The Time of Man

All the “best of” book lists that don’t include this gem should be incinerated for their lack of substance. This is yet another forgotten classic, and reading it is like unwrapping the golden ticket: you’re excited, eager, can’t believe your luck. Published in 1926, Elizabeth Madox Roberts displays poetic virtuosity and sensibility on every page. On the surface, it’s a tale of Ellen Chesser’s journey from childhood to adulthood in rural Kentucky in the 1920s. The story begins with the family bumping along in a wagon, on the move yet again, Ellen a young girl with her mother and father who then find a sharecrop of tobacco and live on the farm. Trials and tribulations of farm life, fetching water, dealing with lice and chickens and hogs and turkeys and milking cows. Picking rocks out of the soil to be farmed, father Henry states “no plow iron ever cut this-here hill afore, not in the whole time of man.” This phrase, “time of man” echoes in Ellen’s mind, gets her thinking to where rocks come from. She socializes with the other country folk, finds a group of young people to gad about with, goes to a party where she knows only one person and is determined to become liked, so she finds herself volunteering to sing a song, “terrified of what her lips were saying.” Her song’s a hit, the room becomes friendly to her, she’s introduced around. She finds herself with a beau, Jonas, who ends up having to leave to tend a farm miles away but who swears he’ll come back for her, sends her one meager letter while he’s gone. Later, she finds out that he’s back in town, has married another of the girls. She meets another beau, Jasper Kent, who then runs afoul of the law, falsely accused of burning down someone’s barn in retribution for their stealing his pigs. He disappears, swears he’ll come back for her, and he does, they head off into matrimony, moving far away from the scene (but not far enough– rumors haunt Jasper as the Barn-Burner). She has five children, moves about from farm to farm building gardens where she can. Jasper cheats on her with another woman but she does nothing, only smiles at the farmer who’s in love with her, pregnant again (Jasper thinks it’s the farmer’s kid, they fight, the kid is born and dies a few years later). Falsely accused of yet another barn-burning, the family packs up and leaves under the cover of night, headed far away.

“Try on my new hat,” Rosie said, and Ellen went to the larger room and put on the hat before the glass that hung above the chest of drawers. The hat was bright and new, a token of spring in its warmth and brightness. The men about the fire talked with low muttering, complaining at the closing of the road. The hat was fresh and fragrant, a promise of Rosie’s wedding, but the low muttering of the men came into her pleasure in the hat, a faint menace that lay under the air, so that her joy in the hat was magnified as it stood out brightly before their threatenings.

Life began somewhere on the roads, traveling after the wagons where she had claim upon all the land and no claim, all at once, and where what she knew of the world and what she wanted of it sparkled and glittered and ran forward quickly as if it would always find something better.

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Discovered via Tillie Olson’s Silences, and embellished by lovely engravings by Clare Leighton.