You might have seen Helen Hull mentioned on The Persephone Post of late; Nicola Beauman has recently discovered this remarkable early to mid century American novelist and has been waxing lyrical about her. When Nicola wrote that she was her new favourite novelist, I immediately went off in search of more information. I couldn’t really find anything, so I went to ebay on the off chance that a cheap copy of one of her books would be listed. Book serendipity struck; a 99p copy of a rather battered 1930s hardback, Morning Shows the Day, was about to end. I swooped in, and a few days later it plopped onto my doormat. With no idea what to expect, I opened the rather musty smelling pages and began to read. Immediately I realised that I had struck gold; her prose is a blend of Willa Cather’s sparse, piercing clarity and Dorothy Whipple’s intuitive, sensitive portrayals of the soul and human relationships. Morning Shows the Day proved to be a beautiful, haunting and engrossing portrayal of the hopes and dreams of a group of young people from a bleak and faded turn of the century mid Western town; it’s a remarkable novel, and I really can’t believe that it, and all of Hull’s other novels, have been so forgotten.
The novel opens in a nameless town, not too far from Chicago, in the 1910s. For some it is a place of peace and prosperity; they live in large homes on quiet streets surrounded by shady trees, dress in furs and silks, have servants and go to dinners and dances. For others, living in tumbledown clapboard shacks along the banks of the dirty river, life is a constant cycle of drudgery and poverty, struggling to make ends meet in dingy, uninhabitable homes that their wealthy neighbours are barely aware of. At the town’s High School, the children of both rich and poor are free to intermingle, and their contrasting dreams and ambitions, and ability to pursue them due to their family backgrounds, are the crux of the novel.
Tom Ellsworth and Eugenia Murray are the scions of the most profitable and high profile men in the town. Tom is lazy and selfish, but adored for his good looks and easy going manner. Eugenia is beautiful and fun loving, but also shallow and petty, and she won’t allow anyone to let her get in the way of what she wants. Elida Hawthorne, dark, striking, and a little unnerving, lives in a boarding house with her older sisters, and believes that her sex appeal is going to be her way out of a life of drudgery. She has set her eyes on Tom, but she wouldn’t also mind Robert Swift, the handsome, rebellious and volatile son of the town’s Preacher, who can’t wait to get out of the Midwest and away from the suffocating religiosity of his family home. Elida is not Robert’s only admirer, however; there is also Shirley Thomas, a bright, ambitious and pretty girl whose family are slipping ever further down the social scale, and who has dreams of escaping from the narrow confines of town life, preferably at Robert’s side. Seething with jealousy at Shirley’s admiration of Robert is Allen Collins, whose drive and determination are mocked by the likes of Tom and Robert, who could never understand the difficulties of Allen’s life. His mother is dead and his father is a drunk, and so in order to feed himself and keep a roof over his head, Allen has to work both before and after school, driving himself to hollow eyed, desperate exhaustion. His intensity frightens Shirley, but it attracts little Ruby Cutter, a plain girl from the riverside shacks, whose quiet and gentle manner make her overlooked and unappreciated by her schoolmates.
This motley crew of young people gradually grow up and go their own ways over the thirty year timespan of the novel. Their paths diverge and meet again, as some choose to stay on in the little town that grows with the boom of the American manufacturing industry, and others leave – for Detroit, Chicago and New York, in pursuit of bigger dreams. Happiness eludes many of them; the things they thought would fulfil them instead just leave them empty. Others are never brave or strong enough to forge a new path for themselves, and instead are trapped within the limitations of their own imaginations. As the band of teenagers grow into adults, some with children of their own, they come to realise that life is not as simple or as charmed as they thought it could be. As different and divergent as their paths have been, however, the little town is the tie that will always bind them, and is the compass that will always draw them home.
This really is a remarkable novel. It’s so poignant, and so evocative of a time in American history when you really could become whoever you wanted to be, no matter where you came from. As much as it moved me to watch children who had such dreams, passions, ambitions, and hopes grow into adults who were often defeated and limited by the choices they had made, it also inspired me by showing how much we are the creators of our own destinies, and that circumstances need not dictate our outlook on the world and our treatment of others. Helen Hull weaves a rich, intense and gloriously colourful tapestry of early 20th century American life, and her characters are perfectly fleshed out – so much so that I felt like I knew them by the end. Humanity and destiny are weighty subjects, but Hull handles them sensitively, deftly and with immense pathos. This is not a novel that deserves to be forgotten; it is touching and profound and striking in its honesty. I can’t praise it, and Hull’s writing, enough. What a discovery! I have more of her novels winging their way to me across the Atlantic as I write and I can’t wait to immerse myself in her this winter!
If you’re interested in tracking down Helen Hull’s novels, here are a few tips –
1. Helen Hull can also be listed as Helen R. Hull and Helen Rose Hull. This is still the right Helen Hull.
2. Helen Hull Jacobs is not the same Helen Hull.
3. If you’re in the US, her books are available pretty cheaply second hand on amazon or on ebay. In the UK, you can order some of her books cheaply second hand through amazon.co.uk, but they will be from American sellers so they’ll take a while to arrive. Doing it that way prevents you from having to pay exorbitant postal charges, however.
5. Helen Hull was fairly prolific – one source mentions 17 novels – so there are a lot of her books out there. Here is a list (not exhaustive) of the books I have managed to verify are definitely by her:
Heat Lightning, Hardy Perennial, The Asking Price, Quest, Labyrinth, The Surry Family, Islanders, Frost Flower, Landfall, Morning Shows the Day, Uncommon People, Candle Indoors.