Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town share a sense of quiet grace, an understanding of the serenity imbued within their small town neighborhoods, despite the difficulties their characters face. Death comes easily and understandably to the characters in these stories. It’s hard to tell in these landmarks of American literature if there is much difference between the land itself and the people who inhabit it, and that’s why works like this stay with us. They’ve been dramatized, anthologized, and memorialized as the embodiment of American literature, where the mixture of tragedy, repressed desires, and poor impulse control never results in a happy ending.
Lee Martin‘s new novel Yours, Jean is heartbreaking and intelligent enough to take its place with these paens to a vanished way of life. Those looking for smooth and carefully detailed adaptations of true-life crime stories will be rewarded. Martin has done his homework here, and then some. He based his story on the true September 1952 murder of Georgine Lyon, a 24-year-old librarian ready to start a new life in Lawrenceville, Illinois. News accounts at the time featured the standard descriptors:. All the characters are in place, “…a pretty high school librarian…” shot to death “by [a] jilted suitor” who saw no other alternative and was “…cool as a cucumber during questioning.” She ended up in “a pool of blood” and the “suitor” served only 15 years of a 150-year sentence, proving that the history of American legal system inequity in regards to victimized women has always been with us.
What works best here is that Martin isn’t just filtering the facts of the case through a thin veneer of a fictionalized world. He’s giving his characters room to breathe. He compels us to care for them within the first few pages. Martin was born in rural Illinois. He knows the people and he understands the period in which this crime took place. He feels their unrealistic hopes and dashed dreams. His lead heroine, Jean De Belle, is 24, a librarian who moved into a room at the home of a young female student, Robbie, and the landlady Mary Ellen, Robbie’s mother.
Early in the opening chapter, Jean “…believed people could sense there was a sadness, an inclination towards melancholy, just beneath her friendly smile.” This might seem like foreshadowing painted with the broadest of strokes, but it isn’t. He’s setting the stage for heartbreak. This isn’t a basic procedural, after all. It’s a tragedy.
Chapter One is deceptively calm, careful, and ordinary. These might be the first few hours of Jean’s new life, or they may be her last. Life sometimes happens that way. She prepares to meet the students at her new job as the local high school librarian, and then we enter the journey her former fiancé Charlie Camplain takes from Vincennes, Indiana (ten miles away) to Lawrenceville, Illinois.
“She doesn’t know I’m about to change her life,” he tells Norville, the hotel clerk. Quickly, Martin introduces us to the characters that will play out their lives after the fateful, tragic departure of Jean. There’s the obsessed ex-fiancé Charlie, Norville the hotel desk clerk, Bert Haines, (AKA Grinny), the toothless and amiable cab driver who unwittingly helps Charlie leave the scene of the crime, Grinny’s teen daughter Millie (with her high-level drama) and a few more.
What are we to make of Charlie? He’s an Army man who suffered hearing damage during the war. “He read books each night before lights out-real books… by Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Thoreau… That was Charlie Camplain-a thinker, a mama’s boy.” It’s made clear that Norville’s solitary life, having his closest interactions with others who are just passing through, will mean he’ll be deeply wounded by his connection with Charlie in the aftermath of the tragedy.
The flashback scenes of courtship between Charlie and Jean are especially heartbreaking. He wants to know what she loves, what makes her happy. She responds that she might love books more than people. Martin carefully brings us back to the auditorium, to the scene where Jean feels her heart is beating too fast. He introduces readers to Ella Lawless, a young woman who loves books as much as Jean, as much as Charlie. “Jean had promised they’d be friends,” Martin writes, and even the most hardened reader will understand how this impending tragedy is going to scar everybody.
Love, Jean is imbued with iconic songs from the era. There’s the slow romance of Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me” and the peppy rhythm of Perry Como’s “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”. These songs are the calm before the storm, when Big Band music of the 1930s and ’40s had given way to early pop music before ceding to the inevitability of early rock ‘n’ roll. The teen boys wear Brylcreem in their hair. Charlie wears a gray flannel suit and a maroon tie that had “a crazy design of circles.” He was a damaged man about to explode through a violent act he could never take back
Martin understands that the key to his novel here isn’t the tragic event in question and how carefully (or graphically) he can put the violence in its proper context. The key is in carefully balancing the temptation to exploit his story’s horrible violence with the obligation to be subtle, to evoke horror by what he doesn’t show, what he doesn’t tell. A young librarian is killed by her former fiancé. People will be called upon to testify in court, to bear legal witness. In a steady and authoritative tone, they’ll have no recourse to purge their broken hearts. Martin is at his best in the aftermath half of this novel as he reminds us of the beauty of the autumn season in Illinois:
These were the dearest days…before stark winter…for some they were filled with mourning…the fear of what lay ahead, or with hope that fortune would turn in their favor, but always, not far from the thoughts of anyone who had brushed up against that moment…was the terror and thrill of being in a place between a beginning and end and not knowing which it would be.
Mary Ellen and Jean are accused of having engaged in an intimate affair sexual affair in an era (the early 1950s) when this was unspeakable. Martin carefully and dramatically reveals these accusations through the course of the novel’s second half, reminiscent of the way Lillian Hellman dealt with same-sex intimacy in the hushed tones and high drama of her 1934 play, The Children’s Hour, where an angry student’s sensational accusation of a lesbian love affair between two faculty members set their world reeling. The connection mary Ellen developed with Jean is clearly felt:
The rest of her life, Mary Ellen would remember Jean that morning in the library. Her fingers were trembling. Mary Ellen kissed her on the cheek. She squeezed her hand. Oh, the look on her face — that smile, that spark in her eyes, as if she knew that all she’d ever hoped was almost there.
Mary Ellen is reminded of innocence as she watches her daughter Robbie assume the throne of Homecoming Queen, but in her eyes only Jean would stay pristine and untouched, forever frozen in those weeks before her murder. Jean’s image of a perfect youthful girl is forever frozen in an “In Memoriam” photograph on display in the high school’s front lobby. Martin bathes the last half of Yours, Jean in a tone of sadness and regret that evokes the same sort of longing as Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 debut masterpiece The Virgin Suicides. The latter is pure fiction, and the former is a literary novel based on a true crime, but both perfectly remind us that a tragedy from any direction (external or internal forces) will linger in the atmosphere forever.