Highly reminiscent of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, Elizabeth Savage’s “The Girls from the Five Great Valleys” is a coming of age book of five girls, set in Montana in 1930s. We witness the girls growing up enveloped by norms and mores of their surroundings. Out of the main five girls, Hilary, Doll and Amelia get most attention from the author whereas characters of Kathy and Janet are used to merely fill lacunae in the plot. This bias on part of the author leads to a digression of the title of the book and as a reader I found it futile in terms of deriving any moral from the story.
The digressions are not just on part of the five main characters – more than half of the book concentrates on the girls’ families (teachers and neighbours too “The professor was not well liked in town, because he had more money than was suitable for one who was, when you got right down to it, just a teacher. For all their black gowns and their funny hats that’s all they are, just teachers, and only bearable because they have less money than most”), the sorrows of their parents, their careers and intricate lives and so on. Whilst much of this is reflective of shaping up their personalities, I felt that having used parents as secondary characters as a backdrop to the story would have been far more effective. Having given them center stage somehow dilutes the focus.
He glanced at Myra, who was everything a woman ought to be. She was generous but frugal, so that she could be generous without a bad conscience. He had no idea whether she was brave or not but it didn’t much matter because if he could fix it, she’d never have anything to be brave about. Best, she was true blue.
Because Myra was the best woman in the world, but without sense enough to pound sand into a rat hole
The oddity of this book (no concrete plot or moral principles imbued) embraces the dynamics of relationships in Missoula, Montana. Our five girls are not shown to be steadfast friends, not sharing any common history except that they hail from the same area. Perhaps such form of friendships are common in small towns where groupings are formed on basis of locality and mutual amicability rather than tangible similarities. The camaraderie of these girls weaves in and out as they eventually grow apart. Taking on adult responsibilities whilst espousing innocence which is characteristic of academic girls is no mean feat and each girl desires to attain her goal in her own special way.
But there is something about ironing that doesn’t use the whole of you enough. You stand still while your hand moves back and forth, and you get to thinking about some things you’d just as soon not think about
Hilary assumes the role of a leader of the group, the Mother Hen, who takes the girls into her circle, forging a friendship on her own terms. She assesses qualities of each individual before taking them in and acts as a guide in their social pursuits. Doll has low expectation from life in general and chooses to settle for a husband at a very early age. Clearly her attentions are directed towards boys and despite being the closest to Hilary, she is first to be left out of the group. Amelia is daughter of a widow, Anne Lacey, whose story permeates this book the most. Despite being well-off, tragedy upon tragedy strikes the Lacey family and each tragedy leaves shock waves through their town. Janet and Kathy are least narrated on, with the former being unintelligent and latter having high academic aspirations.
Worst of all, she said to know all was to forgive all and she went around forgiving people, which is insulting. It presumes that the forgiver is in a position to forgive. But Kathy said that was the way she had been reared. Reared, mind you! All the rest of them were raised.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story is use of landscape and setting as a formidable character that comes alive with each beautiful description. There is strong imagery of a small town nestled between mountains and valleys (The Garden City where the Five Great Valleys meet: the Mission, the Missoula, the Blackfoot, the Hellgate, and the Bitterroot), bustling with life in streets lined with houses, each street and corner demarcating social status of its residents. Some houses are well taken care of, others are in dire need of renovations. Hilary’s street is characterised by rows of flowers planted by its residents, Doll evaluates her beaus in terms of condition of their houses, Amelie’s house is grand yet has fallen into disrepair.
They stopped for a moment on the bridge, where the February water swirled below: it plaited and braided and sucked at the banks, and vomited bad things. One bad thing was a small animal. Its backbone showed where whatever was meant to gnaw on it had gnawed it
Overall, “The Girls from the Five Great Valleys” is an ideal read for a lazy afternoon. Despite the fluid writing, it isn’t evocative. As a reader I felt neither saddened by the sufferings of the characters nor empathised with their status. The town felt complete within itself and required no external sympathies which might have been enlightening to some extent.
- Motorboats shattered the silence that, before, had been broken only by the rattle of glacial streams
- It was hard to be sure in that bad light, but Amelia thought those eyes appraised her and then flicked away as if they found her of no earthly purpose.
- Then having put the worry back on Hank, Myra perked right up.
- For some time he was stationed in a small town where several Americans were quartered in the home of a whiskery woman who, of the goodness of her heart, watched out for their linens and their morals
- Her folks were old, the government didn’t give a damn, and the help of strangers is cold comfort. The herd does not protect the orphan
- Nobody trusts a man capable of illegal passion; his practice would fall away