The Magnificent Ambersons*

by Booth Tarkington

This book has some great things going for it. It offers a snapshot of a very precise era in time: The dawn of the Industrial Revolution, horses are in the process of being replaced by the very first automobiles, cities are bursting at the seams, development is pushing farther & farther out. All of this is wreaking environmental havoc. I can almost feel a layer of soot forming on me as I read Booth Tarkington's vivid, relentless description. He does a fine job of alternating his focus from sharp to much more of a wide shot. Some chapters hone in on specific characters & their goings on, while others pull you out of that narrative & drive home the changes in the backdrop around these folks at large. Both the broad strokes and the more personal focus are comprised of points not to be lost on the modern era.

As to the specific plot, the first 7/8ths of the book have the reader absolutely detesting the main character. How Tarkington manages to swing our favor in a trice for this same main character within the space of the last page of the novel—literally—is amazing. The theme of redemption through love is made more poignant in this manner.

Another element in this novel also firmly rooted in an era is the language spoken by the characters. There are some wonderful old expressions here that I'd love to make an effort to bring back into our modern colloquy. Some others, sadly, have already been lost! For instance, it is apparently great insult to holler at someone, "Pull down your vest and wipe off your chin!" as our main character, George Minafer, yells at the local reverend in the book's beginning. I have no idea what this means, but I like it! I doubt—being ignorant of the meaning—that I could bring that precise language back into use, but in the case of another commonly used epithet in this book, I'm going to try. "Riffraff!" This is a great word. My dictionary has it as: Worthless, low, or disreputable elements of society. A word as easy to use today as it was then.

*Pulitzer Prize winner for the year 1919.