Reader Joseph Weiner writes to recommend Mary Lee Settle’s five-novel series, “O Beulah Land,” which covered the roots, history, and lives of some families in West Virginia. “She’s long been a very under-appreciated writer,” he comments–which is certainly true.
Settle had a pretty remarkable life before she took up writing: born and raised in West Virginia coal-mining country, she worked as a model and actress, and even auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. She married an Englishman, bore a child, and, when World War Two broke out, joined the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force–in part as a way out of the marriage. It was an experience she later recounted in All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391. She was 36 before her first novel, The Love Eaters, was published.
Settle went on to write over twenty books in the course of a fifty year career; the last, Spanish Recognitions: The Road from the Past, a combination travelogue and memoir based on a trip she took to Spain when she was 82.
Her best-known work is the “O Beulah Land” quintet–although I think it would be more accurate to call them five interconnected novels. The work had a structure that emerged slowly and somewhat haphazardly. The first book to be published–but the second book in terms of the overall story’s chronology–O Beulah Land (1955) was set in a fictional version of Charleston, West Virginia (then, of course, just part of the Virginia colony) during the American Revolution. The next year, she published Know Nothing, which eventually became the third installment of the story. Know Nothing shifted to the west of Charleston and forward in time to the 1850s, when divisions over slavery laid the roots for the decision to separate from the South and join the Union as the new state of West Virginia.
Then, in 1964, she published the last book in the trilogy: Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday.
I told you the structure emerged slowly and haphazardly.
Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday was Settle’s shortest novel, and she was never happy with editorial cuts she had to accept to please Viking, her publisher. But it’s also clear that she was still coming to understand the story she wanted to tell, for nine years later, she published Prisons, which takes the story a great leap backward in time and space: from western Virginia in American Revolution to England in the time of Cromwell and the Civil War. Prisons is now considered the first book in the quintet.
Seven years later, she published The Scapegoat, which is based on the “Paint Creek Mine War,” a 1912 strike that was organized by Mother Jones. Finally, in 1982, she published The Killing Ground, which returns to Canona–her fictional Charleston–in the 1960s and 1970s. The Killing Ground is, effectively, an “author’s cut” version of Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday–and, like director’s cuts in film, much longer than the first release.
And, oh by the way, between Prisons and The Scapegoat, she also published Blood Tie, a novel set among the expat community in Turkey (where Settle lived for some years), which won the 1978 National Book Award for fiction.
Settle’s work does not really meet my own standards for a neglected book. It’s critical reputation is solid, if still marginalized. One academic study has been published–Brian C. Rosenberg’s Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom (1991), and the series, along with most of her major works, is available from the University of South Carolina Press as the Mary Lee Settle Collection. The USC Press has also released a critical overview of her work, Understanding Mary Lee Settle, written by a novelist himself often mentioned as a neglected master: George Garrett.
I would not be fully honest, though, if I didn’t admit that I’ve never managed to get past about page 40 of any of Settle’s books, aside from All the Brave Promises. I’m not sure she was always well served by her editors. If, as Settle felt, Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday was cut back too far, there are also a few of her books that cried out for a thick blue pencil. Of Prisons, Kirkus Reviews observed that, “The book is filled with endless religious conversations revolving around freedom of conscience, all in the Puritan idiom of the middle 17th century–not exactly the most enlivening discourse in the world”–although it acknowledged that this might be a “necessarily tedious effort” –not exactly the most enthusiastic endorsement of a book, either. Reviewing The Killing Ground in the New York Times back in 1982, Aaron Latham argued that Settle should “sift out the slag and reduce her ‘Beulah Quintet’ to a single long novel.”
However, with a sum total of zero books to my name, I feel most ungracious to an author with such a large and diverse oeuvre to end with such comments. Mary Lee Settle was driving around rural Spain by herself, packing a laptop, a rich understanding of history and culture, and a burning curiosity when she was 82 years old. I hope I’ll have the same kind of moxie if I make it that far. So I will close with a few lines from her foreword to The Killing Ground: “All I knew and always have known, is that once I have asked the question ‘why?’ of an image, I cannot let it go until it blesses me. It is the way all my work has been done, and will be. Even at the end, like the annoying child within, I will keep on asking why.”