Friday, October 8, 2010

Concept vs. Execution

I first read Pioneer Breed by Glenn Vernam when I was a teenager. Although I couldn't remember the details of the story all these years later, I did remember it was about a young guy who rescued a girl from an Indian raid on her family and ended up marrying her. (I didn't even bother with a spoiler alert, because I figure no one's going to read this book anymore). When I was going through one of my "hungry for pioneer fiction" stages a while back, I thought of this book and hunted down a used copy.

Reading it these past few weeks has been a bit of a disappointment. But I came to realize it was not the story that I was disappointed in; it was the way the story was told.

First, the dialect drove me absolutely up the wall.

"That's a notion worth yokin' some thought to," he said. "Such a thing plumb got past me. But now't you mention it, I kin see how another winda would work to lighten up the whole place. And it would be no big chore to chop a hole in the bedroom wall. And fixin' up a clo'es rack for dryin' would be easy, too; skin some willa saplin's to put up atween a post an' them two big trees. Yes, sir, that's a prime idea."

Now, I live in a rural area in the South, and I've heard real people talk pretty close to that. But writing all of Rance's conversation (and a lot of his thoughts, too) in that hicky dialect at some point began to get in the way of understanding what he was saying. It was a distraction rather than a character-building attribute (which I'm sure is what the author intended).  In my own novel, I also wrote dialogue in the uneducated vernacular.  After reading this book and seeing how annoying the dialect was, I'm going back and removing every single "ain't" from the manuscript.  Sure, maybe the dialect is accurate, but when it gets in the way and takes the reader out of the story, it's not working.

A second thing that disappointed me was such heavy reliance on "telling" rather than "showing."  For example,

The ensuing weeks brought a growing sense of well-being to both of them. Returning health found Tenny ever more eager to be of help. Gone, she said, were the old days of drying dishes or preparing vegetables while swaddled up in the cherrywood rocker. Rance was forced to lay aside his anxious protestations as he watched her go on to more active things without harming herself. Almost before either of them fully realized it, their lives had settled into an unplanned division of labor. It was a comfortable feeling, needing no words of explanation. Tenny accepted her position as might a shipwrecked sailor washed ashore on some verdant isle. Yesterday was dead; tomorrow a blank. She could only accept today's blessings of life and security with a deep sense of obligation which time might help her to repay.

Again, I understand why the writer did this. He needed for some time to pass in the story. However, it's really lifeless. I read over those words without caring about Tenny at all. I can't help thinking how much more emotionally affecting that passage would have been had the writer showed us howTenny's new life affected her, rather than just telling us. I guess this new emphasis on "showing" is a change in writing style since the 1970's, when this book was written, and I definitely believe it is a change for the better.

One last thing - there was some clumsy characterization going on here. I thought if I read one more time about Rance pulling on his "straw-colored forelock" or having O, Susanna "come to his lips," I'd go nuts. We got it the first time or two; those are meant to be quirky little character habits. We don't have to be reminded over and over and over throughout the book!

It's a shame, really. I still like the premise of the story.  I wish it could be written in a more up-to-date, more engaging style. Hey, since you can't copyright ideas, only the expression of ideas, maybe I'll do it myself some day, ha ha.

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