. . . . that's a st. . . .retch.