Reviewed by Jack Messenger
Mary Fields, First African American Woman Star Route Mail Carrier in the United States: A Montana History
by Miantae Metcalf McConnell
ISBN 978-0-9978770-0-7, Sept 2016, 530 pages
The front cover of Deliverance proclaims Mary Fields (c.1832–1914), the putative subject of the novel, ‘First African American Woman Star Route Mail Carrier in the United States’. The cover also announces that this is ‘A Montana History’.
Mary Fields had been born into slavery and was only freed with Abolition. She must have been a woman of great determination and perseverance, for she won the respect and friendship of the communities she served, and was an independent businesswoman. ‘Black Mary’, as she was known by many, even became the ‘mascot’ of a local baseball team. She did not become an employee of the US Post Office; rather, in common with other persons, she was contracted to deliver the mail on a specified route based on her initial bid, her guarantees and her dependability. In 1885 Mary was awarded the contract to deliver mail from Cascade, Montana to St Peter’s Mission.
Not a great deal else is known about Mary Fields, but Miantae Metcalf McConnell has undertaken extensive research into her subject and has added to our knowledge of this redoubtable woman. One of McConnell’s stated ambitions in writing her novel is to enable Mary to become ‘an inspiration to all peoples: past, present and future’. Therein lies a problem.
When novelists begin to consider a project, they seek an answer to an important question: is there a novel here? In this case, is there a novel here that can comfortably extend over a thousand pages (as measured in iBooks)? In my opinion, the answer to both these questions is an emphatic ‘no’.
The paucity of information on Mary Fields has inspired McConnell to add, and add, and add to her narrative, expanding it to bloated proportions, so that it is shapeless and unorganized, despite the appearance of structure provided by part titles, intertitles, section breaks, and prologue and epilogue. The impressive bibliography of works consulted by the author seems to have unleashed a torrent of prose unrestrained by a guiding intelligence that should have been screaming ‘Enough already!’ An author too attached to her subject, too excited about telling the whole truth, and intoxicated by her historical milieu will inevitably lose all sense of proportion: everything is precious, and all her inventions are vital. The avowed motivation to inspire readers lays a dead hand on creativity, on balance, on history.
Deliverance is rife with confusions that begin with the plethora of titles/subtitles/straplines on the front cover, leaving readers in doubt as to what kind of book they are meant to be reading. That doubt, it seems to me, is shared by the author, whose prologue is an epically misjudged venture into geological prehistory. There follows an eighty page account of Mary struggling through a snowstorm, eventually leading to a search party and recovery. This section is interminable and completely typical. I thought myself entitled to expect a book about Mary, but lo! there are all these other interesting characters we simply mustfollow, endlessly and in tedious detail.
As for the writing itself, McConnell has an excellent vocabulary, which she displays at every opportunity, often at some cost to intelligibility:
Blasts of noise screeched. Flesh lunged, shrieks wailed …
Beads of sweat pimpled her forehead …
Overhead, an onslaught of pewter clouds gestated into columns. Whiffs of dry air whirled across snow mounds, quipping tiny crystals airborne. Dusk retreated. Legendary north winds, known for hurling glaciers, amassed and fisted, launched into fury …
Striated layers of mist hung at ground level.
This is irritatingly overwritten and stuffed with pleonasm. McConnell invariably goes for the unusual word (heads can’t simply turn or twist or jerk, they must ‘torque’), and her predilection for the missing conjunction is confusing. Reading this stuff is exhausting: the mind longs for straightforward, concise prose without artifice.
Alone with herself, Mary is much given to uttering helpful contextual remarks designed for the reader’s benefit:
Guess it’s a bona fide town with the new post office. Got one store, one church, one schoolhouse, two sheep sheds, and three saloons – looks like a tintype of life sequestered in the wild and wooly. Yep.
‘Yep’ indeed. Surveying the wintry landscape, she lets us know that ‘Folks came thinking it was gonna be easy’, a sentiment I soon came to appreciate as I struggled valiantly through another hundred pages of deep narrative drifts and icy squalls of description.
As if the novel’s massive cast of supporting characters were not already more than enough, room is made for the souls of the dead and apparitions of younger selves, the latter of whom speak in pious platitudes to their older avatars:
I am here because there is still hurt inside you. To be a true servant of God you cannot have personal desires mixed in your heart.
It is at junctures like these that one suspects an ulterior religious motive behind the novel, which would also explain the banality of the dialogue. Nobody – not even a murderer – speaks in a convincing voice. Everything – racial bigotry, lust, Christian devotion, horses, cooking – is sanitized for our protection. One looks in vain for provocation, challenge, stimulation.
The lives of forgotten, marginalized persons – among them, people of other ethnicities to our own, and women – are in desperate need of recuperation. Many of those lives are fascinating, enlightening and inspiring, but if we seek deliberately to make them inspiring from our own positions of power and privilege, then we do them a grave disservice and perpetuate the historical imbalances that marginalized them in the first place. Such lives are already inspiring; they don’t need us to make them so. When I compared Deliverance with the short entry on Mary Fields in Wikipedia, I’m afraid I much preferred the latter.
About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. His collection of short stories – Four American Tales – is out now. You can read about it here.