From Where the Light Falls: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale
“What I love in Nancy Hale the most,” writes Lauren Groff in her introduction to the Library of America edition of Hale’s selected stories, “is that her shining surfaces hide that she was a ferocious critic of the time in which she lived.” Before she was rediscovered via Groff’s work on the 2019 volume Where the Light Falls, Hale had largely been forgotten in the annals of 20th century American writing, even among academics and specialists. This notwithstanding the fact that she published eight novels and some 100 stories, ten of which won the O. Henry Prize.
The reason for her relative neglect could be in part, as Groff suggests, because in her day “it was taken for granted that the stories most worthy of being told were those of the heroic or well-off white man.” Hale wrote about women – mostly upper-class women from New England and Virginia – and she wrote about subjects that have often been disparaged as “domestic,” including motherhood, marriage, and female sexuality.
But she was, as Groff attests, an astute and skilful observer of her times, as is readily apparent in the brief story “Book Review,” which first appeared in the March 1941 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The date is significant: the Second World War had already been raging for a year and a half but the U.S. had yet to enter the conflict, allowing Americans the luxury of considering the events from afar, without anything really at stake.
This is the backdrop for Hale’s story of Elizabeth and Pete Mayo, who stop off for the night in Virginia on the way home from a vacation in Williamsbug. The home they stay at belongs to the Wilkinses, their travelling companions. During dinner, Elizabeth gets into a heated discussion with one of the guests, a Southerner who challenges her about the relative merits of Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
On the surface, the discussion is about what would appear to be a simple divergence of literary taste. Elizabeth thinks Hemingway’s work is a masterpiece, well crafted and empathetic to the downtrodden and oppressed citizens of Spain. Her dining companion, known as the Commissioner, feels that the book is crass and the characters unnecessarily vulgar. “I thought it was filth. Just filth,” the Commissioner opines, to which Elizabeth responds archly, “You must have a dirty mind.” Elizabeth expounds upon the nobility of the Spanish people fighting for their freedom against the Fascist Franco regime; the Commissioner refuses to see any nobility in the guerrillas, viewing them instead as a ragtag group of insurgents backed by Communist Russia.
It is here that the literary discussion veers into extra-literary territory, when the Commissioner accuses Elizabeth of being a Communist herself. She denies this and presses the Commissioner about his political views. When she suggests that he must support Hitler, who backed Franco in Spain, he demurs, though he readily admits that Mussolini is not so bad. “Let me tell you I was in Italy before Mussolini and after he had been in for a few years, and he’s done a lot for that country.”
Hale’s ability here is to move almost imperceptibly through the registers of emotion and ratchet up the tension as the discussion about Hemingway shades into a more fraught political debate about the ideological merits of rebellion and totalitarianism. The Commissioner approves of the Fascist rule in Italy because it makes the trains run on time and argues that he is well aware of the Spanish political situation as a result of month spent as a tourist in the country. Elizabeth, by contrast, is unable to condone the Commissioner’s apologist stance when it comes to a government that wilfully oppresses and murders its own people to achieve its ends and remain in power.
There is much in Hale’s story that remains unsaid. The Wilkinses are Southern gentry who employ Black servants as wait staff and valets. “It’s run as a club,” Fred Wilkins says when they arrive at the doorstep. The unspoken history of race relations in the American South underlies every mention of the servants in the story, suggesting a similarity between the post–Civil War South and Italy under the Fascists.
Similarly, the men at the table condescend to Elizabeth in the most craven ways: the Commissioner accuses her of being a Communist and suggests she can’t possibly know what she is talking about having never even travelled to Spain. And her own husband belittles her after the dinner is over, suggesting that she spoke out of turn in the company of strangers. He appears more concerned with propriety and social niceties than with backing up his wife when she is attacked.
In its subtextual undercurrents and the notion of the importance of speaking out against poisonous political ideologies, “Book Review” is startlingly contemporary in its concerns and approach. The story does not overplay its hand but gets its points across economically and with great force. Nowhere is this more true than in the story’s final stages, when Elizabeth asks her husband what precisely the Commissioner is in charge of. Pete’s answer, which appalls his wife, is as dramatically appropriate as it is infuriating: he is a commissioner of education.