Friday, August 07, 2009

Hildegarde Dolson Reading List

(News-Herald, August 6) Last week I re-introduced successful Venangoland author Hildegarde Dolson. This week, I’ll offer a short reading guide.
This is not comprehensive. Local scholar Mike Dittman decided to tackle a comprehensive listing of Dolson’s works; this turns out to be one of those projects that starts out looking like a puddle and ends up more like the Grand Canyon, and I wish Mike all the best on his journey. For our purposes here, we’re going to stick to her books.
How About a Man (1938). A short breezy guide to acquiring male companionship. Frank and funny, some aspects are dated (gloves) and some are not (sex). Reminiscent of Thurber and White’s Is Sex Necessary?
We Shook the Family Tree (1941) Accounts of growing up in Franklin, attending Allegheny College, and starting out in Depression-era NYC, including her brief stint in vaudeville. Dolson’s most successful and best-loved work. Required reading for Franklin resident.
The Husband Who Ran Away (1948) Addison Stubbs is so henpecked by his wife and her mother in the small town of Bracklin, PA, that when he breaks his mother-in-law’s heirloom clock, he first hides under the porch and then runs away to NYC. The literary equivalent of a screwball comedy, this is probably the most over-the-top wacky piece that Dolson ever wrote.
The Form Divine (1951). Lucilla Webb decides that the best way to deal with her lackluster husband and her own skinny frame is to sign up for a beauty spa. Light comedy.
Sorry To Be So Cheerful (1955). The first of Dolson’s collections of short pieces. This really highlights her light, witty style. The account of her interview with Emily Post is worth the price of admission.
A Growing Wonder (1957). Dolson called this her favorite of her own works. The unnamed narrator is a single writer in NYC who comes from a small town in western PA, and she has front-row seats for a love triangle involving an artist, two very different sorts of women, and a small but talented boy who becomes collatoral damage. Still funny and sharply observed, but with more serious drama and depth than her previous novels.
The Great Oildorado (1959) (published in Britain as They Struck Oil). Required reading for all Venangoland residents. This book actually owes a debt to Herbert Asbury’s The Golden Flood, but Dolson’s breezy style, her sharp eye, and her familiarity with the area make this the most readable and enjoyable of any works ever written about the local oil boom. If you want a sense of what the fuss was about, this is where to get it.
Guess Whose Hair I’m Wearing (1963). Her other collection of short pieces. Also fun.
Open the Door (1966). A book editor, still smarting and isolated from a previous bad affair, is drawn back into life and love by two children of a family that moves in upstairs. There is a love quadrangle, an old adversary, and new love with an intriguing writer. Since Dolson herself had just married a writer, one suspects some biographical spin here.
Heat Lightning (1969). Here Dolson really uses her eye for the social patterns and interactions of life in the exurbs—the social ins and outs, the politics of committee work, the patterns of privilege—and applies it to another unconventional love quadrangle as a community tries to prepare a mammoth Fourth of July celebration. Truthfully, not a great deal happens, but her eye for the interactions and character is great.
Her keen eye for life in that Connecticut small town (like the place she had settled with her new husband) was apparently just getting warmed up for her four mystery novels. Written in the seventies, they feature Lucy Ramsdale (a sharp-edged illustrator and widow) and Inspector James McDougal, retired and bruised by life (his wife left him).
The mysteries are classic drawing room—in the first portion of the novel we meet a cast of interesting characters. Then one of them is killed; detecting ensues. Any one of these would make a Murder She Wrote episode, except that Lucy is more interesting than Jessica Fletcher.
To Spite Her Face (1971), A Dying Fall (1973), Please Omit Funeral (1975), and Beauty Sleep (1977) should be read in order to watch the arc of Lucy and Mac’s relationship. I will note that Dying Fall includes gay characters, and while those characters are handled well, the characters around them treat them in ways that might be a bit jarring.
Most of these can be found in local libraries or at on-line used booksellers.

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