Saturday, May 23, 2009

When a Man's a Man by Harold Bell Wright

Things have been a bit stressful around here lately, which is why I’ve been reading books that are lighter than my usual fare. A few years ago I was deeply moved by a book called A Higher Call, an updated version of The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright. I slowly accumulated a few other books by Wright, but never took the time to read them. This week I finished When A Man's A Man and I am still trying to decide whether I liked it or not. A few things bothered me about the book.

First, it was too message-driven. From the beginning the reader knows the premise: A man can only be a true man when he struggles against nature and wins. And I don’t mean human nature. In this story a wimpy, wealthy young man is rejected by the woman he loves because he has no character traits she can admire. So he goes out west to Arizona and becomes a cowboy. The great outdoors, the big-hearted ranch owner and harsh experiences transform him into a “real” man. I wouldn’t have minded this message if it had been more subtle, but Wright reminded the reader constantly that the cultured intellectuals of the big city were bloodless and soulless and only those in touch with their “earthy” side are in touch with their real selves. It got kind of old after awhile.

Its second flaw was its verbosity. Now that I think of it, the version of Dan Matthews that I read was edited for modern readers and had some of the superfluous passages cut out. In this unedited version Patches (the developing hero) was described more than two dozen times as wearing a “mirthless, self-mocking smile”. I began to grit my teeth every time that worn-out phrase came up.

Lastly, although I don’t often read romances, I do like happy endings. This story leaves the hero alone and brooding at the end and was unsatisfying.

A strange coincidence is that at the same time that I was reading this, I was listening to the story, Wanted: A Chaperone, which I believe was written about the same time as Wright’s book. In this story a young woman raised in simple farm-like surroundings is transplanted to the city. A wealthy young bachelor, who has given up hope of ever meeting a “real” woman, can’t believe his good luck in discovering her and marries her.

Rather ironic, don’t you think? Apparently a man can only be a man in country, but a woman can be a woman anywhere.

2 comments:

Amy said...

Sounds. . . interesting, especially the parallels/contrasts you drew from your audiobook and the one you read.

Nevertheless, I sometimes like to read old books--they're refreshing somehow.

magistramater said...

Well, Hope, here's another area of commonality to explore. I went through a Harold Bell Wright (& Peter B. Kyne -- I *love* that name) stage about 10-15 years ago.

Scoured used bookshops for old copies. When I clean my bookshelves I look at those books, quite sure that I would not find them satisfying if I read them again. But I have a hard time letting them go.

I remember reading WAMAM and your cover looks familiar, but I can't remember one thing about the book.