Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Home is Here

Home is Here. By Sidney Meller. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941.
Eastside Road, October 6, 2013—
I POSTED HERE the other day — well, a month ago, I see now; time does get past me — some comments on a novel by my favorite English teacher, Sid Meller, a man who taught me what to look for in novels, and who encouraged me in my own juvenilia. Meller's first novel, Roots in the Sky, was a "chronicle novel," rather a sprawling one brought to rather a sudden and arbitrary conclusion aided by a sudden street accident. The narrative hung on the immigrant orthodox Jewish subculture in San Francisco, from say 1910 into Prohibition.

I recently read Meller's second (and last) novel, a more successful book to my mind, written I suppose in the late 1930s, perhaps as late as 1940. It is another novel about an immigrant family, but more the opposite corrective to the earlier novel than its similar. Unlike Rabbi Drobnen in Roots in the Sky, the Alano Dorelli is eager to assimilate, or at least to take his place in the thriving, upwardly mobile milieu he finds on Telegraph Hill just after the 1906 earthquake.

It takes a year or two and perhaps forty pages for his wife Lucia to arrive from the shores of Lake Como, and she is never as sanguine as her husband about leaving the traditions and the simplicity of their earlier paisano life — but by the book's end it is she who has beat yankee exploitation and crass politics, leaving him finally respectful of her reluctant determination.

The plot hinges on her quarrel with the owner of the sandstone quarry whose scar still shows on the eastern and southern flanks of the Hill. One house after another has tumbled into its maw as his operations have continued, following his father's and grandfather's work stretching back to the Gold Rush days. Much of the novel concerns the different responses to the problem among the Italian, Spanish, and Irish immigrants forming a sometimes uneasy community.

As in his earlier novel, Meller also investigates the differing visions of the younger generation, the first-generation Americans, as they respond to changing social and technological conditions and to the sometimes fixed, sometimes bewilderedly floundering doings of their parents.

A site on the always surprising Internet has yielded four reviews of Home is Here. I particularly liked that of Henry C. Tracy, published in Common Ground:
…it is in Lucia's mind and spirit that the drama of this finely-wrought book emerges and moves toward a climax—a spirit often weak and fluctuating, a mind often foolish but essentially sound. It is her night school teacher, a bit stilted but wise, who tells her that "America is becoming."
  No author has better told the inside story of neighborhood groups of new Americans from Lombardy, Genoa, Sicily, Grenada, with some Irish and Yankee stock intermingled, sinking differences in he American way…
Home is Here is aware of the more skeptical, perhaps even cynical views of America in such books as The Grapes of Wrath, but takes a completely different view of things, preferring challenge to problem, enterprise to despair. I remember Meller assigning Modernist titles in his class on the novel — it was here I first read Joyce — but he included Robert Nathan's One More Spring as well. Home is Here would have made a fine Frank Capra movie, though I don't see Henry Fonda as Alano.

World War II changed everything, of course; the ease and the fun and the grass-roots power available even in hard times, through the simple efforts of a people forced to rely on themselves, gave way to the stress and distractions in a society controlled by faceless corporate forces. The novel is long out of print, but copies are available at online used-book sites. It will strike many contemporary readers as quaint, I suppose, but its quiet optimism and good humor are qualities we'd do well to recover in the social and political climate of today's America.

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