You know how it is when you make one of those giant beach books your own. It’s a bit of a pain to lug around, but you go to it for daily sustenance month after month after month.
You know, like Nicholas and Alexandra, or a Michener tome.
And then at last, it’s over, and you feel you’ve lost a friend. But if you flip that around, it really means you’ve found a friend. Whoever it was that wrote the book turns out to be a kindred spirit.
After more than six months, I’ve finally finished And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, (1433 pages in paperback) and not only have I made a good friend, I’ve made a dozen of them, and I’ve met their children and their grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren.
I feel like I’m on the beach at the Sandy Beach Club in South Conway, New Hampshire, looking at the children frolicking in Conway Lake, and saying, “That’s got to be Lucy’s boy.”
Lucy’s brother Brad died tragically at a young age many years ago. He was a lot older than I was, but he took the time to make me and my brothers part of the gang when we were outsiders.
He introduced us to Lou Christie (Two Faces Have I) and the Beach Boys (If everybody had an ocean…) and then, we heard, he died in an accident hitchiking in Sweden.
Years later as I took a plunge into the water and came to the surface, here was his lookalike nephew.
“I know who you are,” I said. “You’re the spitting image of your uncle.”
In And Ladies of the Club, you make friends with families and follow them over generations, and gain real insights into daily life, and politics, and economics, and fashion and the social norms from 1868 to 1932.
The novel opens with a tableau of graduation ceremonies at the Waynesboro Female Academy in 1868, when Sally Cochrane first fixes her eye on Captain Ludwig Rausch, and Anne Alexander establishes her claim on his friend Captain (and Dr.) John Gordon. Both captains have been honored as heroes in the Civil War.
We learn all about Anne and Sally and their friends and their families, and their children’s families, and what it’s like to die of rheumatic fever, or tuberculosis, or diphtheria, and what it’s like to be a country doctor when there’s just not much that you can do.
Captain Rausch starts a rope company and becomes a tycoon, and a political mover and shaker, while Captain Gordon is haunted by his grim battles with his memories of death in the Civil War hospitals.
President Rutherford B. Hayes and William Tecumseh Sherman both make appearances, and not just cameos, either. Hayes expresses his concern over the power of money in politics, and General Sherman comiserates with Captain Gordon over the loss of Gordon’s young daughter. (Sherman lost a child during the war.)
Throughout the novel, we see many points of view, but the most central one is Anne Alexander, though we come to know her by her married name, Anne Gordon.
She’s really a heroic figure, but you don’t think of her that way. She’s just Anne. It wasn’t until after I had finished the book that I realized that Anne lost her mother at an early age, her brother in the Civil War, her father, her young daughter, her husband, and finally, her son, to heart disease in his forties.
Through all of this she soldiers on, hardly giving a thought to her own cares, providing love and support to those in need.
Even when she is near death herself, she befriends the granddaughter of a friend and shows her old magazines and newpapers and letters about the old days, and we get a glimpse of how this novel came about.
The relationship between the young writer and the octogenarian humanitarian is a real delight. The icing on the cake you might say.
This novel was published with little acclaim in 1982. Then, in 1983, Grace Sindell heard a library patron returning the book say it was the best she had ever read. Ms. Sindell read it in two days, agreed, and sent it to her son Gerald, a Hollywood promoter, who got Putnam to republish it. After it became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it went on to be a national bestseller.
Helen Santmyer, then in a nursing home, was amused more than anything else. “Ninety percent of the hoopla,” she said, “is because I’m such an old lady.”
I disagree. The hoopla was from readers like me, who found in this book the closest thing we’ll ever see to a Great American Novel.