Friday, May 29, 2020

Nelia Gardner White's The Merry Month of May

Whew! I'm barely squeezing this book review in before May ends. 

On the flyleaf of Nelia Gardner White's The Merry Month of May published in 1952, I wrote the following many years ago:

This book is the heart of women, or at least it's me. Scary how much it is me. Are many women thinking these same things? I thought I was alone but now know I'm not as odd (as I thought). 

Nelia Gardner White is my favorite woman United States writer of the 1940s and 50s. The Merry Month of May is actually three short novels, the first and last one hauntingly beautiful and masterfully written in the piercing and sometimes acerbic manner that White does so well without being the least depressing. 

The first novel in it, The Doctor's Wife, stunned me because I identified so completely with the main character that I realized for the first time that there were other women like me, had to be. Maybe sometime I'll find enough courage to review that novel, but today I'm writing about the novel the book takes its name from, The Merry Month of May.

I felt such compassion for Ann Bogan in this novel. Her days are spent trying to keep a nice house for her family, her penniless but brilliant artist husband Mort whose few paintings rarely sell, and her young adult daughter Hitty who is falling in love with a man not worthy of her--in her mother's eyes. 

Ann also takes care almost single-handedly of her bedridden father-in-law Hillary, an irascible and irreverent man who seems to delight in making her thankless job impossible. Ann has good intentions every morning not to let the old man ruin her day. 

One morning when she has finished changing his sheets and given him his breakfast on a tray while enduring his taunts, she escapes outside to take down the storm windows on a spring day when the sun finally shines. 

She came to the old man's bedroom...At the bottom of the storm windows were little round holes, three to a window, to let in air. She bent and peered through one, straight into the old man's good eye.

"Peekaboo!" she said.

It was a triumph of nonsense, of spring. The astonishment in Hilary Bogan's eye stayed with her all morning, making laughter run around under her skin, making the job of lugging the widows to the barn nothing at all, making everything shimmer with light, making her strong as a lion. Why, he was just a sick old man, just a sick old man--you couldn't think of him as accountable. Lots of women had to wash sheets and carry trays.

Ann desperately wants to be a better housekeeper, desperately wants to bring beauty into her house. Not that her artist husband would notice, lost in the imagination of his mind and his current large painting, never really present when in the middle of a painting.

He would be drunk on light, drunk at this hour of the morning..."If I knew how, I might get drunk on housekeeping," Ann said. "Some women know how."

That article--she had torn it into small bits, so angry that she was cold. It was all about women being the great artistic solvent that made humdrum tasks beautiful. Tripe. Pap to keep women contented with their lot.

Ann badly wants to be close to her daughter Hitty, as close as they had been when Hitty was a child. What had gone wrong? Only that morning Hitty had been cheerful but she couldn't respond in kind.
She heard Hitty moving about in her room above. She felt far away from Hitty, though a fraction less than yesterday. "I was horrible to you in the rain," she said to the sound of Hitty. "You wouldn't gray down to match. I'm as bad as Mort."

She wore raspberry-colored sweaters, tied ribbons around her hair, called out "Hi, Gramp!" as if she loved the hideous old man.

But Spring was here and again Ann determins to be better, even to once again invite a friend to supper as used to be her habit in days long past, to do her part to mend the strained relationship with her husband.

So she moved about the house, through birdsong and sun, through clean air, planning to rake away the leaves, fix the wire on which the wren house hung crookedly, planning to be sparing on eggs for a little and buy Hitty a really good round-necked blouse, planning to ask Mort about his pictures, to let him talk and talk till he was dry of talk instead of turning from him coldly when he started off, planning supper for Keturah Crumb, supper with candles and the best yellow mats and yellow sprigged dishes and Mort being lively and full of laughter as in the days before the old man had his stroke and fastened himself on them like a limpet. 

This novel is not a Pollyanna story and Ann struggles to the end, but Spring does bring new hope and better communication in the family. Ann even learns more about her father-in-law's story that brings some compassion towards him.

The end of the book is just right for this story.

She put the flowers into a bowl, walked with it through the rooms to that room, set the bowl down. "Hi," she said, "isn't it a wonderful morning?"
"What's wonderful about it?" said Hilary Bogan. 

Our merry month of May during the time of Pandemic ends soon. There have been good days and not-so-good days but they were all days--and I think that is a thought that has come to me from all the years I've read dear Gladys Taber's books. I still want to be Gladys when I grow up and hope to always let her mentor me. 

So I will remember the good things about May and the end of winter and give you a picture from yesterday when the sky here was as glorious as a van Gogh painting. 

Best wishes and a happy weekend from our house to yours,

View from Our Front Porch





  1. good morning dear friend!
    what an amazing post for the last day of this merry month.
    every time I hear 'the merry month of May' I think of the song in a favorite movie
    of mine... Camelot!
    I must have read Nelia Gardner White. her name is familiar but the story wasn't.
    and like you... wanting to be Gladys Taber when you grow up! I THINK YOU ARE!!!
    truly. I really do! there was a wonderful warmth to Gladys. and she was really to me the first goddess of homemaking! so you see... you have been in excellent company all these years! surely you've known it! and you both are just so THOROUGHLY LIKEABLE!!!
    LOL. and this blog is a breath of fresh air. so badly needed. always.

    1. Hello, dear Tam! You sure know how to "lift the brow" of a girl after a morning of listening to the overnight news. (I put that phrase in quote marks because I think it must be another Gladys-ism.) I hope someday we can tell her what a blessing she was to our lives.

      Nelia Gardner White's books rarely disappoint me, although I have my favorites. I just checked to see how many times she was in my posts and found 8 times here and twice at the Window. She died in her early 60s but was prolific in her novels and the hundreds of stories she wrote for women's magazines. I always love it when I come across one of hers in my old magazine collection.

      Camelot! RH watched the movie recently, his first time ever!

  2. Dewena, I so enjoyed reading your review of Nelia Gardner White's 'The Merry Month of May', and especially the excerpts you provided to illustrate your character analyses.

    I want to find out more about Hillary Bogan - is he really just a softie, underneath the grumpy facade? What emotional filters does Ann apply to her psyche, to protect her from any potential, self-sabotaging actions?

    Thanks for introducing me to the author who created a character with whom you so identify. I am wondering about all the ways you and The Doctor's Wife are so similar! Until then, that stunning, Tennessee sky sure is a prescription for pandemic blues!

    Have a lovely week,

    1. I can't say that Bogan is a softie, but there are extenuating circumstances in his life that explain him--not excuse him.

      Poppy, thank you--and my other commenters--for indulging me in bringing up these old books. I splurged and bought a recent new book that I saw other bloggers were reading and I was so disappointed in it even though I've enjoyed her books in the past. My old books that have stayed on my shelves for decades are just so satisfying! They stand the test of time.

      Your weekend has closed there in Crete so I'll wish you a lovely week ahead too!

  3. Your book reviews are great - and I loved the part where Ann went out to remove the storm windows (a phrase I hadn't thought of since I was a kid in Kansas City and my dad always put storm windows up and took them down when the time came. So haven't even thought about it since I was 10 years or younger.)... and said peek-a-boo to the old man. I enjoyed everything about what you posted. Nice view of the front yard too.

    1. Thank you so much, Sandy, and I know what you mean about the storm windows! I used to help my father take them down and put them up too. I loved them, they were so satisfyingly solid!

  4. What a delightful post! I looked up this book - and author - and cannot find her books on either Amazon or Abe Books. I usually have good luck with finding older books on Abe, but not this time. So you have a gem!

    This May has certainly been one that we will remember for years to come, but not in a good way, unfortunately. I pray for the peace of our nation and world...and for a better month ahead.

  5. Dewena, I so enjoyed this post, and now I want to read all three stories. (I just checked Amazon and the book is very reasonable. I guess there are worse vices than buying too many books, right?) Thank you for introducing me to a new author. The view from your front porch is so pretty, and those clouds...!

  6. July 4, 2020

    Happy 4th of July