In the town of Vader, Tennessee, the Crabbs are the poorest family, so Esme Crabb plans to find a prosperous man to marry. Cleavis Rhy not only owns a store filled with delicious foodstuffs but lives in a big house, which makes the decision easy for her, and Pamela Morsi’s Garters begins with Esme marching determinedly down a mountain, the general store in her sights.
It’s a wonderful opening, especially when she reaches the store and Cleavis offers her something to eat, which leads to Esme blurting out, “You wanna marry me?” His shock leads her to quickly rephrase that as a request for huckleberry jam, and he thinks he must have misheard her. But soon Esme has to attend to her sagging stockings – she can’t afford garters – and he thinks she does have pretty legs. Naturally, she catches him staring, and that gives her the courage to proceed with her plan.
Esme realizes she doesn’t know anything about Cleavis other than that he’s well-off. He’s also educated by her community’s standards, since he went away to school in Knoxville. And unlike the rest of her family, he works hard. But that’s the one thing the two of them have in common, since Esme is also determined to work hard to show him she would make a good wife.
For his part, Cleavis plans to marry Sophrona Tewksbury, the preacher’s daughter, because she’s the sort of lady who would be a match for a gentleman. She doesn’t have any interest in his trout-breeding experiments – although he owns a store, what really fascinates him is pisciculture – but he can hardly discuss breeding of any kind with a refined and innocent girl anyway.
The only problem is Esme Crabb, who for some reason has taken to hanging around the store. And his fish ponds. And his house, where she stands outside watching his window. And the parsonage, when he’s courting Sophrona.
Yesterday she had actually been waiting for him on the path when he came back from the privy!
I first read this book about fifteen years ago, and at the time I thought this was cute and amusing. I could also understand the purpose of Esme’s following Cleavis around like a shadow, since she’s not only trying to help out at the store, she’s doing her best to learn about him.
The problem is that he makes it clear he’s going to marry Sophrona, and he tells Esme to leave him alone. She ignores this. On rereading, her actions were more akin to stalking than courtship, and I kept wondering why Cleavis didn’t do something to get rid of her, especially since tongues are soon wagging across the town.
Of course he’s attracted to her, and of course she’s a better match for him than Sophrona, but the poor man is essentially railroaded into a relationship. Even their hasty wedding is due to a mistake on his part and Esme’s habit of blurting out the truth. Cleavis is further disappointed to discover that Esme’s purpose all along was to bring her family to live in his house, since it had at least soothed his pride to believe she wanted him.
That said, there’s a lot to like about this book. For instance, everyone else in Esme’s family is happy to accept handouts, but when she wears a dress she found in a charity basket they received, a stunned Cleavis asked what she’s doing in Sophrona’s dress. The most beautiful thing she ever owned was a donated castoff. I felt for her. She’s always loyal to her family, always looking out for them, and best of all, she learns about trout-breeding from Cleavis and helps with his work.
Cleavis is not my favorite of Pamela Morsi’s heroes, because he seemed too passive in the face of Esme’s relentless pursuit. I also loathed his nickname for her, which was “Hillbaby” – a combination of ‘hillbilly’ and ‘baby’, I suppose, neither of which are very romantic to my mind. But Pamela Morsi always nails her setting, and rural Tennessee, along with the customs and mindsets of its people, is vividly depicted. So Garters gets a cautious recommendation. There were parts of it I didn’t enjoy at all, but when it was good, it was excellent.