Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford

Ostensibly The Mountain Lion (1947) is a young adult novel, but although it is about children who become youths, it is not especially for children. Or maybe it is: the unblinkered viewpoints of Ralph and his younger sister Molly, third and fourth children of the widowed Mrs. Fawcett, are as unrestrained as the minds of children – their inner thoughts are often judgmental and hateful. Their older sisters, Leah and Rachel, are socially involved, vain, and in thrall to their fearful and overdramatic mother. 

Ralph and particularly Molly are steeped in contempt. We meet them at ages ten and eight, respectively, as they leave school together with nosebleeds resulting from a bout with scarlet fever. The fever seems not only to have shrunk and weakened their bodies, but perhaps the isolation together has also warped their minds, so that they will never manage the conformity of their mother’s father, Grandpa Bonney, a fat successful man (friend of Grover Cleveland!) or his lineage. Mrs. Fawcett’s stepfather, Grandpa Kenyon, a rancher and rough-hewn man-of-the-world, is Ralph and Molly’s ideal of an adult human; the rest they despise. 

Over the course of six years we watch the two change, grow up and apart, their alienation finally including each other. And yet, their spirits are simpatico in ways they will never be with anyone else. Stafford writes with an acid pen and this tale of childhood is harsh, though leavened with humor. In it are scraps of Molly’s compositions, for even at eight she knows she is a writer, composing poems such as Gravel:
 “Gravel, gravel on the ground 
Lying there so safe and sound, 
Why is it you look so dead? 
Is it because you have no head?” 

 And, at a dinner where their mother hosts the local preacher and his wife, we have this snippet of Ralph’s observation: “The horrible pastor looked at Ralph and for some reason winked his light green, reptilian eye. The boy trembled and looked away and this time glanced with ardent loathing at Mrs. Follansbee’s round puffy face whose vulgar snub nose complemented her husband’s downward curving one… Ralph wished both of them would get bubonic plague.” 

 If you think of children as kind and innocent, this book will appall you. All the same, it rings truer to their bloody-minded imaginings than sweeter stories. Reading this may rekindle memories of your own childhood: of wishing people dead or mutilated, of dividing human society into those few you can tolerate and the majority you despise, and dreading having to move among these adults as you become one yourself.