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OHIO TOWN: The Story of Xenia by Helen Hooven Santmyer Kirkus Star

OHIO TOWN: The Story of Xenia


Pub Date: Aug. 22nd, 1984
Publisher: Harper & Row

The town is Winesburg and Spoon River, it is Highbury and Cranford, it is even Illyria and Elsinore."" It is not Main Street, by definition; but the Xenia, Ohio, that Santmyer portrays in this historical memoir, originally published by Ohio State Univ. Press in 1962, is not the embodiment of midwestern, middle-class smugness and bigotry that some reviewers found, and found intolerable, in her novel "". . . And Ladies of the Club."" Writing in her own voice of Xenia's traditionally black East End--one of the town's several, intently examined aspects--she perceives ""that at their funniest. . .they were in truth presenting us with a picture of ourselves, and what we laughed at was a parody of our own activities."" And even as she regrets the loosening of ""bonds of affection and trust,"" she recognizes that ""the loss may be all ours; it may well be that our affection for our servants was never without a felt condescension, though we ourselves were unaware of it."" As for the ladies of the Woman's Club, they are the women who, ""a few decades later. . .would have gone out into the world in pursuit of careers."" Miss Allen, actress manquÉ, who found in the club's parlor dramatics ""the only outlet afforded her by circumstance for her lively sense of fun, her wit, and her gift of mimicry""; Miss McCracken, from a family of scholars, who might nod, might even snore at a meeting; ""but she never missed a word of whatever essay was being read, and never failed to startle its author by enlightening, ironic, or contemptuous criticism spoken sometimes with her eyes still closed, as if nothing she had heard made it worthwhile to open them."" Xenia is here the county seat, our ""excuse for being""--hence the preeminence of the courthouse. At its heart, it has never been ""beautiful or dignified or charming."" Its houses follow patterns, limned era by era. Its cemetery records bespeak ""unkempt, muddy streets,"" the devastations of Shiloh. It punishes sin selectively, its Calvinism tempered ""because so many of our families followed the long way round, through Ulster, and by the time they reached our shores were as much Irish as Scotch."" The nettles are grasped; the shadings infinite. This is a vibrant petitpoint, without a slack or muddy line.