The Shield of the Valiant by August Derleth (1945)
The major work in August Derleth's life was his Wisconsin Saga, which encompassed poems, novels, short stories, essays, and various non-fiction works. Integral to this sweeping saga was its subset, the Sac Prairie Saga, in which Derleth examined the inner working of his hometown of Sauk City, thinly disguised as the village of Sac Prairie.
The Shield of the Valiant is a substantial novel that visits the village during the years 1936 through 1941, ending with America's entry into World War II, also marking the end of an era for the quiet village and its surrounding farm country. The underlying theme of the book is the damage that gossip and rumor can do. We meet Rena Janney in her senior year in high school, a brash, outspoken girl whose overly mature appearance and dress belie her sweet and innocent nature. Her father had deserted her, her brother, and their mother when Rena was two, forcing her mother to take jobs in distant Madison and leaving her children in care of her mother. Because of Rena's family background and because off her provocative dress and her defiant, unsophisticated manner, local gossips have pegged her as easy -- the kiss of death in 1936 small town circles.
One who easily believes the rumors is John Sewell, the local banker and a hide-hound conservative. Sewell's daughter -- to his regret -- is Rena's best friend. His son Kiv has just graduated from college and Sewell's plan for him to have Kiv eventually take over the running of the bank. Kiv is a far more creative spirit than his father and is constantly rebelling. Could this rebellion explain his growing infatuation with his sister's best friend? Whatever the reason, Kiv is slowly drawn to Rena and she to him. spawning both unsubstantiated rumors and Sewell's ire. Because they come from two different spheres, Rena comes to believe that she is holding Kiv back and painfully decides to break it off. Rena moves to Madison to join her mother. Kiv pines away in Sac Prairie and eventually quits the bank, although he has little idea of what to do with his life.
In the meantime, a new priest has come to Sac Prairie. Father Peitsch, although young, is very conservative, strongly anti-Protestant, weak-willed, insecure, and prone to bluster. Some of the more un-Christian members in his flock have told him that one of the high school teachers has been preaching anti-Catholicism in his class. Peitsch denounces the man from in his next sermon. He is going strictly by the say-so of the several rumor mongers without checking whether the rumors are true. In fact, the rumors could be traced to some dissatisfied students. It falls to Steve Grendon (a member of the School Board and Derleth's alter ego in this and many other books) to quash the rumor. This Steve does with a well-worded letter to press and to the bishop about the priest's ill-informed and unfortunate accusations. The situation is resolved, but Steve has earned the priest's enmity. Father Peitsh begins circulating rumors about Steve.
One rumor that does have a basis in fact is about the affair Royce Myron is having with young Megan Hods. Royce is married with a young child, and when the rumors reach Royce's wife, tragedy ensues, followed by further tragedy.
All this is played out in a strongly delineated village. Derleth brings in familiar characters and adds new depth to them. The impact of the past and its follies and joys are examined as are the way family ties can be strengthened or weakened. Characters move in and out as in real life. People age and die. The village slowly changes until some are hard pressed to remember what was there before. The village, in partnership with its vibrant, natural environment, is the strongest character in the novel, but all of the characters are worth getting to know. There are no real villains here, just ordinary people with their ordinary virtues and ordinary weaknesses.
Speaking of weaknesses, the book is somewhat flawed by Steve Grendon's over-philosophizing. Some sections also seemed rushed -- perhaps forgivable because Derleth was trying to pack in so much into a 500 page novel. All in all, though, this was a enjoyable read for a confirmed Derleth fan as I am. It was nice to spend some time with old friends in Sac Prairie.