Book Review: The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

This is Eudora Welty at her finest.  You just won’t find a
better example.   It’s short, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
Ms. Welty spent most of her life in Jackson, Mississippi and her
voice in the book is true in every sentence, in every inflection of
the differences between north and south, of what is said and left
unsaid between people.

Laurel, a young widow, is living in Chicago.  She receives word from
her father in Mount Salus, Mississippi that he will be having an operation
on his eyes, and, unlike him, indicates it might be good for her to come
back home to be with him while he’s in the hospital.

Laurel’s mother, Becky, has died a few years previously, and Judge
McKelva, Laurel’s father, has remarried a young woman named Fay.

You won’t forget Fay quickly,  nor her family from Madrid, Texas.
(That’s pronounced as in Mildred.)

Laurel does travel from Chicago to Mount Salus and her six former
bridesmaids meet her at the train station.  Some have married,
one has divorced.  They have all remained in Mount Salus in
contrast to Laurel’s leaving.

When the book opens, the three–Judge McKelva, Laurel and Fay
are at a hospital in New Orleans where the procedure will take
place.  Ms. Welty stops  you dead with the phrase  “New Orleans
was out-of-town for all of them.” giving the reader an idea of the
importance of the operation.

After the operation is over the judge must remain still.  He lies
quietly, not speaking, only occasionally asking the time. Laurel
reads to him from Nicholas Nickleby.  Outside, the
blousy noise of Mardi Gras is heard.  Fay pouts that she’s
missing all the fun.

“A strange milky radiance (shines) in a hospital corridor at night,
like moonlight on some deserted street.”   The hallway is long and
a string of closed doors greets Laurel, “But of course the last door
on the right of the corridor, the one standing partway open as
usual, was still her father’s.”

Judge McKelva dies as a result of the operation.  An old family
friend, Dr. Courtland,  was the surgeon though he himself had
pleaded for a more expert doctor to do the procedure.

The housekeeper, Missouri, exclaims, “Am I supposed to believe
what I hear?”

But at the house, at the funeral: “Here at his own home, inside
his own front door,  there was nobody who seemed to be taken
by surprise at what had happened to Judge McKelva.  Laurel
seemed to remember that Presbyterians were good at this.”

The funeral is attended by all of the people who had known
him, and Laurel is comforted by the support of old friends
and the six bridesmaids.  After the cemetery, back at the
house again, “Here’s the Virginia ham! said the minister’s wife
to Laurel . . .she offered her a little red rag of it on a Ritz cracker.”

This death figuratively brings Laurel to her knees and she is shaken
by the recent events that have brought an end to a part of her life
she had ignored since leaving home.

Fay has gone back to Texas with her sprawling noisy brood of a
family, and Laurel spends a few days recalling the past—going through
her father’s desk—seeing letters that had been written, and in this part
of the book we are indulged in learning about the memories of her
life growing up—being in her old bedroom, recalling her old crib
arms up to be lifted out” and remembering stories of her mother’s
family “up north” in West Virginia.

The Judge and Becky had lived in Mount Salus, Mississippi for years.
Laurel remembers falling asleep listening to them read to each other.
The Judge was always the quiet half of the pair, Becky sure of
herself, free with opinions.

Incongruously, at this inconvenient time, the yearly itinerant handyman
shows up at the house—leering at Laurel, and offering to fix broken
window cords, sharpen the lawn mower, change the furniture around.
She tells him there is a loose bird in the house and he “walked up the stairs
with a strut and followed too close.”  
He jauntily remarks that it was
the old man’s turn and he still thinks of the “ole miss” when he passes
the house.  He even hints that maybe he and Laurel should get together now.

It is one more disorienting factor in Laurel’s life as she tries to sort out
where she stands now regarding her passed family, her lost husband,
Phil, and decides she needs to “take” nothing from this house, that it’s
all within her.

” . . .the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne . . .Outliving
is something we do to them.”

the optimist's daughter 001


I enjoyed this book so much that I’m giving it a 5 button review:

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five antique blue glass buttons ©booksandbuttons


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2 Responses to Book Review: The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

  1. Buttondeb says:

    Your quotations from the book really bring it to life. Makes me want to read more !
    Eudora, Carson, Zora, Harper…of all the Southern writers (female, that is– let’s not even get into “Tennessee”, et al) “Eudora” has got to be my favorite.

    • booksandbuttons says:

      Hi Buttondeb–I agree completely. when I start reading
      Eudora Welty I want to read more and more. And I was just
      thinking myself about southern writers–the women–and how
      I enjoy reading them. (Ironic because I don’t think I relate
      much to the south itself.) I have Member of the Wedding by
      Carson McCullers—the play– fresh from the library that I
      want to reread. What is the charm that they have?

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