Sweet Genevieve by August Derleth (1942)
Almost everyone in the quiet village of Sac Prairie is concerned about the eminent war with Germany. Everyone, that is, except Jenny Breen -- Sweet Genevieve, the strong, determined, and naïve title character of this 1942 novel by August Derleth. Jenny finds the thought of spending her life in Sac Prairie revulsive. She feels trapped by her family, especially by her pompous, overbearing father, a successful town lawyer, The town itself is stifling any chance she has of realizing her dream of becoming a famous actress. Often she has talked with her boyfriend, David Lasson, who shares Jenny's dreams, about the two of them running off to Chicago or New York to pursue their ambitions. David, however, is reluctant to leave Sac Prairie because he is the sole support of his widowed mother.
Jenny's big chance comes when the showboat Oliver Mackenzie pulls into town. The boat's leading lady is taken ill with a ruptured appendix and Jenny has a chance to take her place. She does a passable job as Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin and is offered a job as a temporary replacement for the boat's leading lady. Jenny, of course, jumps at this chance to begin her journey to stardom, not knowing that the river showboat is almost always a step down -- not up -- the acting ladder of success. Jenny leaves Sac Prairie, her family, and David.
Soon everything will change. World War I sweeps in a new dawn for everyone. In Sac Prairie the mostly German population is conflicted; the old street gaslights are being replaced by electric ones; the age of the riverboat is closing; many of the laughing young men going off to war will soon be dead, in combat or by disease. Everything changes for Jenny, also. Mirroring some of the melodramas the showboat presents, Jenny is chased by a duplicitous cad, whose cad-iness (is that even a word?) is rooted in his self-centeredness an weakness. David, feeling rebuffed by Jenny, must face his own challenges in Sac Prairie as he matures in place.
Sweet Genevieve is not a major entry in Derleth's Sac Prairie Saga, an offshoot of his larger Wisconsin Saga, but it is a deceptively enjoyable novel to read. Derleth brings tired tropes to life as he delves into his characters and their place in time. His love for nature and his enthusiasm for it provides an interesting counterpoint to the artificiality of many of man's hopes and ambitions. For followers of his work, it's also good to see some of his regular characters in minor roles throughout the book. Minor Derleth, yes, but better written than some of the author's other efforts in other genres. For the Derleth aficionado this book is a must.