Sunday, November 30, 2008

Steel Magnolias

Our book club has made it a point (over the past twenty five years) to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novels and we have really enjoyed just about all of them. Looking for something to read, I went over the list of the Pulitzer winning novels. One that I hadn’t read, although my book club had, was “The Optimist’s Daughter” by Eudora Welty. Ms. Welty, known for her stories of life in the south, won the award for this novel in 1973.

“The Optimist’s Daughter” is the story of Laurel McKelva, the only child of Judge McKelva and Miss Becky McKelva. The story opens as Laurel arrives in New Orleans from her busy life in Chicago. Her beloved father is undergoing a risky operation for a slipped retina. As she awaits news of her father’s operation she is joined by Fay, Judge McKelva’s second wife. Laurel’s mother died ten years ago and the Judge’s second wife is a few years younger than Laurel. Laurel is the quiet, patrician widow, mourning the death of her navel officer husband who died in World War II. Fay is a southern redneck who found the way out of her downtrodden life by marrying the Judge. When the Judge inevitably dies in hospital, the conflict between Fay and Laurel is palpable.

The story is separated into three parts, the hospital in New Orleans, the funeral in Mount Salus, Mississippi, the town founded by the McKelvas, and the family home where Laurel grew up, in Mount Salus. The story is a battle of values between Laurel and Fay. The author goes back in time to Laurel’s childhood vacations at the mountaintop house of her mother’s family in West Virginia. The descriptions of this rural world are extraordinary. Then she brings Fay’s down home family from Texas to the Judge’s funeral. We meet all the wonderful characters that make up Mount Salus society. The author then asks the reader to look at both sides and weigh the values of materialism and energy against privilege and culture.

The dramatic battle comes to a head in the final scenes of the book as Laurel and Fay have final words. Laurel has to come to terms with the losses in her life, her husband, her mother and her father. The house Laurel grew up in and loves will go to Fay, but Laurel has the memories and all it has meant to the McKelvas over the years.

Eudora Welty has written a wonderful book, some say it is her best work. The true joy of this story is the beautiful prose and how she uses it to develop these strong characters who linger in your mind long after the book is finished. There is a reason these wonderful books win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction each year and we are the lucky ones who get to read them.

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