Reviewed by Daniel Sundahl
There was a time when the Canaan River had been left free to run through the valley, years before the senior George McCane harnessed “the power of falling water” (emphasis added). Ben Crocker, the first-person narrator of the novel, makes this observation in 1988, a half-century after the events that developed over the later months of 1935.
At his advanced age, Crocker circles back in time to “something I know was important . . . something that I thought I needed to recover in order to make sense of my life.” It’s a general meditation posed in the silence of a quiet evening, the past coming forward to visit the present. A visit from Edna McCane, wife to the late George McCane, Junior, has put into motion this desire for recovery, suggesting Crocker’s desire to understand whether what he experienced in his life is evidence of a coherent course or whether the movement is less so, more random impulses than not.
There’s an irony here; Crocker is by vocation a cost accountant. The book of his life should clearly have the quality of a ledger sheet and that choices made along the course of that life are the answers to the question, “What does it cost?”
The history informing Lane’s novel can be easily summarized. Near the end of the Nineteenth Century the South Carolina upcountry underwent a textile boom, in effect making South Carolina the second-most prominent textile-producing state. The mills were sources of jobs and community growth, the consequences of industrialization. But at what cost progressively to develop the New South? At the turn of the century and into the Depression Era years, Old South South Carolinians feared the creation of a worker class. The mills had to recruit workers, and as Lane’s novel makes clear, numerous of the upland farmers, Anglo-Saxon mountain-folk, left their land for regular pay-checks.
But again at what cost?
Middle-class merchants in the mill towns came to see the mill workers as threats to the tidy order created in those towns following the War Between the States. Mill workers, sturdy, Anglo-Saxon mountain-folk, came to resent not only their mill-owner employers but the town’s middle-class merchant residents. The ledger-like cost was abounding prejudice and a caste system.
The problem was compounded by another economic fact. Textile workers in the north, most unionized, were paid on average 40% more than South Carolina workers. Over three or four decades, furthermore, the condition of mill workers in mill villages worsened. There was little of what one might call corporate welfare.
When Ben Crocker thus circles back in time, back to the 1930s, his attempt to make sense of his life is against this historical background. Progressively to halt the poverty and degradation of the mill workers, the novel narrates the attempt to unionize the three hundred workers at the Carlton Mill. A much younger Crocker is seated at his desk with his ledger book busily transcribing receipts for raw cotton purchases when his employer, George McCane, Junior, announces he’s closing the Carlton Mill for renovations, new machinery for the mill and air-conditioning, but also renovating fourteen mill-worker houses. McCane hands Crocker sheets of paper which list the houses to be renovated. On the list is the home rented by Olin Campbell, a mill worker involved in a union strike a year before.
Crocker objects, arguing it’s against the law to fire mill-workers without cause and that McCane is engaging in a frontal assault on those who have an interest in unionizing the mill. In this early encounter, McCane argues that he’s not firing people; he’s laying them off so he can improve his property. “I hired you to balance my books,” McCane says. “You leave the thinking to me.”
It’s an understatement, of course, and the underlying structure to Lane’s novel: Ben Crocker’s first person narrative is a balancing of the books.
The Canaan River had been harnessed in the name of progress to create a beautiful reservoir which is used to make the electricity to power the mills; the mills created the financial power of George McCane, Senior, who passed the proprietorship of the mills to his younger son. Power, therefore, and at what cost and how to account for that cost, how to balance the books.
What’s wonderfully suggestive about this novel is that one might assume that power comes just from inheriting a name. Angus, the usually drunk elder son in the story, asks in one of the novel’s scenes, “Ben, do you know about power?” Ben says, “You mean like electric power?” “No, power people have. The way it flows, pools, percolates, and evaporates through time.”
One’s historical sense would usually suggest that power rests with those who win and those who win are usually at the top of the social heap. The junior George McCane, though, has been deposited in the middle of a criminal case, the witness facts of which are ambiguous. The criminal case concerns an episode on that pristine lake of privilege that came into being when, according to testimony, McCane either willfully or accidentally created a speed boat wake that overturned an overloaded row boat. Fate Moreland and his son drowned and McCane is charged with murder.
Was it, though, a crime or an accident? How will justice balance the books?
First person narrators are untrustworthy, and Crocker allows that in his younger years he possessed romantic fantasies. Cost-accounting, what he did for a living all those years, never answered all the questions truthfully. The past he concludes near the novel’s end, “isn’t a ledger. Even for an accountant there are no neat profit and loss columns in a life lived day-to-day with no understanding of what the future might bring.”
The power of falling water is not a fatalistic metaphor suggesting in this novel that what happens owns a certain inevitability. Crocker is not enough of a poet or a philosopher to handle the issue clearly, or deftly to handle thought like feeling, and feeling like thought. He’s weak in that regard but it’s important to note that his knowledge is partial; his book is a ledger and it’s difficult to equate ledger-entries with moral forms. It’s tempting to imagine him different but then the language of the book would be equally different. For if he were a poet or a philosopher the novel would resound with platitudes and aestheticism rather than the broad and humane rusticism Crocker holds.
Crocker is not one of history’s time-torn men nor was he meant to be. But he has a past and he wishes to come to terms with and come to know what that past contains, even if there are vulnerable moments of romantic fantasies. His story could have become too easily titillating; that, though, would have been a deep violation to Ben Crocker’s honesty, witness to events a half-century past, but also a man who had a life and not simply a name.
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