The Bright Land

The Drink

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…”known in alien times as Alexandre, but in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, as the Diary State, now rechristened for the purposes of this book the Bright Land.” After drinking it, any land looks brighter.

1 1/4 BEAKERS OF GIN
1/2 BEAKER OF CREAM
3/16 BEAKER OF CREME DE CACOA
1/16 BEAKER OF STRONG BLACK COFEE
SMALL AMOUNT OF SUGAR SYRUP

– from So Red the Nose

Yeah, I’ve never, ever heard of an “Alexander” cocktail before, but it seems to be a very similar flavor combination as a white Russian. Which is the same as saying that the Alexander/Bright Land is delicious. Send ALL the 1930’s cream-based drinks this way.

Also, aside from Years of Grace, creme de cacao is the best thing So Red the Nose has introduced me to so far. It’s like chocolate heaven, with a higher ethanol content.

This drink seems like such a sweet outlier compared to all the harder drinks we’ve seen (although you’ll notice gin is still the number one ingredient), but apparently creamy drinks weren’t all that uncommon mid-century.

The weirdest part of this drink for me was the measuring. Firstly, “beaker” is not a unit of measurement, and I found beakers in everything from 1- to 20- ounce sizes. On the other hand, beakers are the only vessels I could find that measure to such a bizarrely precise degree as 3/16ths of…anything. I say, just skip the whole Bright Land thing and divide everything equally, as shown in the Wikipedia link above.

All that aside, the drink is quite delightful. Speaking of which…

The Book

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imagesAbby-Delight is well named. Not because her combination Hostess product/stripper name makes any damn sense for a Puritan, but because she really is a delightful character to follow. The reader delights in this young girl, raised by a domineering father in an repressed society, as she slowly discover all the little delights of the world outside of her small New England town — everything from Dickens to dancing.

Bright Land takes place from 1835 to 1888ish, hitting all the major points in history along the way, chief among them the expansion westward, which Abby-Delight gets swept up in  when she is swept off her feet by one of those wild Illinois men.

Forgotten classic or better left in the past?

SteamboatBenCampbellbI’m not sure if this book is enjoyably melodramatic pulp or completely brilliant. Can I choose all of the above?

The one thing I can confidently say is that this 1932 novel was just about impossible to put down. Ayer Fairbank has that knack for raising questions that — no matter how trivial– you just have to know the answer to, and, before you know it, 10 chapters have gone by. I went through most of the book thinking it was just an extremely well-written, smart, self-aware, feminist pulp novel. Awesome.

But, little did I know Ayer Fairbank was lulling me into a false sense of security with her 1800’s dress porn and boring historical asides, only to hit me with a gut-punch of depth and insight.

Example: one of the subplots involves a typically tarty “other woman” in love with Abby-Delight’s husband. And Other Woman is charming and flirtatious and Abby feels inferior even though her husband wouldn’t even dream of… blah, blah, blah — Twilight did it too. The whole thing comes to a head when Abby sees them together and a misunderstanding ensues. DRAMA! But, then it’s all solved neatly within two chapters, without Abby having to grow, change, or face up to any of her insecurities. The whole episode just seemed like a cheap way to keep (female) readers engaged.

But then, many years later, Abby and her husband Stephen run into the woman, Lily, by chance. We get our first and only switch to her point of view as she views her rival,

There she sat, the woman who had what she would have given her life for. She was singularly unchanged: beside her Lily felt battered by life, and yet, how little this cold creature knew of the impulses and passions which ran so strongly under the surface which had kept unruffled! She was like a child, a righteous, unsuspecting little girl. The thoughts which she had rigorously kept out of her mind had made her like that. Lily did not know whether to envy or pity her.

Southern-belle-civil-warWhich… yes? I hadn’t realized it till then because I’d spent some 400 pages taking Abby-Delight’s side, but she is childish and self-centered. In one paragraph, Ayer Fairbank flips the paradigm and makes the the conniving, “loose” woman more sympathetic and complex than our protagonist.

Which is not to say that the book is perfect. It can never for a minute forget that it’s historical fiction, and the real-life people therein — namely Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant — feel more like cameos than characters. Their entries may as well have been copied directly from a history textbook.

But then that ending. Oh, the ending. It’s quiet anticlimax is ironically one of the darker things I’ve read so far, both because it’s so unexpected and yet so realistic.

You know, the more I write out my thoughts on this story, the more I’m leaning to the side of brilliant. Flawed? Yes. But still with the right amount of nuanced human understanding that we expect from a great novel.

In addition to writing, Ayers Fairbank was a well-known suffragette. Unlike her sister, she was only a runner-up, not winner, of the Pulitzer Prizes. Slacker.

In addition to writing, Ayer Fairbank was a well-known suffragette. Unlike her sister, she was only a runner-up, not winner, of the Pulitzer Prize. Slacker.

Actually, I was having flashbacks to my beloved Years of Grace through most of this book. Although a very different character, point of view, time period, and — to a certain extent– tone, it has essentially the exact same structure, following its female protagonist from early adolescence/first love through late middle age/grandmotherhood.

I made a mental note of her last name and finally googled the author after I finished, and, yes, Margaret Ayer Barnes of Years of Grace fame and Janet Ayer Fairbank were indeed sisters. A fascination with the passing of the time, the interactions between generations, the inner lives of women, and men named Stephen (Seriously, the husbands in both books were named Stephen. WHY? Were they both in love with a Stephen? Was their father named Stephen? Inquiring minds must know!) is apparently genetic.

So I guess now I’m an official Ayer-sisters fangirl. Go obscure, out-of-print, midcentury, feminist, progressive, female authors!!! Woot!

Anyway, it’s pretty much a crime against literary history that The Bright Land isn’t better remembered. Not as much of a crime as it is for Years of Grace, but still. If you are in any way drawn to historical fiction and/or complex character exploration, check it out.

Used copies of The Bright Land are available on Amazon

Next time: Like desperate housewives everywhere, we will sip a cocktail as we read a children’s book.

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2 thoughts on “The Bright Land

  1. Yes, the original Alexander was made with gin but the Brandy Alexander has survived. The standard bartending recipe would be equal parts brandy (don’t use the good stuff), dark creme de cacao and half and half. Shake, strain into a chilled champagne shell and lightly dust with nutmeg. Fairly sweet and pretty much strictly an after dinner cocktail…

  2. “The Bright Land” was one of my favorite books when I was younger. If only I still had my copy! I wanted to tie up Abby-Delight’s stern old father and spiteful stepmother so they’d leave her alone. Her elopement with Stephen Blanchard was a whirlwind of suspense, and I probably read ahead to be sure she got her man.

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