Disclosure: I obtained the hard cover book club edition of this book from my father's and/or grandparents' collection. I never knew the author nor had any communication with him. I am an author of historical romances (including western Americana), contemporary gothic romance, and miscellaneous non-fiction.
The Walls of Jericho was one of those book club edition books on my dad's shelves that I discovered in my early teens and immediately fell in love with.
I'm not sure that at that age I completely understood everything that was going on in the book, but subsequent readings over the years never really changed my impression. I consider it on a par with Brat Farrar: perfectly executed down to the finest details.
I included what appears to be a typical late 1940s cover on another post, and here it is again, for context.
The reader in possession of the dust-jacketed copy would immediately understand this is early 20th century by the motor cars. But without the dust jacket, even the book club edition contains the setting, and the tone of the book's environment. I found my old copy today, and scanned the endpapers.
The book itself is a little fragile, so the scan isn't as good as I'd have liked, but I think the impression is clear of the small town in the rural Midwest.
Wellman gives his readers one more insight into the story's overall environment with a short introductory note and disclaimer:
I grew up with books like this, whether they had their dust jackets or not. And later with paperbacks that had illustrated covers and little notes from the authors at the beginning, so the reader always had a hint about the book.
I think this is something too many of today's self-publishing authors don't take into consideration. Whether it's a result of writing sites like Wattpad or fanfiction writing, I don't know, but the example of Yvonthia Leland's catastrophe seems to indicate that not being a reader familiar with the traditional book product leaves the writer at a serious disadvantage. It's not enough to write a story and then publish it. There's more to preparing the product that's going to be put on sale to the public.
So after all that packaging, what's the product like in this case?
I put The Walls of Jericho in my personal fiction canon for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost because it's an excellent story. The young lawyer David Constable comes to Jericho, Kansas, to set up his practice. He makes friends with the publisher of the town's newspaper, Tucker Wedge, and between the two of them they shape Jericho's future. Not consciously, of course, not deliberately, but that's just the way things happen to happen. They begin as strangers who become friends, then they become rivals.
The second reason The Walls of Jericho became one of my most-reread books was that it's such a terrific study of characters. On the surface, the narrative is about Kansas, about rural western Kansas that's very different from the eastern part of the state with its capital city and other metropolises. But the landscape, for all its harshness, is really just another character playing a role along with the human beings on the stage. Sometimes she's the villain, sometimes she's the hero.
The third reason, or maybe it's a secondary reason to the second reason, is the way Wellman played his women characters. Although one of his biographers complains that writing women is one of Wellman's weaknesses, I have to disagree, at least in terms of the women in this book. They are strikingly different -- Belle and Algeria and Julia and Margie, among others -- and yet they aren't caricatures or flat, two-dimensional stereotypes.
Or at least they don't come across that way.
If there's a weakness in the women characters, there is even more so in the male characters. Dave is almost too honorable to be believable, but he's made believable by the way the other personalities play off him. He and Tucker begin as equals, but that's not good enough for Tucker . . . or for Tucker's wife. Algeria is stronger than Tucker and yet she knows she is also weaker. Belle Dunham is much weaker than the men in Jericho, but she is also stronger. What intrigues me on a much later reading of the book is how aware the women are of their contradiction, and how unaware the men are.
Or most of them anyway. At least for a while.
After my first reading of The Walls of Jericho in the early 1960s, I probably reread it a dozen or so times into the early 1980s. I don't think I've read it all the way through, cover to cover, since moving to Arizona in 1985. The book and its cast of characters must have stuck with me even more than I remembered. Just this afternoon, after finding my poor, worn, slightly water-stained book club copy, I got quite a jolt.
The county attorney, "a waddling, fat-faced, fat-nosed man, with piggy-shrewd eyes and a nondescript mustache," had an embarrassingly familiar name.
Over the course of this afternoon, I've skimmed through parts of the book, probably for the first time in 30 years or more. Tonight I'm going to relax in bed with it. I think I carried a 40-pound bag of dog food just a little too far this morning and I'm getting the expected back spasms. Time to take an extra ibuprofen and pamper myself.