I will admit guilt for committing an occasional theft. Once in a while, I find a book that cries out, “Please take me home with you.” These are always, naturally, neglected books. I usually find them in hotels or vacation rentals, in those little libraries of books that previous guests have left behind–perhaps in hopes that someone else would find them interesting, perhaps simply because they weren’t interesting enough to be worth carrying home.
The scene of my last crime was a small hotel in Luxembourg, a pretty forgettable place where I stayed one night while on a business trip. Taking up part of the landing on the staircase up to the rooms was a tall, narrow bookcase with a mix of French, German, and Dutch paperbacks–Dan Brown, John Grisham, and their Euro counterparts. But one book was definitely not new, not a bestseller, and in English. It was a thick, old (1955), and somewhat unusually-sized paperback (halfway between a pocket book and a trade paperback): The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles. Although clearly in English, the book’s publisher, Panther Books, had an address in Leipzig, which was in the German Democratic Republic at the time. Other Panther titles listed inside the back cover included English classics such as Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter, but also a few I didn’t recognize: The Volunteers, by Steve Nelson, and Goldsborough, by Stefan Heym. Nelson turned out to have been an activist, volunteer in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and member of the American Communist Party. Heym was a German writer who emigrated to the U.S. to escape Hitler, fought for the Allies during the war, wrote and organized for left causes after the war, and moved to East Germany in the early 1950s.
A little more digging confirmed that Panther Books mutated into Seven Seas Books, which was run by Heym’s American wife, Gertrude Gelbin, and continued to publish English-language books, mostly novels and mostly on leftist subjects by such writers as Ring Lardner, Jr., Alvah Bessie, and Dorothy Hewett, as well as many of Heym’s own books and those of fellow East German writers such as Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf.
I had, of course, slipped the book into my duffel bag before checking this aspect of the book’s back story, and I started to read at home the next evening. Giles takes her title from a line from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes: “Let the gentle bush dig its root deep and spread upward to split one boulder.” Her story is set in bayou Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century, among the many members of the Durels, a family in slow decline from the grand beginnings made by their grandfather, who established a large plantation before the Civil War.
The only Durel still thriving financially is Agricole, who is looked down upon by his kinsmen: “Everyone knew that Agricole’s father, the first Agricole, had not married cette femme in New Orleans until his son was at least ten years old.” This doesn’t prevent Agricole (junior) from attempting to insinuate himself (and his three children) back in the family’s good grades. And from that point forward, the story is one big race to decay: will the poor but upright Durels decline into penury before wealthy Agricole (junior) loses his last shred of decency in his pursuit of filthy lucre?
I can’t say that I stuck with the story. I quickly lost track of Durels, what with Tante Abelle, Michel, Nicole, Auguste, Alcee, Amelie, Leonie, Lizette, and a good dozen more, along with the many other characters in the neighborhood of Bayou Teche. The 500-plus dense pages of The Gentle Bush require more commitment that I had in me.
And Giles was looking for readers with commitment. A frequent contributor to The New Masses, she seems to have taken her inspiration from a odd duo: Karl Marx and Taylor Caldwell. Particularly Caldwell’s saga about a family of American arms manufacturers, The Dynasty of Death, The Eagles Gather, and The Final Hour. She captures the energy of a successful entrepreneur but favors the poor but honest and down-trodden, the working whites and serving blacks, who seem to shine with a uniformly stalwart glow. Even as evil triumphs, we know that ultimately the workers of the world will unite and seize control of the means of production, or something like that.
The Gentle Bush was generally well-received when it was first published–by a mainstream publisher, Harcourt, Brace and Company–in 1947. The chill winds of the Red Scare were picking up, but it was still possible for activist writers such as Giles, Alexander Saxton, and Cedric Belfrage to get published by the big firms. A year later, The New Masses closed its doors. Giles continued to maintain her Communist Party membership even after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, only leaving in the mid-1960s when she felt it had become irrelevant. Giles never published another book.