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The Unobserved Life

Mildred Walker's dark novels about quiet suffering under endless skies are in print again, alongside a new biography by her daughter.

Book review, May 6, 2005

According to a recent biography, Mildred Walker hated being called a "regional novelist." It's easy to see why. For any American writer, "regional" is a kiss of death. You'd have an easier time earning the respect of the literary establishment writing Star Trek novels. But there's really no other word that will do. Walker published 13 novels between the early 1930s and the early 1970s, and though her locales changed, they're all in the America that's off the mainstream map. She wrote novels about a Vermont soapstone quarry, a lumber town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a Nebraska farm, a Detroit brewery, a Montana dude ranch. She was the laureate of flyover country.

She was regional in another way: her books have a characteristic middle-American tone, a kind of heartland reticence. From first to last, she wrote old-fashioned Hemingwayesque realism, strictly denotative, with no hint of modernist tomfoolery. Her prose is as plain, graceless, and sturdy as a farmhouse fence. There's no melodrama in her books, no violence, no fantasy, no passion, no tragedy, no laughs--just ordinary people faced with the somber business of living, knowing that whatever is going on in their heart is absolutely nobody else's concern.

Her 1949 novel Medical Meeting is typical. It's about an upstate New York researcher who's spent ten years in lonely isolation working on a cure for tuberculosis. His quest has cost him his academic career, possibly his marriage, and certainly his daughter's hearing (when he used his new antibiotic to treat her brucellosis), but he believes he's made a breakthrough, and he goes to a medical convention in Chicago to present his results. Is there a high-noon showdown between the renegade individualist and the hidebound medical establishment? No--just a slow fade to gray. The hero's results aren't rejected, but they turn out to be of only moderate interest. Other researchers, better connected and better funded, have made more progress.

Walker doesn't draw a moral. Her art is in suggesting that there's something typically American about the story: she sets the internal drama against the blankness of the landscape and shows how it's swallowed up without a trace. This is the explicit point of another novel, Unless the Wind Turns (1941), about a forest fire in the Rockies. The characters are tourists from the east coast who are caught in the mountains when the fire breaks out and have to scramble for their lives. Walker describes the terror of the fire with extraordinary force, but lurking behind it is a greater dread. It's a feeling that whatever happens will go completely unobserved. This was America before it was saturated by electronic media: for anybody not directly involved even the worst natural disaster was nothing more than a plume of smoke on the horizon.

If that austere isolation was all there was to Walker's books, she'd be a pretty dreary read. The power of her work is deeper, a sense that there's something fundamentally spooky about the heartland. (This is something it shares with many of the hidden classics of midwestern literature--books that, as it happens, have also disappeared down the trapdoor into oblivion, like Gene Wolfe's Peace and Hannah Green's The Dead of the House.) She doesn't write ghost stories; there's nothing supernatural or visionary about her work. Her worldview is wholly secular and materialist. But she excels at suggesting that her characters' private worlds hide all kinds of dark impulses.

In Dr. Norton's Wife (1938), for instance, the heroine is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. Walker describes with remarkable fidelity the psychology of serious illness: the false hopes, the endless monitoring of symptoms, the clinging to faith, the elaborate charade of normality staged by family and friends and neighbors. The book progresses from denial to acceptance, as the heroine makes a psychic accommodation to the inevitable.

But then we find ourselves considering another character: her husband. Dr. Norton seems to be wholly admirable--strong, courteous, dignified, excruciatingly honest. He goes through his own crisis, where he resists the urge to console himself with a lover and ends up wholly committed to his wife. He's so righteous that you find yourself becoming suspicious of him. There's a scene where he refuses a prize for his medical work because there's the faintest hint of the appearance of impropriety, and you realize he enjoys the refusal more than he would the prize itself. This makes the ending of the novel not so much bittersweet as hair-raising: if the doctor craves martyrdom, a wife with MS is like the mother lode.

Though this secret darkness runs through many of Walker's books, there are times when what's concealed isn't dark at all, at least not to current readers. The Curlew's Cry (1955) appears to be about the loneliness of two women who grow up in western Montana, how few chances they have to meet a man and get married. But delicately, surreptitiously, Walker insinuates that men are irrelevant to these women and that they find their deepest connection with each other. Lesbianism is a submerged but not quite invisible theme in another book, The Southwest Corner (1951), and--the biography hints--in her last, unpublished, novel, "The Orange Tree," written in the early 70s.

At other times the secret is harder to fathom. The Body of a Young Man (1960) is about a high school teacher who's grief stricken after the suicide of his star pupil. His family and friends try to cheer him up--but he refuses to stop mourning. This Bartleby-like stubbornness baffles and then enrages his comforters. To them it seems neurotic and unmanly. But by the end it's become mythic, a refusal to get on with his duty to be a hard-charging American. His grief has morphed into a form of cultural subversion.

Walker offers these deeper possibilities so obliquely that when I first started reading her novels I was half convinced I was making them up. In fact I wasn't sure until I read this new biography, Writing for Her Life: The Novelist Mildred Walker, by her daughter, Ripley Hugo. For one thing, it makes clear that she was an obsessive artist who did nothing inadvertently; for another, it demonstrates that authors quite often get swallowed up by their own material. The biography itself turns out to be a kind of Mildred Walker drama.

The surface is plain enough: Mildred Walker's life was even duller than any of her characters'. She was a Montana doctor's wife; after her husband died, she went back east and taught creative writing. Her books went out of print, as most books do, and in the last few decades of her life (she died in 1998) she was unable to find a publisher for her new work. That was all.

The twist comes at the end, when the Bison Books imprint of the University of Nebraska Press reprints all her published novels and commissions her daughter to write her biography. And while she happens to be the widow of the distinguished poet Richard Hugo, her own literary ambitions are on a straight line down from Mommie Dearest. She can barely write a line about her mother that isn't seething with resentment. Walker, in her telling, was a cold, aloof parent obsessed with her writing to the exclusion of her children; she was a status-hungry snob spitting contempt at people she considered "not the right sort"; she was a spiteful harridan of a wife who nagged her husband to an early grave. Oh, and she was a holy terror in department stores, the vilest of the vile when it came to harassing lowly employees: "Her verbal scorn for the clerk who didn't carry the right brand of stockings made me burn with eleven-year-old hangdog shame."

I don't have any problem believing it's true: Hugo's malice has obviously been stored up for decades. But is any of it necessary? If Walker really were that awful a person, it would have been poetic justice enough that she ended up being published by Bison Books, since their list is hard-core midwestern regionalism--which means Walker's novels are going to have to spend their posterity in the wrong sort of company, a load of cowpoke memoirs and hymns to the sodbusters. Surely Hugo didn't have to pile on indignity by discussing in public what a bad mother Walker was, what a horrible wife, what a dreadful customer. But then, I keep on thinking of something said by the greatest regionalist of them all, Willa Cather: even the wicked get worse than they deserve.

"Writing For Her Life: The Novelist Mildred Walker," Ripley Hugo, University of Nebraska Press