THE WOMEN OF THE GALTON CASE
What Do We Think of the Boy’s Mother?
We know what she did after the murder of her husband, but we only have her version and we need not accept it at face value. Certainly at the instant she made her promise to Shoulders Nelson she had no choice. Any mother would have done the same. The image of the bloody ax poised over her baby is such a compelling one that it obscures a bigger issue—what about afterwards? She married her husband’s murderer and stayed with him the rest of their lives. She didn’t do it to protect John. She watched Nelson savagely beat the child innumerable times and did nothing. She had plenty of opportunities to escape the situation and take John with her over the years. Yet she stayed—even, as John pointed out, after he left the home.
What is going on here?
The simple answer is that the boy’s mother is a moral degenerate, plucked out of a whorehouse by Nelson and content with her lot till he was sent away. When she met John Brown she sensed a gold digging opportunity and allowed herself to become pregnant, something she’d been adroit in avoiding. When Shoulders Nelson came back and re-established his control she went along with it, at least reluctantly.
There is a more nuanced answer, and Macdonald allows her to hint at in at the very close of the book. She was what we call today a battered woman, whose sense of agency has been so crushed that she accepts the demands of her abuser. There is no suggestion she ever loved Shoulders, and the corrosive relationship that we see at the end of the book makes it clear that their marriage is based upon fear and self-hatred.
A Word About Fran Lemberg, the Asphalt Innocent
To my knowledge, no one has ever described Ross Macdonald as a feminist. He was a man of his time, growing up with aunts and other female figures in his early life who conformed to very traditional female stereotypes. But Macdonald goes out of his way to give Fran Lemberg a voice for women who have come to accept domestic violence. Her dialogue on the subject isn’t essential to the plot. Fran has resigned herself to the possibility of physical abuse, as long as it’s from her husband. She represents a less extreme form of the process of victimization that claimed Mrs. Fredericks.
Macdonald has clear expectations of how a functional family should be structured, probably because he never grew up in one as a child (and arguably never had one during his marriage). The father is in charge, assisted by the mother. The two are age appropriate. Any children are of both the husband and wife. If the children are old enough to date, their partners are someone their own age. And no funny stuff, either. Anything else invites chaos.
The particular chaos afflicting the Galton household is that the father is dead, leaving the widow in charge. She does a bad job of it at every turn, being indecisive, willful, selfish, and preemptory. At the start of the book she has already stifled the life of her companion, Cassie Hildreth; by the middle of the book it’s clear that she wants to emasculate her newfound grandson. She failed controlling her son but now she has another crack at bat.
Macdonald has used the “house out of balance” trope before. To give just two examples, in The Moving Target, we have an absent husband, a wife who has abandoned her martial responsibilities and a daughter being courted by a man old enough to be her father. Blue City has a deceased father and a stepmother making advances towards her stepson. There are other examples, and many more to come.
Macdonald ended The Galton Case on an upbeat note and I will do the same with the part of the blog devoted to this book. In most of the scenes where she appears, Sheila fills Macdonald’s requirements for his Innocent but Eager Virgin stereotype. We’ve seen it five times before if we’ve seen it once. Possibly because she comes from a privileged background, Sheila’s comments seem especially vapid. But something happens at the end. Somewhere between her self-indulgent days at the country club pool and the journey together with John seeking his identity, she has begun to mature. She unconditionally accepts John’s seedy background, which is more than Ada Reichler could do. She is willing to face anything John needs to face. When Archer tries to shield her from the gruesome sight of Fredericks’ hanging corpse, she refuses to leave. “It’s all right,” she says. “I’m not afraid.” And in the middle of everything that happens in that boardinghouse that night, it’s she that notices the first birdsong of the day.
Maybe John didn’t make such a bad choice after all.
Now we move on to The Ferguson Affair.