Jim Grimsley's Reviews > O Beulah Land

O Beulah Land by Mary Lee Settle
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This is the first-written book of Settle's quintet about American identity and I think it is an impressive piece of writing in many ways, especially in the authority with which it creates the world. It is easy to forget what that notion of a more savage time entails. The world of colonial Virginia in the 18th century was made up of so much violence, the struggle of the law to maintain its authority, and the almost impossible effort of people to make a daily life composed of some comfort and love and family. The fact that this all happens in land that is being wrested away from its original occupants is endemic to the drama. This book at its best makes all those trials felt and the struggles of people to make a new life are moving. She is also adept at weaving the ideas that concern her - the origin of the ideals of liberty and their collision with the reality of slavery, the theft of land from the people of the First Nations, the retributions exacted by all of this. She has an economy of style that is admirable and a beauty of diction when writing of landscape. The novel suffers, in my view, from its scope: it covers periods of specific drama spaced out over forty or fifty years, and its cast of characters is large. Settle does a brave job of handling all this, but the result is that many of the people drawn here appear childlike and distant, and there are no good examples of people drawn in their complexity. Her novel Prisons, which is the first installment of this series, was written much later and is a better novel than this one, I think; she focuses the book on one character and makes him fully concrete, limiting the world to what he could utter about it in his own voice. But O Beulah Land is nevertheless a lovely novel. A modern reader would want a fuller depiction of the slaves, less dialect spelling, and more of an examination of race. At least this reader did. The slaves are mostly faceless and utilitarian. The First Nations characters are largely the same. But in fact so are the settlers with only a few exceptions. This is a book of ambition but in the end the ambition is not achieved, but there is some greatness in the attempt.
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Finished Reading
February 4, 2021 – Shelved

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