Library Director’s Notebook
One of the best things about a public library is the serendipitous excitement of finding a book, by an author unknown to one, in the book stacks. Some of my favorite books and authors have been discovered this way, and I am so grateful that Barrington Public Library has a long tradition of purchasing books by new or relatively unknown authors, thus adding great depth and variety to the reading choices in the library.
One such book for me is Miss Lulu Bett by Zona Gale. I had never heard of this book and never heard of the author, but there was the book on the bookshelf, a trade paperback with a simple but intriguing cover of a young woman in silhouette, with a yellow tulip plunged through the bodice of her dress as if it were a stiletto! What could this slender book be, I wondered? A crime story? A feminist expose?
Miss Lulu Bett is nothing less than a very insightful, clear-eyed, unsentimental view of the life a of an unmarried woman in a small American town around the time of the first world war. Living with her passive-aggressive married sister, her churlish brother-in-law, and her manipulative mother, LuLu finds herself in the unenviable position of being expected to be grateful to everyone while being cherished by no one.
With no one to take any interest in her, Lulu lives a life of quiet, unexpressed desperation, doing all the cooking and most of the housework, taking no part in household decisions, and having even her simple impulsive act of buying tulips for the dinner table be considered a rash and selfish act by her brother-in-law, Dwight Deacon, who rules the household with a jocular manner that scarcely hides his disrespect for the needs and wishes of everyone in the family, and especially for his timid sister-in-law.
Into this seemingly unchangeable life comes Ninian, Dwight’s roguish brother. With his more worldly view of life, Ninian quickly comprehends the servitude of Lulu’s life and feels ready sympathy for her. His interest stirs Lulu, making her respond to him with uncharacteristic liveliness. A remarkable decision finds Lulu accepting a proposal from Ninian to begin a new, completely unimagined life, much to the astonishment and chagrin of her family . Yet all is not set fair for Lulu, and the remainder of the novel explores Lulu’s conflicting emotions and desires as she fights to maintain her newly-minted independent way of thinking.
Although written almost one hundred years ago, Miss Lulu Bett still resonates with its psychological insight into how a young woman’s sense of esteem can be shaped by early neglect and low expectations and how family life can, without overt cruelty, create a prison for a vulnerable, undervalued individual. Zona Gale ,without access to hefty tomes about popular psychology, understood family dynamics, social pressures, and small town expectations as well as any writer ever has. This book is delightful because of Zona Gale’s rapier dissection of the follies and insincerities of family dynamics and unexamined lives. Miss Lulu Bett was a major bestseller both as a novel, and one year later its dramatization was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. What a delightful find in the library book stacks! I strongly urge everyone to check out Miss Lulu Bett!