THIS IS the concluding volume of Mary Lee Settle's "Beulah Quintet," a saga that is centrally concerned with the clash between labor and capital as it takes place over many generations in the coal-mining country of West Virginia, with side excursions to other settings in this country and overseas. The Killing Ground is an intelligent novel, searchingly introspective about the needs and motives that drove Settle to write the "Quintet"; but for precisely that reason it is also an unusually self- preoccupied novel, and it seems likely to be of interest primarily to those readers who, through the previous four books, have developed a consuming interest in the valley of Beulah and its people.
The Killing Ground begins in June 1978, with the return of Hannah McKarkle to her West Virginia home town of Canona. She is 48 years old and has been away for nearly two decades, since the death of her beloved brother Johnny in an incident that, for the town and her family, remains cloaked in mystery. During that period she has become an accomplished and admired novelist, the author of books that carry the same titles as Mary Lee Settle's and that deal with the same themes; with what some will regard as courage and others as narcissism--I suspect some of both are involved--Settle has unabashedly placed herself directly at the center of the novel, under the very thinnest of disguises, and has made it a meditation upon her own reasons for writing fiction. Early on, as Hannah sits late at night on the balcony of a motel, she declares her purpose:
"I have come to this place, on this day for a reason, and I have stayed awake most of the night for fear of missing the dawn. It was from this angle of vision, looking south as I am doing now, June 7, but sixty-six years ago, in 1912, that Lily Lacey, the sister of my Uncle Dan Neill's wife Althea, looked out of her window on the second floor of their house on Lacey Creek, and dreamed of New York City. I am building that house, which I cannot know, from other people's memories, from such angles of vision as this one, a house of words . . ."
The novels of the "Quintet" are the "books of my search" for the meaning of Beulah's past, or, as she puts it later: "In the truncated churchyard I knew that I was reaching into caves of memory, recognitions that could be rung against what I had learned for the adultery of nostalgia or shame or pride, burn off the rust of all the evasions, and see that what had happened rang true." These words, and those in the paragraph above, are a concise statement of the fundamental purpose of the historical novel: to reach an understanding of the past and its legacy, to grapple with "the long battalioned ghosts of old wrongs and shames that each generation of us both inherits and creates"--words from Faulkner that Settle takes as the novel's epigraph.
The focus of this attempt at understanding the past is her obsession with her brother's death, her determination "to shake the single event that had started it all, the smash of an unknown fist against an unknown face." She sees her brother as heir to an honored tradition: "Brother Jonathan, the eighteenth-century archetype of the revolutionary soldier. Brother Jonathan, Johnny Reb, Johnny Appleseed, a character once as familiar as Uncle Sam, fades in and out of our history . . . " But the more she explores the past that she and Johnny shared, the more she comes to believe that his rebellion, like hers, was corrupted by the relative wealth and ease they were granted by a weak father and a manipulative mother. Johnny, the beloved Johnny, was not a revolutionary but a man-child who played at life:
"Johnny and I had done the same thing, followed the urge to break taboos, using with our charm the passion, the vitality, of the earthly born, giving nothing except a sex we didn't care much about, silencing anyone who loved us with our mild, wandering insistence, our cold arrogant kindness. Johnny, as usual, had escaped and left me to bear the knowledge that we had strip-mined every stranger who had let us in."
Eventually she discloses that the "unknown fist" that struck Johnny was that of a distant relative, a member of the yeoman branch of the family. Whatever the exact impulse that drove Jake Catlett to smash his fist against her brother as they occupied a crowded drunktank, she sees it as at heart an expression of class hatred and rivalry, a consequence of "unknown scars" with origins deep in Beulah's past. And in it she finds "the armature, an ambiguity of steel, on which I have built my book," the conflict "between democrat and slave holder, a dilemma all the way to our founding, that seemed so often to have no place in the pragmatic surviving days of living, but yet had had a place, had built a country, fused dreams into cities, seeking always the illusive balance, sometimes almost imperceptible, but even then it had so often left behind a residue of spirit, like an old campfire, gone cold but potent with clues."
This is good if slightly overwrought writing, and the point it makes is eminently sound. But evocative prose and stimulating ideas do not, of themselves, make interesting, engaging fiction. What the novel lacks is what it needs most: life and heart. Mary Lee Settle is obviously in the grip of deep and important emotions, but she fails to convey them to the reader; she is content to tell rather than show, with the predictable result that the reader simply does not respond to the feelings she describes. Her previous work has shown her to be an accomplished storyteller, but The Killing Ground is less story than recitation. It has too many characters, too few of whom emerge from the crowd as distinct individuals and too many of whom seem to exist solely as objects of Settle's contempt.
Mary Lee Settle must always be taken seriously, which can be said of lamentably few American novelists, and in The Killing Ground her tough intelligence is a formidable presence. But as a work of fiction, The Killing Ground falls considerably short of the rest of the "Beulah Quintet"--and it is as a work of fiction, of course, that a novel must ultimately be judged.