The moonflower vine is a type of morning glory, and can grow as wild and invasively as your common backyard morning glory. Really, its prevalence is tropical. I lived for some time in Florida, and probably saw them without knowing it, but in the Midwest the moonflower’s cultivation is less common and it can be a hard plant to propagate. Since it blooms only at night, and often, only in the fall, it’s easy to assign to it an effervescence, a sense of fleeting beauty.
The Moonflower Vine, however, is a realistic, rather than a flowery, representation of country life in the early 20th Century. Carleton was born in Holden, Missouri, just east of Kansas City, and her novel is set in small towns farther east still, at the northern edge of the Ozarks. She portrays the poor-but-upright Methodists, Matthew and Callie Soames, and their four daughters: Jessica, Leonie, Mary Jo, and Mathy.
Carleton gives each character a separate, third-person narrative except for Mary Jo, who begins the novel with her first-person account of a family gathering at the time of the Korean War. Mary Jo is the character who went off to New York for a professional career. She stands in for Carleton, the writer, herself.
Mary Jo soon flashes back to the story of wayward Jessica’s inscrutable romance with Tom Purdy, an illiterate, humble farmboy from southern Missouri—a hillbilly. The two run off to become tenant farmers in western Kansas, and this long sequence may be the novel’s most compelling, the pastoral tragedy, the sense of how cruel farm life can be, rising to the level of Willa Cather.
Carleton then relates the stories of Matthew, Mathy, Leonie, and Callie, each character appealing and flawed. Matthew begins life as poor as the unfortunate Tom Purdy but strives desperately to rise through education. Rise he does, but only to the level of principal in a rural school, which pays so little that he must continue to farm. Matthew craves high culture but can never attain it. He’s limited, though never done in, by his lust for pretty high school seniors, with whom he shares poetry and kisses. He contemplates running away with them in the pursuit of a perfect, cultural life. These romances are mere puppy love but they diminish and humiliate Matthew, because the young women all know better; he is their dalliance with high culture. Matthew embodies Carleton’s central argument: even as you lay claim to the high moral ground, it crumbles from the weight of your imperfections. Put another way: Methodism is boring.
Mathy is the wild girl, who runs after a recurring rogue character, Ed Inwood. As a student, Ed is the bane of Matthew’s existence, asking disconcerting questions about the meaning of life that Matthew, advocate of truth and beauty, can’t answer. Ed becomes a barnstormer and flies off with reckless Mathy, and again the result is tragic. After Mathy dies, Leonie, the daughter with a level head, falls for him, too. By then Ed has begun to understand his limitations and Carleton rounds him out nicely, giving him a tragic turn and a dollop of redemption.
Finally, in her short last section, Carleton presents Callie, a strong, moral, illiterate farm woman whose one dalliance results in her pregnancy with Mathy, a revelation that makes the reader reflect upon the entire story. You can attend church regularly and espouse high principles, but your humanity will stubbornly assert itself. Mostly, this happens through the yearning to be loved. Love isn’t predictable or convenient; in fact, it’s embarrassing, and sometimes, it ruins you.
The Moonflower Vine, first published in 1962 and a bestseller, was Carleton’s only novel. It has been dusted off a number of times as a “forgotten classic,” and perhaps it is a classic, though it doesn’t rank with To Kill a Mockingbird or My Antonia. It’s a superb example of what used to be called “women’s fiction.” The style is lyrical yet commonplace, always ironic but always compassionate. The novel captures with sharp detail a lost way of life that anyone who grew up in the country will recognize, but never rhapsodizes over “the land.” Carleton describes canning vegetables or church socials from the perspective of experience, and her country characters all long to escape. Still, her novel fills you up with nostalgia. Like the moonflower vine, Carleton’s novel is a pretty thing that seems to disappear even as you are looking at it, portraying a time and place you’d never be able to find.