My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”
All the Living, a novel that debates whether a young woman should “submit to love” (as the cover put it) or find her way in the world, offers readers a tension-filled love affair. And this tension seems to ratchet up quickly as Aloma arrives at the farm Orren inherited following the deaths of his brother and widowed mother. In the distance, she sees the mountains that she’s always hated, that reminds her of postponed dreams to go faraway and play piano without being overshadowed by the landscape. The house, the first in which she’ll ever live, is dilapidated, while the piano Orren promised that she could play upon is ruined. The tremendous change in Orren, wrought by grief, surprises her. Her own orphaning occurred when she was too young to recall anything but their absence, so her experience leaves her unready for his emotional distance. Her ignorance of farm life and lack of cooking and cleaning skills, the duties she is preparing to take on, too suggest future difficulties.
To these disadvantages, Morgan adds her characters’ youth (she is around 21 or 22; he is three years older)—something which becomes more concerning as the details of their courtship unfolds. Aloma and Orren met at the settlement school, where Aloma worked as the staff pianist since her graduation. Their dates consisted mostly of driving near the school and sex, which means they didn’t share in each other’s daily existence. Orren, an “Aggie” student at a college three counties away, planned to own a large farm one day and wants to marry her. She responded to his suggestion with humor, as her plans involved leaving. With their goals at cross purposes, it’s not difficult to envision how this relationship might falter over time if they couldn’t compromise on their goals. Meeting his family at the farm might have her eased into the lifestyle there—or at least given her an opportunity to walk away from that life with less at stake. With tragedy spurring their decisions, their relationship has the potential to founder badly.
But I found myself puzzled at points while reading this story. Because Orren mentioned marriage before the deaths occurred, it seemed strange that he never brought her to meet his family. Eighteen months is a long time to date a person, let alone a potential marital partner, without introductions to the other important people in one’s life. And unless he hasn’t mentioned his relationship with Aloma to his mother at all (which puts his intentions in question), I’d be surprised if Emma wasn’t interested in meeting his girlfriend. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that Aloma doesn’t interact with his family so that she cannot share in Orren’s loss or see the expectations he might have for her as his future wife by visiting the farm. While it makes sense that Aloma belatedly realizes she should have met Orren’s kin (she, after all, has no family to think of), it seems to strange that Morgan drew attention to this point and chose not explain it however briefly.
Another puzzling moment involved the time period in which the story was set, something which was more difficult to decipher than it should have been. In fairness, Orren’s note and Aloma waiting for his arrival (instead of texting or calling) could suggest an era before widespread cell phone use (something which continued into the 1990s)—or just bad reception. For me, it certainly did not clearly signal the decade of the setting (1980s), which would have created the correct expectations for Aloma’s trip to the grocery store. Although the farm is isolated, the nearby community is small enough that most people know each other’s business. Since Aloma is charging her purchases to the Fenton account, the clerk mentions Emma “Sure had a lot of opinions”, which seemed odd (Heaven forbid a woman have opinions!). Her next remark was to ask whether Aloma and Orren were married. Aloma lies, but her blush betrays her and the clerk’s cordiality disappears from her face. Knowing that this story occurs in the 1980s would have explained the cultural attitudes towards women in general and marriage specifically. In a scene following the grocery incident, I eventually located one specific cultural landmark that places this story during the early 1980: the “Where’s the Beef?” posters, presumably referring to a Wendy’s ad campaign. I missed its significance in my initial reading, and I can see how somehow not familiar with this time would not understand it at all.
Were it not for Morgan’s prose (with rarely a word misplaced), Aloma’s efforts to conquer housework and cooking might have become tedious. The slow pace, however, allows the friction to arise between this disconnected couple. While submerging herself in work helps Aloma focus on Orren’s wants instead of her own, she becomes cognizant of how little she knows Orren. And the lack of piano coupled with not being married grates on her and they quarrel often. Morgan shines in making their days contentious. Although I’m not fond of Morgan’s tendency to provide conclusions about Aloma that the reader could be gleaned from the story, Aloma repeatedly shows that she’s “the girl who was always looking outward, getting to ready to leave”. Both Bell and Orren see this is in her: Orren accuses her of “fixin’ to leave”. Bell, the preacher who hires Aloma to play piano at services and who is unawrare of her attachment to Orren, says she is cagey about whether she wants her freedom or to be “took in”. Her interactions with him represent that outward turn. Aloma does not intend to hurt Bell, but she’s lonely and wants the attention Orren once gave her, attention Bell now provides. She doesn’t think, however, how her behavior might affect Bell or consider the implications behind the attention he gives her even though she knows that he believes her to be single.
Once Aloma becomes the church pianist, the collision between these discontented forces seemed destined. To be truthful, I half hoped that she might call it quits with Orren, though I didn’t expect it. The book’s prevalent drift is towards submitting to love (the topic of Bell’s first sermon), which often reads to me as “the woman has to sacrifice her dreams”. I can’t say I agree with that drift under most circumstances. Here, it’s too easy to imagine Orren and Aloma unhappy together despite Aloma’s submission, even though it helps her bitterness dissipate. Still, Morgan’s conclusion don’t promise an easy future and are satisfactory enough. And it kept me thinking about what love requires of us in terms of selflessness over self-centeredness long after the cover closed.