Sunday, July 26, 2009

Book Review - Unleavened Bread

Unleavened Bread
by Robert Grant

The book overview of Robert Grant's Unleavened Bread at reports that Unleavened Bread was one of the best selling novels of 1900. Today it is all but forgotten, which is a shame, as it is very readable and captures the period well. The setting is a state in New England, city of Benham, with one part set in New York City. Selma White is a school teacher at the beginning of the book and has reached the conclusion that teaching is not how she wants to spend the rest of her life. She feels she is destined to play a larger role in life, and the book chronicles her aspirations and efforts to find and fill that larger role.

Selma uses marriage to project herself in life, riding the coattails of her husbands, one marriage ending in divorce and one in widowhood. She strives for acceptance both socially and intellectually and meets with both disappointment and success along the way.

This is one of those forgotten books that would almost certainly do well if republished today. The action begins in about the 1870s and gives a portrait of New England and New York society through the years following the Civil War from the perspective of the children of soldiers in that war. This is not a novel of Reconstruction as it is set in the north, but issues devolving from that war are a part of the atmosphere.

Unleavened Bread could be read as a northern counterpart to Ellen Glasgow's novel Virginia, set in Richmond at the same time period. The experiences of the two protagonists, Selma and Virginia, are very different, reflecting the roles of women in the north and the south in the post-Civil War years.

I'm not sure I understand the title. Unleavened bread is bread made without yeast or other leavening agents. It is flat, does not rise. Is this a reference to Selma's efforts to rise in society?

Also available at Project Gutenberg.

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