American Culture

John Ehle’s The Widow’s Trial: a pure woman…

“I was tired now, the weight of the memories was heavy as lead.” – John Ehle, The Widow’s Trial

The Widow's Trial by John Ehle (image courtesy Amazon)

The Widow’s Trial by John Ehle (image courtesy Amazon)

Reading a John Ehle novel is one of those rich experiences like eating Belgian chocolate or drinking fine cognac.  It’s an experience to be savored, enjoyed in a leisurely fashion.

That said, I raced through this Ehle novel in a couple of days.

For readers who think of Ehle in terms of the finest of his work, The Land Breakers or The Road, this novel from much later in his distinguished career may seem – slight is not exactly the word, such a word could probably never apply to Ehle’s work – but it is, one might say, a work of its time.

Its time of publication, the late 1980’s, was the height of a period known in serious literature as the era of Dirty Realism. Ehle is certainly a contemporary of (and probably knew) an originator of this style of fiction, the great Carson McCullers, so he certainly could justify a foray into this type of fiction. And because John Ehle is such a great writer, he certainly owes me, you, nor anyone else any explanation for a damned thing he does artistically.

Still, one feels the hand of publishing consolidation at work here and can’t help wondering if Ehle felt compelled to try his hand at the Dirty Realism thing because editors told him it was “hot, hot, hot” and writing a novel in this style would make his work “relevant.”

I know, I know. The world we live in.

That said, The Widow’s Trial is, try for relevance or not, a hellagood read.

The novel concerns the story of one Winnette. Winnette, like several women in the novel, is drawn to a classic bad boy, Lloyd Plover, a womanizer (and abuser), drug dealer, and all round asshole. One reading the story – which is told through switching narrators, an interesting if sometimes slightly frustrating device – cannot help but recognize certain parallels between Winnette’s story and that of another “pure woman,” Tess Durbeyfield. And while Plover, as everyone calls her seducer/husband/tormentor, is easily identifiable as Alec D’Urberville, choosing Angel Clare from among her numerous admirers is another matter.

The attorney who successfully defends her after she kills Plover, MacMillan, is one possibility. Another is the physician who counsels her (and has a brief romantic involvement with her), Doctor Robbins. Even the court psychiatrist who testifies to her husband’s drugged out state at the time when she – accidentally, the court decides – shoots him has an Angel Clare moment. At the novel’s end, after Winnette has been acquitted and is leaving her home in the mountains, each of these men follows her to the local bus station to ask her to marry him. Like Tess to Angel, though, Winnette has not been real – she has been a vision of what love and happiness could be. Despite her sordid life she was forced to lead with Plover and her killing of him, intentional and unintentional, Winnette is a pure woman.

2 replies »

  1. I have been working with John Ehle for 10 years now on bringing his out-of-print books back to print (The Land Breakers (now with the NYRB Classics), Time of Drums, Lion on the Hearth, Last One Home, The Free Men (nonfiction), and Move Over, Mountain (his first novel). Up next is The Widow’s Trial, hopefully out by Christmas. Thank you for championing this great man’s work. He should never be forgotten.