South of the Angels, Jessamyn West, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1960, 564 pp
I read this book while going through extreme emotional distress due to a family matter. I love Jessamyn West and she is one of those treasures I've discovered while pursuing My Big Fat Reading Project. South of the Angels is her longest book so far. Due to the state I was in it took me over a week to read, but whenever I would let her have my heart and mind, I would come away feeling blessed and healed.
Jessamyn West is about as far from sappy as you can get. She writes about people and families from a wise and wry perspective. Her characters may be fictional but they are so much like real people, with all their graces and faults, that I trust her insights implicitly. She was raised a Quaker in Indiana, then relocated to California, so became known as a Western writer.
The time is just prior to and during the outbreak of World War I. A less-than-upright businessman based in Los Angeles is developing a property south and east of LA in what is now Orange County. He has sold lots to all kinds of people promising sun, irrigation, no frost--a Garden of Eden waiting to be turned into orange groves.
Sylvester Perkins, the developer, is the first character we meet, but his purpose in the story is to be a foil to the settlers of what is called The Tract. These settlers are united only by a common dream: to start a new life away from whatever had made them unhappy so far. Otherwise, each is unique.
Without much of a plot, the first two years on The Tract meander along as these people and families live in tents, build houses, endure water shortages, Santa Ana winds, killing frost and blazing sun. Today this would be a reality TV show like Survivor, but in Jessamyn West's hands it is almost an instruction manual for life. Babies are born, people fall in love, children rebel, men compete. By the end everyone is changed in many ways.
The world abounds with pioneer novels but South of the Angels stood out for me as something special. I wish Ms West were still alive so I could write her a lovely note. Instead, I can post this review and hope that a few more readers discover her and find the peace of mind I did.
(South of the Angels is out of print. It is available from used booksellers. I found a copy in the library.)