The Moonflower Vine

So glad this 1962 book was rescued from oblivion by a recent reprint (and by way of Jane Smiley’s inclusion of it in her list of best 100 books). Tremendously crisp, clear, delightful writing that covers the story of a family in the Ozarks. Neatly structured, the first section is titled “Family” and starts with Mary Jo’s recollections of one summer reunion in the early fifties when she and her sisters (Jessica & Leonie) return to the farm to visit their parents, Callie and Matthew. They splish in the creek to stay cool and bathe, try to protect their final day together with a ceremonial cutting of the bee tree along with dinner, marvel at the short lived blooming of the moonflowers, make homemade ice-cream and share it with neighbor, Miss Hagar. The last day is interrupted by the funeral of a man who’s been shot by his returning son, but the whole town turns out for the spectacle so the family feels they can skip the graveside service and rushes home to see a bit more of the moonflowers begin to bloom.
Each further section goes into the individual characters of Jessica, who elopes with a wandering farmhand (Tom) who then dies after his fragile body can’t take the rigors of Kansas wheat farming they escape to; Matthew, the father who’s a school superintendent/farmer and who continually falls for the young girls in his class but does nothing beyond kissing to jeopardize his marriage to Callie; Mathy is daughter #3 who just might be the progeny of a wandering peddler who shows up just when Callie finds that Matthew is wandering in his own way – Mathy constantly disappears, sometimes showing up with a horse she’s trying to save, sometimes going up in the air with renegade Ed the pilot (whom she marries and has son Peter), and then disappears for good in an airplane accident; ; Leonie, daughter #2, the perfect saint who becomes a schoolteacher but spends summers on the farm trying to distract her parents from their sorrow of losing Mathy, and ends up marrying Mathy’s husband Ed; the final section is Callie’s, the mother, where she reveals that she knows about Matthew’s wandering eye (and surprises us with the story of the peddler), but as of now she’s a seventy-year old woman looking back on her life, “I’ve been happy!” enjoying the beauty of the farm, looking forward to her daughters coming home that day, ready to share the moonflower blooms with them.
It’s a story of loss and gain– the girls escape the home, but always return. Callie and Matthew lose each other bit by bit but not entirely, and then join together. Mathy dies, but Leonie has a son with Ed.