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Irving Bacheller – The Light In The Clearing

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Social issues and politics inevitably blend together.

Publisher: Dodo Press (The Book Depository)
Pages: 260
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4065-0366-1
First Published: 1917
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2012
Rating: 3.5/5

Bart lives with his aunt and uncle in a modest house in a modest village. He befriends a girl from a higher social class, but her reciprocation of his flourishing love is marked by periods of disdain for his humble status. One day he meets a senator and his life begins to change. Wanting to improve himself, Bart looks up to Mr Wright and learns from him. And Wright is more than willing to aid him in both his learning and his transition from child to adult, seeing how much potential he has.

The Light In The Clearing is rather like an American version of Great Expectations, only where Dickens exaggerates his themes, Bacheller dampens each down so that the story is far less dramatic. This has the effect of bringing more attention to those elements he does not share with Dickens, the overall result being to show how people can live with falseness and goodness and still manage to come out well.

Though it does take a long while for the book to become more than average. A lot of time is given to the every day, and there are many dialogues that are littered with accents that can be hard to decipher. The time spent at home, with Bart living with his poor relatives and later going to school, does not have enough interesting episodes to make it worthwhile, and it’s peculiar that Bacheller puts all his eggs in one basket – putting the majority of the romance, politics, and opinion in the last few chapters. Because those last few chapters are excellent, but it’s difficult to get that far.

The differences between poverty and wealth are contrasted throughout. Bart’s family are poor but they do their best to give Bart everything he needs, and it is really only when he goes to school that he learns that he is at a social disadvantage. His family and friends protect him, and Bacheller uses the whole concept to show where richness lies in love and accepting what you have. He also demonstrates that wealth does not always make a good person, and indeed the richer characters are often false and deceitful.

This theme is intertwined with the romance as Sally, for a time Bacheller’s own Estella Havisham in the making, flits between liking and disliking Bart, depending on how he is being treated by others and what he is wearing. Bacheller shows the innocence of a boy brought up to feel equal to others and contrasts it with Sally’s feelings about his poverty. The relationship between the affluent Dunkelberg and Baynes families, with its changes of friends and foe, expresses the idea of fair-weather friends.

It is the senator, Wright, and his entrance into the story, that signals the first of the changes in Bart. Wright is well-off in society, but as a resident in the town he has no problem befriending Bart, and it is Wright’s influence that gives Bart his goal in life and reminds him that he is indeed equal in nature’s eyes. Wright teaches Bart to be an adult, and to follow his heart rather than follow what society suggests. Wright’s own decision at the end of the book is a surprising but very heartening action that ministers of present parliaments would do well to observe.

Some of the politics, especially near the end, focuses on the abolition of slavery, the story being historical in Bacheller’s own time. The focus is not huge, and it is used more to set the scene, but there is enough material to gather an overview of how people at the time felt about it all. Where social relations are concerned, the person of Old Kate, a woman who blends fortune-telling with regular premonition, shows what happens to bad people who con their neighbours, with a morbid element thrown in for effect.

Whilst the first two thirds of the book are rather like Great Expectations, and there is even the inclusion of a room left the way it was after a last meal – and described rather like Miss Havisham’s abode – the latter third moves away completely from the classic, heading in the opposite direction on all accounts. The romance thread is confusing and the quickened pace of Bart’s progression from poor boy to lawyer is too fast to keep up with. But the overall atmosphere, the positives in the way that Bart overrules higher society’s choices, and the ethical Wright, makes the end an outstanding piece of work. It is just a pity it takes so long to get there.

The Light In The Clearing was the number two best-seller in America, but while it is easy to see why, for it’s political and social messages, it has not stood the test of time as well as it could have, and that is a shame. The length of time it takes to get somewhere, and that the time is spent on not so interesting tales of home life, does indeed encourage comparisons to the older work of Dickens, and not favourable ones.

The Light In The Clearing is a book that is worth a read, but not so much for pleasure as for studies of history. For history it is a fantastic fictional source but for pleasure the dampening of themes and 180 degree changes are too irregular to invite particular acclaim. It’s a good book, but its purpose has been served better elsewhere.

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May 4, 2012, 5:02 pm

Oh, this sounds like it has all the right things going on, but maybe doesn’t execute to the full extent of its potential. I think I’d really enjoy a Dickens that didn’t hit you over the head with dramatics :-)

Charlie: Then you might enjoy it – I think part of the issue for me was that I’d read Great Expectations recently and so the change was quite a lot. In that way I guess I was perhaps less unbiased as I tend to be, but the comparisons did invite such thoughts.

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