Quiet and surprising, Josephine Johnson’s Now in November is more than a novel about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. This is a book about thirst – the country’s thirst for rain, yes, but also the human thirst for love, for justice, for the relative security that a little money can bring.
Those longings begin with Arnold Haldmarne, already well into his fifties, when he’s broke and “hacked back to the roots” and sells the family car and most of their belongings, moving into a heavily indebted farm with his wife, Willa, and their three daughters. There he picks up the plow and saddles the family with a guilt that will cast a shadow over their lives.
Mindful, observant Marget and her little sister Merle quickly fall head over heels in love with the place. The younger Haldmarne girls, who are free to roam, enjoy the outdoors and take their part in cooking and cleaning. Only the eldest, Kerrin, who, along with his red hair, inherited her father’s short-tempered temper, resists. Erratic and restless, Kerrin does not fit into the family she was born into, and her depression and defiance of her bitter, overworked father frightens her sisters. But ultimately it’s the arrival of a hired hand, Grant, cosmopolitan, friendly – and available – that reveals a deeper thirst.
In a parallel universe Now in November whose first issue sold out five days before publication and earned Josephine W. Johnson the 1935 Pulitzer Prize for novel at age 24—the youngest person to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize for fiction (aged just 20). two women have won it in the nearly nine decades since)—would be socially placed alongside Grapes of Wrath. Instead, like its author, this sleek, delicate, and at times brutal novel has largely slipped through the cracks of literature. If you’ve never heard of it Now in November or Johnson, you are not alone. Yet for a book published almost ninety years ago, its concerns still feel surprisingly modern.
If you’ve ever struggled to make the minimum payment on a credit card or student loan, you’ll see the nagging worry about money gnawing at the Haldmarnes. A failed dairy strike reveals the rot at its core: the injustice of working hard and barely making ends meet, at the mercy of the market and the vagaries of the weather. The thirst for a fair price for the fruits of their labor follows the parched family like a mirage, disappearing as they get closer.
It would not take much – one good season – to lift the Haldmarnes out of their poverty and into the relative comfort of their northern neighbors, the Rathmans. After all, they are privileged compared to their black neighbors to the south, the Ramseys.
The Ramseys are warm and generous, and Marget, our eyes and ears in the novel, is sober about the brutality of American racism; her father would like to borrow the Ramseys’ mules but not break bread with them. This racism robs the Ramseys of their agency, sometimes making them seem less like people and more like symbols of the dangers of being both poor and black in America.
This is the same America that loves a good bootstrapper success story, but that trope sidesteps Johnson and instead focuses on the precariousness of working-class life, when a slip, fall, burn, or broken bone can start a slow slide how the cost of medical care and the lack of a social safety net still weigh on working people today. The shame of seeing others suffer without being able to help weighs heavily.
This is the same America that loves a good bootstrapper success story, but that trope sidesteps Johnson and focuses instead on the precariousness of working-class life, when a slip, fall, burn, or broken bone can start a slow descent .
The seeds of Johnson’s later activism – and future books – appear to have already been sown Now in November, from labor rights to feminism to the environment. After her Pulitzer win, she told that New York Times, “My uncle is a dairy farmer . . . The land around it is farmed by tenant farmers or tenant farmers. Their condition is almost hopeless under the present system.” A year later, Johnson was arrested in Arkansas for encouraging cotton field workers to go on strike. In 1969 she wrote a commentary for the TimesRailings against environmental degradation, and published The inland islandperhaps her best-known work, now considered an early springboard in environmental literature.
In many ways, the drought and devastation of the Dust Bowl in Now November rhymes with our modern experience of climate change, when a fallen power line can send a tidal wave of flames across the landscape and lick hundreds of homes off the map.
Yet for all of the great themes it covers – from race to class to gender, from insanity to the inhumanity of industrialization – the book’s most artistic and insightful moments often come when Marget, attuned to the slightest change in air pressure, is making her The emotional weather of the family directs attention to itself. “I wanted to give it a nice, yet not out of place, shape ordinary life of life‘ Johnson told him Times.
As the ponds dry up, the crops wither in the fields, the calves cry for water and the family searches the skies for rain, the longing that has been smoldering since Grant’s arrival begins to flare up. Kerrin becomes increasingly desperate in her search for him, but Grant’s affections have landed on Merle, who she does not return. As she watches from the sidelines, it is Marget’s sensitivity to Grant’s grief and her own secret, unrequited love for him that forms the beating heart of the book.
Shy and humble, Marget is used to hiding her feelings and curbing her hopes. As the middle sister, she knows her place between the smart, confident Merle, who charms and teases Grant with her quips, and the beautiful, unstable Kerrin, who brazenly reaches out for what Marget desires. Marget’s own great strength is acceptance. As all the violence and tragedy unfolds in the final pages of the novel, she just bears it.
To absorb the true power and beauty of Now in November, it helps to read the book to its blazing end and then return to the opening chapters. After the smoke clears, you can walk alongside Marget again, look back over the last ten years with the magnifying glass of flashback, and carry the full weight of the past as she does.
excerpt from Now in November: A novel by Josephine Johnson. Introduction Copyright © 2022 by Ash Davidson with permission from Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.