Still Is the Summer Night by August Derleth (1937)
August Derleth's reputation as a regional writer stems from his massive Wisconsin Saga, of which the Sac Prairie Saga is a subset. Novels, short stories, juveniles, poems, journals, history -- all went into the saga throughout his career. Since his death in 1971, Derleth's regional writing has not had the prominence of other aspects of his work. He's now better known as the man who gave birth to H. P. Lovecraft's resurgence as an important writer, as an editor and publisher of specialty press Arkham House, as a fantasy writer, and as the creator of the Holmesian detective Solar Pons. Much of his work is in print today because of the efforts of George Vanderburgh's small Canadian press Battered Silicon Dispatch Box.
Derleth's Sac Prairie is a thinly disguised version of his home town of Sauk City, Wisconsin, and Derleth has mined the history and the people of Sac City from its beginning to well into the Twentieth Century. Still Is the Summer Night takes place over a period of three years, beginning in 1882. Sac Prairie has grown from a frontier town to a safe farming village, no longer under threat by Indians. Newspapers and magazines are now available, bringing the world and its issues to importance, from the latest fashions to foreign wars and the attempt to dig a canal in Panama. The Wisconsin River and its shifting sands are being dammed, bringing an inevitable ending to commercial rafting traffic -- with a new railroad hastening its demise as a deliverer of goods. Machines are about to do much of the work normally done by hand on the small farms throughout the country.
Amid this change there remains a contant in the beauty of the land. Derleth uses the sounds, smells, and colors of the land and sky to reflect his own deep appreciation of his homeland. The variety of birds and plants is lovingly cataloged throughout the novel. Despite an encrouching and ever-narrowing world, the years seem marked only by comparisons to earlier years -- is the soil richer than two years ago, is the corn fuller than last year, could the wheat be hardier this year, and will the weather be more cooperative?
Captain Charles Halder has left the running of his farm to his two sons, 34-year-old Ratio and 27-year-old Alton. Rounding out the family are Ratio's wife Julie and their infant daughter Cynthia. Marriage and fatherhood have brought a change to Ratio: he is now darker and morose, and he soon began ignoring his wife and started affairs with local women. Alton realizes this, resenting his brother while Julie and the Captain remain ignorant of Ratio's infidelities. Alton sympathizes for his sister-in-law, whom he has known affectionally since childhood. But this sympathy soon turns into something deeper as Alton finds himself secretly in love with his brother's wife.
As Ratio's actions become more and more flagrant and Julie realizes that he has been cheating, she finds herself getting closer to her quiet, supportive, and sympathetic brother-in-law. Passion erupts and Julie and Alton find themselves in what appears to be a doomed situation.
Still Is the Summer Night is not one of Derleth's better novels. The plot is better fitted for a novelet than a full-length book and Derleth spends too much time describing the land and the historical events that are taking place. Commonplace events do little to advance the plot. The novel reads as though Derleth was trying to write two books, one about a pivotal time in Sac Prairie's history and the other about the lovers' triangle.
The book remains highly readable, though, and the characters and their situations are well-drawn. The author's third-person study of motivation is also spot on. The passing references to some of Derleth's more popular characters as such Doctor Grendon and Uncle Joe Stoll in their younger days are a welcome addition.
Bottom line: a flawed but highly interesting book for Derleth fans.
Todd Mason is collecting the links for Friday's Forgotten Books Today. Go to Sweet Freedom to check them out.