Cape Cod Folks. A novel.
Sally Pratt McLean, 1881. A. Williams & Co. Old Corner Bookstore, Boston
An educated and wealthy young woman from the vicinity of New York applies for and accepts the position of school-mistress at the Cape Cod hamlet of Wallencamp. She's 19, known to all as being flighty, and this is a commitment that surprises everyone. The Cape Codders are colorful, happily ignorant, mostly quite pious, and desperately poor. The teacher learns about the monotony of seasonal food, about the lives and deaths of poor people, about how to work practically and teach in a one-room school, and about the social conventions of visiting and church. She brings education, gentility, and books. She interests the young men, too, and is finally about to commit to one handsome gem-in-the-rough, except he drowns rescuing the rich city cad. She leaves when her contract is up, penniless. Back in civilization, her gravitas is clear to all, and she quickly marries and manages important causes.
This is not an interesting book, overall! I bought it because I love the Cape Cod novels of Joseph Crosby Lincoln *, and wanted to see what other authors of the era were writing. It could have been set virtually anywhere - there's little identifiably Cape Cod about the setting. The Cape Cod characters' dialect seems most un-New England like to me (and there's an odd reference to Hoosiers!) Living conditions change with the decades and the economy, but I haven't seen any other references, fictional or non-fictional, to the Cape being so incredibly poor in the 19th century. An anecdote that I question has the children gorging on lobsters at school when they come into season. Also, the characters make a major point of visiting, dropping in on everyone else frequently, "not wanting to seem unneighborly", and to me this seems to be an urban and un-Yankee habit. (Or visiting could have been as common as she writes of, but the male writers never noticed or bothered.)
But even as fiction the book fails. If the heroine's name is actually given, I can't recall it, and a quick review of the book didn't reveal it. The local boyfriend drowned, but "oh well", it's time to go back to the city. The other characters are also left hanging, except the ones buried. And, finally, the book is permeated with 19th century middle-class piety. I read around the religiosity in the classics (Robinson Crusoe, Mary Rowlandson) but here it's just another annoyance.
McLean was successfully sued for libel by several of the Plymouth residents (not actual Cape Codders) she based her characters on, and apparently various versions of the book have different names for them, as a result.
A search of the Library of Congress catalog reveals another 11 or so books by the same author, Sarah Pratt McLean (Greene), 1856-1935. All seem to be novels. As far as I can tell from one book, she is obscure, and deserves to be, yet this book was reprinted many times, and even made into a movie, then republished with movie pictures! An example offering on eBay:"Cape Cod Folks -- Photoplay Title: Her Man" was written by Sarah P. McLean Greene, published by Grosset & Dunlap, NY, was copyrighted in 1881 by A. Williams & Co., and in 1904 by DeWolfe, Fiske and Co. It is illustrated with scenes from the Photoplay presented by Louis B. Mayer and Reginald Barker's Metro Picture Production. The book tells of religion on the Cape and even includes an old newspaper article published about the book. The book contains 337 pages along with many advertisements in the back of other books and writers.More recently, I read Flood-Tide (1901) - a slight improvement. An alternative analysis of McLean/Greene, by someone who seems to know what she's writing about, is by Dot Webb. And her analysis of Cape Cod Folks is interesting, too.
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David Kew Feb2001, revised Jan 2004