Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Promised Land

Nearly 40 years after reading Jesse Stuart's 1973 novel The Land Beyond the River the first time, I read it again recently. The story tells of a very large and very poor Kentucky family that views Ohio as the Promised Land and crosses the Ohio River to find prosperity. The Perkins family does find a better life in Ohio. Poppie finds work on a farm. Mommie keeps having babies until she's had 15, 14 of them living. The youngsters, including Pedike, our narrator, are polite and hard-working. Most of them are unusually good students.
Adversity comes in the form of a snake bite that puts Poppie out of work and forces him to accept welfare. With his large family, he is eligible for a lot of food stamps. The Perkins soon have so much food they have to purchase several hound dogs to help them eat it all. They discover that government support offers a better life than hard work, and although Poppie is eager to get back to work, he must do it secretly and get paid in cash so the authorities won't find out.

Dependency on the government may seem to put the family on Easy Street, but it also leads to negative consequences. Family members quarrel among themselves and with other relatives. They stop attending church services. The once proud family begins to feel shame.

"Free money which we couldn't spend, free food, all of which we couldn't eat but had to feed to our hounds, was making our family soft," Pedike writes. "We were falling apart as Poppie thought we would do."

The novel, Stuart's last, feels dated in some ways, yet it also reads like a commentary on the 2012 presidential campaign. At what point does government helping people become government hurting people? That was a good question back in 1973, and it's still a good question.

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