Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Finding A Literary Niche ... Belva Plain

Women stay home to raise children all the time. They choose family over career or they put their careers on the back burner while they raise their familes, hoping to pick 'it' back up when they feel their children are on an even keel and they can place their concentration back in the working world outside the home. Belva Plain managed to combine both worlds. She married after having graduated from Barnard College.  During her early married life, she wrote short stories that were published in the likes of Cosmopolitan and other women's magazines. As her children grew older, she found time to begin work on a novel, using her degree in history to weave an historical novel that began during the late 1890's and ended in the 1950's. Once it was published, she was on her way. She had a very devoted fan base that followed her career over the course of thirty years, from the time that that first novel, Evergreen was published in 1978 to her final novel, Heartwood, published (posthumously) in 2011.

I discovered Belva Plain and her wonderful combination of historical and realistic fiction at a time in my life when I'd made the decision to stay home and raise my children, rather than try to combine career and motherhood. I agonized quite a bit, as I felt the pressure of 70's feminist theory that women could 'have it all'. Well, this woman couldn't juggle that many balls and stay sane and happy. I was extremely fortunate that my husband could support us, a small house, the medical bills that came with having children bing-bing-bing, and a lifestyle that gave us food, clothes, toys, and modest vacations and outings. On those beaches and lake fronts of our vacations, I discovered Belva Plain's novels.

Of the books that I read by her, there seemed to always be a strong female protagonist with strong family connections, a sense of political and social responsibility, and a sensual yet modest presence. Her books were never bodice-rippers, and yet she explored the many sides of love, commitment, responsible relationships, and the differences between the psyches of men and women. Was this romance? No. It was good solid realistic fiction that was always set against an era in American history that provided drama and a chance for the reader to learn something or think about where we have come from as a nation of immigrants and to confront some of society's more touchy issues.

I recently re- read Ms. Plain's novel, The Golden Cup . This book is the second in the Werner family saga. It followed Plain's debut novel Evergreen , the book that began her career in novels.  The saga follows the lives of the second and third generations of the Werner family, as they prosper within the business culture of Manhattan. Hennie, her sister Florence,  and brother Alfie go in very different directions as they grow into adulthood. Hennie marries a young social radical schoolteacher who encourages her independent streak and strong sense of social advocacy for the immigrant workers within the garment industry. Florence fulfills all the dreams of her parents by marrying well within New York Jewish society. Alfie, spurns the chance to go to college and enters the rough and tumble business world, making himself a successful financial investment advisor. The family fabric is tested during the tenement scandals that surfaced during the 1890's and in the early years of the 20th century, the labor strikes within the garment industry, and finally during the years of isolation prior to WWI.

Belva Plain weaves the history of the time beautifully into the plot line for her characters. In fact, that is her strong suit. Her characters could be better defined and explored, but she never really does that for any of them other than her main protagonist, Hennie Roth. Her fast-moving plot doesn't allow her to do that. Still, one leaves her books with a good sense of the main character's personality and motivations and a sense of caring about them ... or at least this reader does. I will be continuing on my re-visiting of this series of novels. Not only are they a trip down memory lane for me as a reader, they are a nice overview of American history from the 1890's forward ... without the dryness of a textbook.

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