A newspaper woman in New York marries young to a brilliant but unstable political writer, who becomes a mental and financial boat anchor. His flightiness turns to insanity and he’s committed to an asylum. Dawn, in ill health, goes west to rest with her family, eventually getting a job in Milwaukee and moving there. Her doctor becomes her friend and wants to become more, but Dawn refuses to abandon her husband. An uneasy peace is maintained until word comes from New York that Dawn’s husband has left the asylum and is probably searching for her.
Dawn O’Hara was Edna Ferber’s first book, and while it’s hardly autobiographical, many elements seem to have been drawn from Ferber’s real life. Particullarly the struggling writer protagonist trying to get her first book published.
I was a good way through the second segment before I realized this was a collection of short stories and not a novel. I was wondering how all those new characters and settings would work back into what I had guessed was the first chapter.
Ferber’s writing style took me a while to get used to. I frequently lost the subject of sentences and had to re-read them a couple times to figure out what she was talking about. I’m not sure why — the stories are told in a simple and conversational manner. With all the 1910s and 1920s media I consume, I’m generally comfortable with the slang, but Ferber still manages to throw me a curve ball now and then.
The stories are variable. The only one I truly disliked was the one about the amnesiac veteran, because it was stupid. I enjoyed most the story about the farmer that marries poor and is forced to move to the city. I also liked the story about the all-too-temporary dropping of social barriers during the war, but I have to deduct points since it’s essentially just “The Admirable Crichton” (J.M. Barrie, 1902) (adapted for the screen in 1919 as “Male and Female”) with WWI being subbed in for shipwrecked.
I must say to Ferber’s favor that, with few exceptions, she doesn’t pull any punches. The stories conclude the way they actually would in life — nothing magically comes together to fix all the conflicts and few characters have entirely happy endings.