Some fine and much-loved books were one-hit performances – the only novel their authors wrote. "Gone With the Wind," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "Black Beauty" are a few. I would add Jetta Carleton's "The Moonflower Vine," the saga of an American family in rural Missouri in the early twentieth century.
The Soames family, aging parents Matthew and Callie and their daughters, come together on the family farm for a short time each summer. When the novel opens in the 1950s, the children live in different states and have pursued separate lifestyles. Once back on the farm, they "lapsed easily into the old ways, cracked the old jokes, fished in the creek, ate country cream and grew fat and lazy."
The moonflower vine is a rare night-blooming plant with creamy blossoms that highlights the summer visit. It's easy to settle in among the Soamses, with Carleton portraying an inviting setting of meadows, woods, pastures and animals. The house still lacks indoor plumbing, but people adapt. The dialogue is a constant delight and rings true for all sorts of friends, neighbors, and lovers.
The story centers on daughters Jessica, Mary Jo, Leonie, and Mathy and their life choices. Father Mathew, a respected high school teacher and administrator, is the center of their existence. To his girls, he was "God and the weather." He is everywhere – at home, school and church, and his dominating spirit permeates all these places so that there is little escape. Wife Callie gets little attention.
Mathew has another side. While true to marriage, religion and family, his yearnings for comely young high school girls plague and distract him. Romantic love is a major theme. As daughters are smitten with loves that promise escape from their father's forbidding nature, Carleton lures the reader back to reminisces of early romances. She is so adept at delineating her characters that we feel we know each one as well as our own family. Life themes of grief and loss, sin, bonds of family, the place of religion, guilt, longing, and loneliness absorb the reader.
In a foreword to "The Moonflower Vine," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley points out that the novel was first published in 1962 at the start of the women's movement, and that even 10 years later choices for women had changed dramatically. The era Carleton writes about offers women the options of teaching, working in a store or office, or (for most) becoming a housewife. Smiley included "The Moonflower Vine" in her list of 100 illuminating novels in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel."
One veteran editor said of the countless novels he had read, this is the one he most wished had a sequel. That was not to be. Carleton worked as an advertising copywriter in New York City and then moved with her husband to New Mexico, where they founded a publishing company. She died in 1999 at age 86.
Marge Speidel is a freelance writer and former newspaperwoman living at The Terraces at Los Altos in Los Altos, Calif.