Pulitzer Prize for Fiction/Novel

Old Becomes New

first edition

“He was thinking of the town he had known. Not of old New York … of a young New York, the mighty throbbing city to which he had come, long ago, as a lad …” from “His Family,” by Ernest Poole

Expecting an imaginary romp through quaint, old New York I quickly realized that “what is old” and “what is new” is all a matter of perspective. Change a few details in the setting, and this story could just as easily be placed into 2015, 2242 or 1810, as opposed to its original publication in 1917, because it is really about family and the challenges of living in the world we live in.

“His Family,” by Ernest Poole, is/was the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, awarded in 1918.

I envisioned a place that was polite and quaint. Downtown Abbey, without the staff, I thought it would a quieter time with seemingly easy decisions and a gentle flow, as opposed to the hectic, frenetic pace we deal with now.

But, to Roger Gale, our main character, and Ernest Poole, the author, early 1900’s New York is anything BUT quaint, quiet and simple. New York calls to their youthful imagination. It is a place that to them is modern, vibrant and full of potential – potential promises and potential heartbreak.

Poole/Gale begins by lamenting the changes in his beloved city, try to ignore the brick building that has gone up next to his home, so that the view from all windows on one side of his home is brick. He describes the busy streets, shouting drivers and the clatter of wheels. If we change his references to “the crack of whips” and “clipping service” to the “honking of horns” and dot.com or search engines, we could be reading about a family in New York of today. The challenges of the characters are not much different from the challenges we face today, we would just have to change the technology around them and this book could become modern, yet again.

The particulars.
Pages: 200 – 300, depending on the edition you buy
Chapters: number by Roman numerals, I-XLIV
Copyright date: 1916 and1917
First Publisher: New York, The MacMillan Company, reprints by other publishers

Hard copies of the book are hard to come by. My local library did not have a physical copy, nor does Amazon, they offer it in an anthology as well as digital. B&N has digital and paperback versions. AbeBooks also has digital and paperback. Powell’s has paperback and hard cover.

I am certainly not the first person to review prize winning books. And I am not the first one to review “His Family” by Ernest Poole. But, I don’t have as much negative to say about it as others, even when it was awarded the Pulitzer, it was slightly panned as not being as good as his other book “The Harbor.”

A little history
According to Wikipedia, “His Family” by Ernest Poole was the first to be be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918. The first year of the Pulitzer was 1917 with seven prizes, only four of which were awarded that year, the category of Fiction being one of them.

Wikipedia, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as of 02/28/2016

AbeBooks.com lists “His Family,” by Ernest Poole as one of the “Top 10 Forgotten Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novels, by Scott Laming.”

I find it interesting, that a Washington Post article, January 12, 2012, noted that Ernest Poole was awarded the Pulitzer for “His Family” because his first book “The Harbor,” published in 1915 was a better book. I was unable to find the quote at washingtonpost.com so it will take a while to find the actual reference.
Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_Family


Click Image To Order

Poole, I think, would make an interesting biography. He wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and was in Europe during the run-up to what we now call World War 1.

My Review

I am not a fan of ratings like stars and such, because they are so one dimensional. There are many reasons to like and dislike a book at the same time. I don’t quite know yet how I will do ratings, so for now I will say … I really liked this book and I will read it again.

I was little concerned that the book would read “old” with long sentences that require old fashioned diagramming to be understood, odd word choices and slow pacing, as opposed to today’s fast paced, sound byte offerings.

I am glad I was wrong.

“His Family” was an easy read. The pacing was right, like taking a walk on a tree lined street full of interesting people and sites, but not stopping to examine the meaning of life or describing the pattern of shadows as they move. The sentences were not too short or too long, and I certainly did not have to stop and diagram anything just to understand it.

I liked that the flashbacks were presented as memories, like something that had happened in that room or hallway years before and the main character was reminded as they did something. As opposed to so many books these days that try to do time shifts with mere chapter titles and different chapters for each character. Some do it well, some do it horrifically, as if I, the reader, plan to keep a timeline because the author did not bother. I am digressing a bit, and sharing a bias that has nothing to do with this book, thank goodness.

I liked the pacing. I read a review that felt like it was too focused on the main character, but that was kind of the point. Roger Gale made a promise to his wife on her deathbed to take care of their three daughters. And as we all know, children don’t make the same choices a parent would make, so the book is about their choices and his attempts to guide, help and get out of the way, with varying degrees of success and failure.

Content expectations:
If I gave it a movie rating I think it would get PG, since there is really no violence or overt sexual content, and no cursing.

Setting and summary:
Roger Gale, the main character in the book, is a widower with three very different grown daughters. The book centers on how Roger feels about his home in New York, even though it is already being encroached by tall brick buildings to at least one side. He makes a deathbed promise to his wife to take care of his three daughters, which is a fool’s errand no matter what year someone is making a promise as such.

His daughters are vibrant women, each with their own very different goals and passions.

Edith wants to be, and is, a wife and mother. Laura is a “modern” woman whose relationships and marriage(s) allow her to live a lavish child free life. Deborah is also “modern” but in an independent, community conscious way, devoted to the school she runs in the tenements among the poverty stricken immigrants and their families.
Roger tries to help, guide and and encourage his daughters, and must go through his own personal changes to be able to agree with their life choices.
You can read any number of websites with a detailed synopsis of the book and I don’t want to offer up any spoilers.

These are the things that stood out to me.
— Universality: I love the universality of the family situation and being set in New York. With careful changes to a few details, this book could have been written yesterday and be about life in New York in 2013, and still be just as good.

– Details and timeframe: Roger notes more than once that he looks out the window of his home to view the brick wall of the building next door, conjuring for me a vision of a grand old house flanked by tall brick multi story buildings. To me this shows his tenacity in keeping the house the way it was when he was raising his children there, in spite of the changes in the neighborhood around him. I don’t recall if he identifies a specific neighborhood, so I will need to read it again to see if he sneaks the locations in. Though we get to read pretty good descriptions of the house and their activity in it, we get a few for Edith and Laura, but the most details are about the activity and people around Deborah’s school in the poor section of the city than we do of the home Roger so dearly loves.

— Family: Roger has deep roots in New England, having come from a family home and estate in New Hampshire. Fairly far into the book we find out that the family own the house in the city as well as a country home that his family has lived on for to prior two generations. Their name, Gale, is also the name of the river that runs near the country home. There is a whole side story there that would have made an excellent book.

— War: The plans of the Gale family are altered by the presence of war. Poole does not give the war in the book a name. Poole was a correspondent for the Saturday Evening post and was in Europe before and during what was later called World War 1. Depending on when Gale actually started and finished the book, he might have been reacting to the impact of the Spanish American War to normal life, since he would have been 18 in 1898 or he might have been referring to World War I. It would take a careful examination of his biography to get the timeframes that impacted him, since the book was published prior to the end of the war.

War, back to the book: In the book, war ruins Roger’s thriving clipping business, which adds to the stresses of the family. The business is not destroyed by new technologies but rather by the losses his clients have to bear.

The Family Business: Prior to Roger moving to New York, the family business appears to have been taking care of the land, farm and animals at the family estate in New Hampshire. To younger readers, Roger’s “clipping business: might not make a lot of sense. His customers pay Roger and his staff to read all the available newspapers and periodicals at the time. They clip from the from the periodicals any articles related to the subject the client requests, package up the clippings and deliver them to their clients. Research before technology, RSS feeds and Google.
Side story: There is a side story that Roger collects unique rings. His search takes him to the dark and seedy side of New York. It is kind of his secret, even though the family knows he collects rings. They don’t talk about it. I would have liked for this aspect of Roger to be better explained, when he started collecting and why. By today’s standards it is a pretty tame secret but it causes some big of angst for Roger and his family later, just a bit.

The story in the book took a while to finish, as Poole wraps up the life challenges of the daughters and take Roger to an inevitable end. This is one of those books that when I was done, I missed the characters and their continuing stories, as if they were friends who had moved far away and from whom I have not heard from again.