Tammy Marshall, "Novel Thoughts"

Great books often find us when we most need them. After a year of very few ups and many downs, I was desperately in the mood to read something to take my mind off negative things for a while.

Knowing I had over 30 Pulitzers still awaiting me, I scanned their covers until my eyes fell upon the lovely-sounding title “Years of Grace” by Margaret A. Barnes.

I recall thinking that our world could use a few years of grace, so I took the book off the shelf and riffled through its pages.

Since my copy is a Franklin Library edition, it doesn’t have any explanatory book jacket information, so I conducted a quick online search to learn more about the story. It sounded like something I’d enjoy, and I saw that the book is largely out of print and hard to come by, so I figured I owed it to Margaret A. Barnes to, perhaps, breathe a little life back into her 1931 Pulitzer winner if her story could breathe a little joy back into me.

The novel is wonderful and as delightful as its title; yet, it’s also packed full of nuggets of wisdom from a by-gone era that are as relevant today as they were then.

The 563 pages of this novel simply flew past as the story enveloped me, and I physically felt myself become more relaxed as I read.

Simply put, the story is about a Chicago girl named Jane Ward and her life from the age of 15 to the age of 51. To be honest, Jane doesn’t really do much — she attends a couple years of college, gets married at a young age, has three children, and then becomes a grandmother — but that’s what makes the overall story so wonderfully relatable. In the long run, most people don’t really do a whole lot with their lives, but they still fully live those lives on an inner plane.

Barnes’ writing style is simple, yet profound. Jane’s life is simple, yet profound. Throughout the story, I was treated to Jane’s ever-changing, ever-questioning, ever-maturing inner life, and I marvelled at how very much a girl who came of age in the 1880’s is exactly like a girl (me) who came of age in the 1980’s.

By the end of the book, Jane has surpassed the age of 50, as have I, and in the final section, she has a few existential crises, much like I’ve had, and much like we all have as we approach old age.

Here is a part of that: “Your inner life — how confusing it all was! A chaos of conflicting loyalties! ... Why had things turned out as they had? Predestination was probably the answer. Cause and effect. One thing leading to another. Free will was only a delusion. Why not turn fatalist, pure and simple, and not worry any longer? Not care.”

Jane does care, though, as do I, and as does every rational person. We all care about something. We’re in strange times, but we can be like Jane in this lovely book, and, even if our outward life may change in ways we don’t like, our inner lives can be very fulfilling. We all have a “secret stage on which the passionate personal drama” of our own lives plays out.

I’ve now read 60 of the 96 Pulitzer winners of fiction. I’m glad I waited until now to read “Years of Grace” by Margaret A. Barnes, but it won’t be the last time I’ll read this quiet, calming, wonderful book.

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Contact Marshall at tamreader@gmail.com.

Next month’s reading selection is “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro.

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