The Mad Stone, by Lorna Beers

July 13th, 2010

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Mad Stone'A mad stone is a stone-like mass–a hairball, really–taken from the stomach of a deer and reputed to have a magical power of curing rabies and snake bites. Although an actual mad stone plays a minor role in Lorna Beers’ novel, the Minnesota (or Dakota–Beers does not identify specific locations) countryside serves as the symbolic cure for the “poisoned” souls of her protagonists.

Louis and Ollie are a mismatched pair. Louis is a penniless would-be visionary whose utter failure to provide for his family in the great metropolis (Chicago? Minneapolis?) has finally led Mattie, his wife, to drag him and their three children back to her father’s farm. Ollie is the wife of Vandiver Hackett, a tycoon of some sort, sent off to Hackett’s family home as punishment for a real or imagined adultery. They meet on the train out to the country and quickly recognize the one thing they share in common: an inability to go with the flow of prevailing values and habits.

At some point in the past, Louis was an aspiring preacher, a young man whose fervent sermons drew crowds from all over the area. But he was also fascinated with mathematics, science, and the movement toward a historical view of Jesus popularized by Ernest Renan. He heads off to the city to pursue a self-crafted course of studies, and spends hours scribbling away in endless notebooks while Mattie struggles to feed and clothe their children. When homelessness looms, she forces Louis to return to the country, where at least she has some assurance that their hungry mouths will be fed.

Beers subjects us to many passages of Louis’ passionate monologues about science, religion, and the follies of man, but a small sample should suffice to demonstrate what a windblown pedant he is:

Oh, wandering Jew, doomed to change your essence from age to age, to mirror the vanity of the current custom. Now knight-errant, now Eastern king, now Greek athlete with delectable flesh that felt no pain lifted sensuously from the cross: now a showman exposing the stigmata on your hands and feet … drop your coins into the wicker tray, brethren! Now you have been taken arm-in-arm with scholarship, and you walk about the philosophical peripatetic paths saying “I am the word!”

Louis is hell-bound not to go gentle into his good night. “Never will I bow my spirit to the originator and the torturer of our sentience. Never will I sit and purr on the lap of God!” he exclaims at one point.

Ollie, on the other hand, is sophisticate–well-dressed, well-read, well-traveled, and utterly bored with everything. She enjoys taunting Molly, the Hackett’s cook, about the contradictions of her Catholic faith:

“‘Molly, why aren’t you eating the mince pie?’ ‘Mrs. Vand,’ I told her, ‘this day is sacred with us. I don’t eat flesh of any kind,’ I told her. ‘Flesh?’ she said. ‘Suet, Miss. There is suet in mince pie.’ “Oh, suet,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘What is suet, Molly?’ ‘Fat of beef,’ I tell her, since she knew so little. ‘Oh, it’s fat of beef, is it?’ she said. ‘Your God doesn’t like fat of cows?’ And she reached down and nipped off a bit of the crust of my custard pie and looked at it very sharply, turning it this way and that. ‘Molly,’ she said ‘will you ask something of your Prayste for me? Why your Lord likes fat of pigs and doesn’t like fat of cows. Lard and suet, well, well,’ she said, ‘I had never imagined to find Him so particular.’ Before I could say a word she had her impudent face out of the door.”

Soon after their arrival, Beers manages to bring the two together on long nighttime walks and other escapes from the confines of small town and farm routines. Most of their time together consists of impassioned monologues by Louis and sly cross-examinations by Ollie. Neither manages to notice the richness of life and nature that surrounds them, and Beers’ many lyrical descriptions of the countryside draw stark counterpoint to her protagonists’ arid intellectuality. Ollie literally hates nature: “It was malignant. Malignant. It was only in the marts of men that she felt safe, where their chatter, their irrational habits made her feel secure in her own intelligence.”

Beers also contrasts the two mind-bound lovers (and I use this word very loosely, as there is never a suggestion that there is anything physical in their relationship) with the two other principal characters in the novel, Vand Hackett’s sister Nanda and Louis’ wife Mattie. While Louis and Ollie are off on their fools’ errands, Nanda and Mattie are, at the same time, bound in by conventions and in close touch with Mother Earth:

Mattie leaned over, watching the ants rebuild their houses under the upraised heel of God. And she became aware of a stalk of wild teasel standing in the sod just outside the cultivated soil. She looked at it as she might study the features of one rendered unique by being the object of her sudden falling in love. She looked at its base as it rose above the wild grass. The stalk was thick and ribbed, its irregular hollow circumference grown over with green hairs and spines, a natural armor against sudden closing fingers. Pairs of spear-like leaves were set at intervals up the stem, and like the oval knob of a sceptre, there was borne upon each stalk an oblong head. Several of these cones were green and immature, but upon tow of them were set clusters about the middle of pale lavender flowers.

She sat looking at the weed, wondering about the nature of its existence, of how the sap flowed through its stems, of how it flowered and shook its leaves in isolated being, subject to momentary uprooting by the sharp blade of her hoe.

As The Mad Stone goes on, Louis and Ollie grow more reckless, doing little to hide their meetings. Chaste though they may remain, theirs was a time when just the appearance of impropriety was enough to earn a community’s disapproval. It seems clear that, in one way or another, they are headed on a path to self-destruction.

Yet just before everything spins out of control, Louis pulls himself up by the bootstraps and decides to head back to the city–this time committed to becoming a science teacher and earning an honest living. Ollie also returns to town, kept from crashing by the more obvious restraint of a telegram from her husband calling her back. Mattie stays to help her father and watch her children continue to grow ever more rosy-cheeked on the fresh air and fresh produce of the farm.

This late turn-around in the narrative seems as miraculous and implausible as the mad stone’s cure of rabies. It’s clear that Beers was, at heart, uncomfortable with a world where people crash and burn. Her loyalty lay with the regenerative powers of nature, not the self-destructive powers of man.

The Mad Stone was Lorna Beers’ third novel, following Prairie Fires (1925) and A Humble Lear (1929). It won the Avery Hopwood award for fiction from the University of Michigan and was generally well-received among critics. It was, however, her last published adult novel.

According to her Wikipedia biography, Beers’ career was derailed by the need to care for her husband’s crippling emotional problems. She wrote and published several books for younger readers and, decades later (1966), Wild Apples and North Wind, a memoir of life on a Vermont farm.

Wild Apples is said to have been one of Annie Dillard’s inspirations, and the gorgeous writing about nature one finds throughout The Mad Stone is by far the best part of the book. One sticks with the novel not for the tiresome tragedy of Louis and Ollie but for the lovely epiphanies of Mattie and Nanda as they drink in the energy, beauty, and complexity of the wild and cultivated life all around them.


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The Mad Stone, by Lorna Beers

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