Jean Stafford: The Mountain Lion
The Fawcett family live in Covina, California, near Los Angeles. Mr. Fawcett died when he was young, leaving his wife, Rose, and four children, Leah, Rachel, Ralph and Molly. The family seems comfortably off. Leah and Rachel are young women and look down on their two younger siblings. Ralph and Molly are devoted to one another (Molly is something of a tomboy) and have no friends besides one another. Rose not only lost her husband when he was young, but she also lost her father when he was young. When he died, her mother remarried a rough but rich cattle rancher but, to the chagrin of Rose and her two sisters, the family moved out of the relative sophistication of St. Louis to a ranch in the Panhandle, where it was too hot and there was nothing to do.
To everyone’s surprise, the mother became pregnant in her forties and gave birth to a son. The mother died five months later. Mr. Kenyon – she always called her stepfather Mr. Kenyon – asked Rose to look after the boy, which she did, feeling she had no choice. While her sisters went off and got married, she was left at home, till, finally, Mr. Fawcett turned up and rescued her. Since Mr Fawcett’s death, Mr. Kenyon has been coming to stay for two weeks at the Fawcetts. Neither Rose nor Mr. Kenyon look forward to this visit but the children enjoy their colourful and unconventional step-grandfather. Rose is merely embarrassed.
Just prior to the latest visit, Ralph and Molly both contracted scarlet fever. Though they have recovered, they have not been in good health since. Both now get regular nose bleeds – usually at the same time – which means they have to leave school. They choose to walk home, even though their mother has urged them to phone for the car to come and pick them up. The novel starts as they come home from a nosebleed event, just prior to the arrival of their step-grandfather.
Ralph, who does not have a father figure in his life, is eager to get closer to Mr. Kenyon, as indeed, are his sisters but, inevitably, Rose is not happy and often embarrassed by his behaviour. Sadly, not long after his arrival, he collapses and dies. His will states that he should be buried where he dies, so Claude, Rose’s half-brother, arrives for the funeral and the children get to know him. Indeed, Ralph and Molly get on so well with him that it is decided that they will spend the summer on the ranch he has inherited from his father. He is not married but there is a housekeeper who will look after them.
Not surprisingly, life on the ranch is rough and hot. Both children initially take to it, though Ralph more so. Claude mocks their riding ability, for example, but Molly’s more so as she is less adept. In short, despite the presence of the housekeeper, the housekeeper’s daughter (Ralph, of course, falls in love with her) and a couple of other female staff, it is a man’s world.
Initially, Ralph admits that Molly is the only love he really has but gradually brother and sister start slowly but surely to drift apart. Molly is literary, and enjoys reading and writing. Ralph wants to help with the manly work on the farm or, at least, watch it being done. He is also closer to Claude. This is shown in one episode when Claude suggests that the two children give up their glasses, which they have worn since their scarlet fever. Ralph reluctantly does and, despite headaches, his eyesight gradually improves and he abandons the glasses totally. Molly keeps hers.
Molly becomes more and more difficult or, if you prefer, a rugged individualist, as the local vicar describes her. She is rude to her mother and to others and often embarrasses Ralph. It is not helped by the fact that she is lanky and slouches, but continues to have the figure of a little girl. Her enemies call her the crab. Looking at herself in a mirror she describes herself as not only ugly, she had a homemade look, a look of having been put together by an inexperienced hand.
For brother and sister, there are two opposing forces, those people who are like their actual and long since deceased grandfather and those like their step-grandfather, i.e. the refined and well-behaved versus the rough and ready. Both favour the Kenyons at first but Molly drifts away from that approach.
Things change when Mrs Fawcett decides to sell the Covina house, to take her two eldest daughters round the world and then settle out East. This means that, for a whole year, Ralph and Molly will stay with their Uncle Claude. When they arrive at his ranch, he tells them that there is a mountain lion and soon Ralph has joined him in tracking the lion. All three see her but are unable to shoot her. However, both Ralph and Claude are determined to do so, despite the fact that she has caused no harm and lives off catching small wild animals. It is this year and the mountain lion that will will bring things to a head between brother and sister.
This novel is semi-autobiographical, with Ralph and Molly being based on Stafford and her beloved brother Dick, who had died shortly before she started writing this book. The inevitable drifting apart of the two, as Ralph seeks, not surprisingly, to become more manly, under the influence of Claude, while Molly, whose only friend was Ralph, drifts more into the world of literature and away from her brother, as her mother and sisters pay little attention to her. She does not go quietly. Stafford presumably had a similar remorse as her brother became a man. This is probably Stafford’s best novel (and the only one still in print at the time of writing), though she only wrote three and is probably best known for her short stories.
First published 1947 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich