The Killing Field by Mary Lee Settle
This book is the closing volume of the Beulah Quintet, which I see mentioned on Goodreads as Settle’s best known work. The incidents that are narrated in this novel are mentioned in the introductions to all the previous volumes, the shock of something in the past – presumably in Settle’s past – that incited the search for the roots of what she terms American freedom. Let me state that I have admired the first four books in the series especially for the quality of the writing, but have been at times troubled by the content, as I have detailed in posts on volumes one through four. Settle is a remarkable writer of historical works, delving into the characters and depicting them as they were in the era, however uncomfortable that might be for modern readers, given that the books are populated by slaveholders, slaves, First Nations peoples, and a wealth of others. She has an eerie ability to enter into the modes of thinking of her creations, and this is often disconcerting, for she understands that these people of the past are alien to modern readers, but she forges ahead with her work, convinced of its purpose. What has convinced her of this purpose is what she writes about in this last volume of the set. The protagonist of the book is the writer of the Beulah Quintet, and so one is justified in relating her as Settle. So I will not make much distinction between the two in my response. It is utterly disappointing to find that the impetus for this long historical delve is the death of her brother, Johnny, and we are somehow to see his figure as tragic, when he appears to be more or less a wastrel, a drunk, and a dog. Exactly how he gets himself killed is less important than the aftermath of his death, when all his friends (who are of course of the best families in Beulah and environs) mourn him and search for the meaning of his wasted life. In Settles’s vision, Johnny is as much a victim of the past as are all the descendants of slaves, all the poor people who worked in his ancestor’s coal mines – I won’t belabor this as I have nothing to say about the conceit except that it borders on lunacy for me. This book is emptier and less appealing. But I don’t feel that I wasted my time in reading this book, and certainly not in reading its predecessors. What is interesting in it is the theory of the novel, that suddenly we can meet the author of the previous four and read her as a fictional character. There are some vivid episodes throughout the text. But there is a presumption of the importance of the rich and their history – they are the people who matter most, and it is in them we find the core of history. For me, this is a deal-breaker.