Pulitzer Project: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson

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In looking for a place to start with American women writers I decided the best place to begin would be to read the books from my own shelves (which I will do), however I also thought it would be interesting to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels or short story collections written by women. There have been thirty women who have won the prize since 1918, from Edith Wharton in 1921 to this year’s winner, Donna Tartt. I have read several of the novels including The Goldfinch and most of the recent female winners, but there are more that I haven’t read and some that I haven’t even heard of. The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson is one of the novels that was previously unknown to me.

It won the prize in 1924 and is set just after the Civil War in Iowa. The McLaughlin family are Scottish immigrants who left Glasgow to escape their cramped home (they have 11 children), to own land and to make a better living than they have in Scotland. They live in a farming community of other Scottish families who all support and encourage each other. When the novel opens the McLaughlin’s oldest son Wully has just returned from the war and plans to marry a neighbor girl, Chirstie McNair. Despite a previous understanding, she won’t have anything to do with him when he rides over to see her. Of course, he’s hurt but he’s mostly perplexed and persists until he finds out the reason she’s rejected him and the terrible secret she’s been keeping. The rest of the novel tells of the repercussions the secret has not only on Wully and Chirstie, but on the entire community.

The Able McLaughlins is not a sophisticated novel, but it’s a definite page turner. I found myself racing through it, wanting to know how Wully and Chirstie would come out and if the secret would be revealed. Compared to The Age of Innocence, which won the prize just a couple of years before, it seems terribly melodramatic and doesn’t have the nuanced characterizations that Wharton writes so beautifully. It has lots of panache and vigor and the descriptions of the pioneer life are riveting, but I’m not really surprised this novel has fallen off our reading radar – it’s in no way a classic and has a troubling theme and a bleak view of women. In 1936 Wilson published a sequel to the novel, The Law and the McLaughlins, and I’ve thought about requesting it through ILL, but I’m not sure it would be worth the $6.

I’d like to read at least one female Pulitzer Prize winner this summer – it will probably be Willa Cather or Edna Ferber. I haven’t decided if I’ll re-read the works I’ve already read like Gone With the Wind (probably not) and To Kill a Mockingbird so for now I’ll stick to reading the ones that are new to me.

Have you read any of the Pulitzers won by women? You can see a list of all the winners (male and female) here.