When I first bought my Kindle, I was very excited about the free books available on Amazon. I spent a lot of time of looking through the reviews and downloading classics that were no longer protected by copyright. Then I promptly forgot about them. The lure of new books and the pressure of library deadlines were more than enough to distract me. A Voice in the Wilderness [published sometime between 1913 and 1918, according to the internet] by Grace Livingston Hill was one of these books.
I was loading up my Kindle for an upcoming vacation when I skimmed the first bit of A Voice in the Wilderness: Margaret Earle is a young woman (18?, early 20’s?) arriving in Arizona from the Northeast, ready to teach school in the wild west. When the train stops, and after both the conductor and ticket attendant have told her that her stop is next, Margaret grabs her bag and steps off the train. But it is dark and she can’t see any platform or semblance of a town. After falling down the bank, Margaret decides to get back on the train. And that’s when the train takes off, leaving her at a water stop, miles from nowhere at ten o’clock at night.
I was intrigued. What a fun way to start a story, and what a perfect story to read while camping in the Southwest. Unfortunately, the rest of this novel didn’t live up to its beginning. There is too much painfully blatant preaching, and Margaret’s portrayal is often ridiculously old-fashioned in a way that Austen’s and Wharton’s novels not. I almost gave up on it. Yet when I pushed through all of the annoying distractions, there was just enough of a sweet romance and likable, adventurous young woman to keep me going. Would I recommend it to others? Probably not. Were there some disturbing morals and “lessons” portrayed? Definitely. Was there a racist and dated portrayal of American Indians? Certainly.
Margaret Earle is the daughter of a preacher and very much a believer. A young, strapping man, Lance Gardley (good name?) eventually rescues poor Margaret from her plight in the dark wilderness next to the train tracks. Margaret goes on to teach school (which includes some of my favorite parts), fall in love with Lance, help everyone around her by being fabulous, and ward off all ineligible suitors.
Margaret faces her various challenges with fits of optimistic practicality and melodramatic tears. I enjoyed reading about how she excelled at teaching and helped those around her. I hated the page after page of religion, and I disliked how Margaret was often portrayed as incredibly weak and unable to think. I felt viscerally constrained by the author’s notions of what made Margaret a good person. Here are some illustrative examples:
-“Yet withal it was a kindly admiration not unmixed with awe. For there was about her beauty a touch of the spiritual which set her above the common run of women, making men feel her purity and sweetness, and inclining their hearts to worship rather than be bold.” (19)
-“Why, just why couldn’t she be as interested in the minister down there as in the wild young man? Well, she was too tired tonight to analyze it all, and she knelt beside her window in the starlight to pray.” (34)
-“And, anyhow, I should not care to read and discuss any of these subjects with a man who denies the deity of my Saviour and does not believe in the infallibility of the Bible.” (44)
-“And so subtle is the heart of a maid that she never fathomed the real reason.” (124)
Along with all the above, the author is so intent on shoving her version of religion down our throats that she has a group of men from town attack and harass the minister (who is, admittedly, an asshole) before running him out of town. Is that really what Jesus would do? Also, after all kinds of preaching and morality, she ***SPOILER*** has Lance Gardley’s uncle unexpectedly die and leave him a lot of money. That way, he can buy the perfect house and furnish it for his new wife. Lance apparently didn’t care much for his uncle because he shows not even a passing sadness at losing him.
One, slightly feminist line comes when Margaret is traveling with an Indian couple, and the man is drunk and abusive. “Poor woman! What a life was hers–to follow her grim lord whither he would lead, even as her white sister must sometimes, sorrowing, rebelling, crying out, but following!” (193)
Yet despite it all, I felt there was a real connection between Margaret and Lance. And damned if I cared a little when Gardley showed up late for the play. Even as it irritated me, every once in awhile there was a sentence or two that worked for me: “There was a hint of coming sunset in the sky. Her heart sank, and she was about to give up hope entirely, when, rich and clear, there it came again! A voice in the wilderness calling her name.” (213)
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