By: Faith Sullivan
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse is a deceptively simple book. It chronicles, in straightforward, plain language, the life of Nell, beginning in 1900 with the accidental death of her young husband and ending in 1961 with her own death which is mourned only by a few young women unconnected to her by blood or marriage. In between, Faith Sullivan paints a picture of just how big a small life can be, even one that never leaves an obscure Wisconsin town or strays very far beyond the rigid social constraints imposed on a turn of the 20th century elementary school teacher.
Nell begins teaching the third grade because her husband’s death has left her financially impoverished with an infant son to provide for. She is aided by one of the few wealthy families in town — they give her a little money and recommend her to the position now that she is eligible as an unmarried woman. A book which champions the humble does not hesitate to show the privileged as three dimensional people, capable of insight and kindness and subject to tragedy as well. Just as importantly, Nell is able to see them for who they are without being overawed or resentful. Nell’s clear sighted vision is aided by her love of literature. When she reads Chekhov, she realizes,
These were people she knew, Harvester people! Set down in the provinces of Russia they might be, but she daily nodded to many of them on Main Street or sat beside them at St. Boniface, people with awful longings, a sense that life was happening elsewhere, that this little world was suffocating them.
For Nell, being unsophisticated is “no crime if you weren’t narrow, and she hoped that her reading kept her from that. Through novels you glimpsed the grim night that could eventually overtake the intolerant.” More than reading and references to literature keep Nell, and this book, from being narrow, though. A wide variety of characters, who are prideful, frightened, ambitious, and kind populate the little town of Harvester, and their stories are often told through their own point of view. We meet the rural girl who comes to the city, passes up good opportunities for bad ones, and makes a decent life for herself anyway. There’s the older local politician with an eye for Nell, the good natured butcher with the malicious son, the stingy aunt, and the aunt’s paid companion who gets a glorious and highly profitable revenge.
Perhaps most moving is the story of Nell’s son, Hillyard, who grows up to be a good man and leaves her to drive an ambulance in the War to End All Wars. The physical misery and emotional trauma he endures are harrowing. This sensitive young man says goodbye to family friends and thinks,
When had age crept up on Diana, and how had he not noticed? You had to pay attention every day, or it all moved on without you. A sudden sense of passing time filled his mouth, and his throat ached swallowing this huge new intelligence.
But when Hillyard comes home again, there is very little that he is able to notice or appreciate anymore. Nell suffers through the change in her only child without self pity and without apology for continuing to seek out the things that give her pleasure — books, friendship, the presence of young people as she grows old, and love. The wider world, with all its injustices, rages on. A lone woman does her best to survive it with grace and good humor. As I said, this is a deceptively simple book, and it’s one with a remarkably powerful impact.