Book review of The Sojourner by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

If you had offered me a book with a rather off-putting cover drawing about a family who endured the hardships of trying to make a living on a farm in the late 1800’s, I’d have probably declined. That’s been done in various scenarios, and sounds depressing. I’d have preferred something with more pizzazz and originality.

But when I found this book on the shelf of a thrift store, I discovered some key information to change my mind. It was published in 1953, the author’s name was familiar, she had won a Pulitzer Prize, and it was $2.50 that would go toward a good cause. Seemed like a good bet, and a good book to bring home. And was it ever.

The story centers around Ase, whose brother Ben is the apple of his mother’s eye. After his father dies, Ben leaves the farm to seek fortune and adventure. Their mother grieves his loss, and will not believe that he went on his own volition. She never pretends to have any affection for Ase, but he nevertheless devotes himself to her care and making a success of their farm. He marries energetic trickster Nellie and they start a family. He is a thoughtful philosophical dreamer, yet too responsible to let his own longings interfere with his duties.

Ase is wise, yet timid and unable to articulate what is in his huge heart and his keen mind, so others find him an easy target, including his own children. He opens his home to those down on their luck, and finds true friendship in unlikely places. Through hopeful and sad events, despite all the years that go by without any word of  him, Ase never stops hoping for the return of his brother.

From page one The Sojourner was too gripping to put down, and I didn’t want to miss one single word. Each character in turn was introduced in a few pages to make you feel as if you had known them for a lifetime. Each had their own strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and failures. The intense commitment of the farming community to their livelihood and to one another show the stoicism and dedication that built the powerful American society of the early twentieth century.

Reading it was a quiet experience. I don’t just mean that I read it in silence; it also calmed my mind. The longer I read, the more I joined this family miles away from the nearest neighbor, and enjoyed the restful evenings without electricity, as though I could hear the silent breeze rustling the grass in their distant field. All of these combined to make a quality story of depth, common yet uncommon humanity, spiritual truth, and a satisfying outcome.

Following the motivations, decisions and outcomes in each of their journeys was illuminating. It makes me feel like I understand those in my little circle, and people all around the world, even more. It is the kind of book I keep hoping to discover in contemporary fiction and rarely seem to find. (Please enlighten me if you have found otherwise, I’d love to find some great contemporary fiction!) And the wonderful thing is that in learning more about her, I have discovered nine more novels of hers to read.

Marjorie Rawlings’ classic novel is a great example of why I comb the vintage book sections and why I trust the classic authors of fifty or more years ago. Tell me: where else can you get a heartwarming, inspiring experience every evening for three weeks…all for the grand total of two-and-a-half dollars?

11 Comments

  1. What a well-written review. Thanks for it.

    • How very kind of you, Cynthia, and I’m glad we’re connected!

  2. Nicola

    Wonderful! Wonderful! I’ll look for it on Gutenberg, but if they don’t have it, may I borrow it from you?
    I agree with everything you said. Contemporary fiction is cut to the bare bones by ‘market expectations’ like Grade 6 vocabulary. I am excited to know a kindred spirit.

    • Yes of course you can borrow it! It’s wonderful to have someone else get excited over old books, ha ha!

  3. This book sounds amazing. I think it’s time I caught up on Rawlings’ other novels, too!

    • I think I’m the only person who has never read The Yearling, but I plan to now–better late than never! Thanks for visiting Marcia, and all the best success for your book!

  4. Carla Cécile Roes

    Hi Skyblueseagreen, I hope this link is still active. I am writing from Europe (Dutch-German border). My mom was a huge fan of this book, she read it in a German translation (“Der ewige Gast” = The Eternal Guest), and she passed it on to me. I like it just as much. It is a kind of comfort book to me: It shows you that good people and good actions still exist, however sparsely. I wouldn’t call Nellie a trickster though – I mean, one of them had to stand on firm ground!!! The ending is magic, the book is magic… I hope this reaches you.
    Love, Carla Cécile Roes

    • Hello Carla Cecile Roes! I am so happy that you commented, especially happy to meet someone from the Dutch-German border. My mother grew up in Bavaria, Germany. In 2018, I took a tour of Germany, and met my German relatives for the first time! The title, The Eternal Guest, is beautiful. Yes, I agree, the book is magic. And the internet is magic for connecting us with books and each other. Dank u und danke schön! All the best to you, Carla. Love, Ramona

  5. Carla Cécile Roes

    Hey Ramona, you seem to be something of a language wizard, answering my post in German, Dutch, and English! There’s not many Americans who can do that.
    I left a contribution in the favorite books/writers column.
    Best love, Carla

    • Hello Carla, I am no language wizard, but Google Translate seems to work well enough. I started using it when I got in touch with my German relatives. By the way, I am a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, living in Canada (and it’s very handy to not have to translate between the two countries, ha ha!). Thank you for all of your comments, do keep in touch!

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