I can see why this book won the 1963 National Book Award, and why it’s considered a classic for the disillusioned working class–think inept colleagues, vindictive superiors, and fruitless and boring busywork with Father Urban as a successful, charming, handsome traveling salesman. It is a slow build to its comic climax, and it is more subtle, head-shaking comedy than laugh-out-loud slapstick, but it is so well-done.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with particular emphasis on books where the setting is integral to the story or where we learn something about the history, geography and/or people of the state. Right now we are in Minnesota.
And obviously, from the book blurb, Minnesota is integral to the story–ambitious Father Urban is exiled from worldly Chicago to the sidelines of rural Minnesota. However, I didn’t get the feeling that Minnesota itself was important–the important aspect is its position on the sidelines. The book could have taken place in many other rural settings located a few hours by train from an urban setting–upstate New York and New York City, rural Lancaster county and Philadelphia, rural Virginia or Maryland and Washington, D.C., a rural retreat near Bakersfield or Edwards A.F.B and Los Angeles (I can totally imagine Father Urban bemoaning the fact that the Clementines had ended up with land near Bakersfield instead of, say, Palm Springs!)–but any rural setting juxtaposed with an urban one, preferably one where Catholics are a minority, would work.
True to the setting, there are birch forests, and a fishing trip up near Duluth–including some incidents with the mazelike river/lake/island settings we’ve seen in several other Minnesota books. And Father Wilf in many ways seems to embody that self-sufficient, thrifty Minnesota sensibility that I remember from many of the characters in Lake Wobegon. But Father Urban’s first impressions of Minnesota mostly sum up the setting:
The country beyond Minneapolis seemed awfully empty to him, flat and treeless, Illinois without people. It didn’t attract, it didn’t repel. He saw more streams than he’d see in Illinois, but they weren’t working. November was winter here. Too many white frame farmhouses, not new and not old, … Rusty implements. Brown dirt. Gray skies. Ice. No snow. A great deal of talk about this on the train.
The strength of Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers is in the characters themselves, not their setting. I’m glad I gave this one a try, and I really enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a bust for getting to know Minnesota.