A Still Small Voice
A Still Small Voice is literary fiction, and I have been known to enjoy the occasional literary novel. It’s kind of like adding a little broccoli to the diet, but reading this novel is more like eating boiled cabbage. When I open any book, I expect two things: a good story and characters that make me care what happens. This novel was sadly lacking on both fronts.
The story is told in the first person by a young orphan girl, Alma Flynt of Virginia, who is rescued from the orphanage brought to Kentucky to live with her paternal aunt. Many of my favorite novels are written in first-person voice; I don’t have a problem with this style of writing in general. However, in this book, the reader only sees the world of the novel through Alma’s eyes, and, unfortunately, Alma is not terribly interesting. We are treated to Alma’s thoughts, drawn out descriptions of everything right down to the pine needles on the ground, and Alma’s opinions, but no one else’s. There are many other characters in the novel, but none we get to know. Alma flits like a butterfly from one character to another, never giving the reader a chance to bond with them or get a clear idea of their thoughts or opinions. Also, there is no clear path to the story. Paragraphs often end mid-thought with an ellipse or dash. Alma simply leaves the thought hanging and jumps to another path or anecdote, never to return to her original thought.
The reader is told rather than shown what is going on. We are told Alma is in love with John Warren Cleveland, a boy a few years older who lives on a neighboring estate. Alma lets the reader know she is fascinated by John Warren’s good looks, skill with numbers and horses, and his kind manner, but this telling rather than showing is too superficial for the reader to make a connection with either John Warren or Alma herself. There’s no sense of Alma’s pain when John Warren runs off to war, or her feelings of longing during his absence. And without an individual voice for him, it’s difficult to care about him as a character. Even though he’s the story’s obvious male protagonist, he plays a smaller role than his Aunt Miss Cleveland or Alma’s Aunt Betina, and is reduced to more or less background color in Alma’s life.
As for the story, there’s not really one there at all. From one or two sentences in the final section of the book, I gathered that this is Alma relaying her childhood to her granddaughters, and come to think of it, that it more or less what the book sounds like – but in a bad way. The narrative sounds like an old woman jumping from one thought to the next, and it is a story that would only be interesting to those grandchildren who already know what’s going to happen. The grandchildren would already be familiar with the characters so that the lack of background or depth wouldn’t matter, but to a reader unfamiliar with the family or area, it does matter. And, it’s unfortunate that when Alma does go into detail, it’s about things that have nothing to do with the story, like a litany of plants, their uses, and in which book she found the information. With little dialogue in A Still Small Voice, the reader must tread through pages of prose for snippets of dialogue that are interspersed with bible quotes (the author had a fondness for Ecclesiastes).
What was most disappointing about this story is missed potential. The author gives us the amazing backdrop of the American Civil War. He has a chance to tell a moving tale of childhood sweethearts, torn apart by war and opposing points of view, and their eventual reunion. Instead we are treated to tales of playing marbles, gathering weeds, and the purchase of twenty-eight pairs of boots. There are tantalizing glimpses that are simply unexplored, such as Alma’s sharing of her battle with the American Medical Association and butcher doctors, but this is practically the last line of the book.
Even though this book is visually pleasing (it is filled with little sketches that go along with the story), I could never recommend it to a reader. If you want to read something a little more literary, to add some broccoli to the diet so to speak, I recommend you pick up Villette by Charlotte Bronte instead. It’s another tale told in the first person by an orphaned girl in the 19th Century, which has an emotional punch that will stay with you for years and characters so colorful that they are hard to forget. I read A Still Small Voice only 24 hours ago and it’s already fading from my memory. Perhaps that’s for the best.