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May 7, 1998

Book review: James Michener’s ‘Somerville’

This masterpiece by one of America’s best-loved authors takes a close look at the epic history of the town of Somerville. Like many of Michener’s classic tales, ‘Somerville’ is the story of two rival clans, both of whom embody, in the author’s words, “the depth and the brilliance of that storied city by the Mystic — Somerville.”

Indeed, Michener is dead on in his characterizations of members of the two families. One, the Pitkin clan, is “tied to the land,” as the author puts it. The Pitkins are “the salt of the earth — leisured residents of the triple decker.” On the other hand, the Wethersbee family is industrious yet dour, like “a dark, deadly growth of nightshade, growing in the shadow of the old split-rail fence.”

Throughout the novel, the Pitkins and the Wethersbees clash repeatedly over such issues as farming rights, public drunkeness, and the making of excessive noise at 3 a.m. Here is a passage from Chapter IV of ‘Somerville’ explaining the dualism that lies at the heart of the book:

... Old Samuel Pitkin and his lovely daughter came late to the barn raising. The Rogers’ place near Winter Hill sat near a shallow stream that Old Sam felt the need to wade in for several blissful minutes. Barefoot, he approached the gathering where already several teams of young men were straining, lifting the heavy wooden timbers into place.

“It’s Old Sam!” the youngsters cried. “D’you have your fiddle?” In this summer of 1814, the question hardly needed to be asked, for Old Sam never went anywhere without it.

“Drop thet barn!” Old Sam shouted, “and let’s have us a party!” The young men hardly needed to be told twice. A keg of hard cider was rolled out of the icehouse and hurriedly tapped. A fellow from Lowell named Dixie handed out crude paper cups. Old Sam started in on the fiddle ...

... Soon Silas Wethersbee, a pale, shrunken clerk, stood atop the pile of timbers, blunderbuss in hand. “Some of us decent folk have to work tomorrow!” he shouted. “If’n you don’t stop this racket, I’ll call the constable on ye!” Chastened, Old Sam let the fiddle fall from his fingers.

As the generations pass, Pitkins and Wethersbees develop a pattern. The Wethersbees are the hard-working employees of Cambridge and Boston insurance companies, while the Pitkins just want to have fun and take advantage of Somerville’s cheap rents. Inevitably, the two sides are drawn into an intergenerational conflict of epic proportions. Another scene, from Chapter XXIX, set in the Prohibition year of 1928, puts this conflict into even starker contrast:

... Natty ‘Pit’ Pitkin and his lovely flapper girlfriend Zelda came late to the speakeasy. The bar in Winter Hill sat near a fountain that Pit and Zelda frolicked in for several blissful minutes. Damp and grinning, Pit approached the speakeasy, where already several young couples were dancing the Charleston, frenetically twisting on the wooden floor.

“It’s Pit!” the youngsters cried. “D’you have your ukelele?” In this summer of 1928, the question hardly needed to be asked, for Pit never went anywhere without it.

“Open that bottle of bathtub gin!” Pit shouted, “and let’s have us a party!” The young couples hardly needed to be told twice. A tub full of hooch was rolled out of the back room and hurriedly served into glasses. A fellow from Lowell named Solo handed out crude plastic cups. Pit started in on his ukelele ...

... Soon Robert Wethersbee, a pale, shrunken stockbroker, stood atop the speakeasy stairs with a tommy gun. “Some of us decent folk have to work tomorrow!” he shouted. “If you don’t stop this racket, I’ll have the bulls on you!” Chastened, Pit let the ukelele fall from his fingers.

It does not detract from the reader’s enjoyment to know that in the final chapter, Ben Pitkin, a 26-year-old B.U. undergraduate, faces down the last surviving Wethersbee, a claims adjuster for Fidelity, in single combat atop the spinning sculpture in Porter Square. Technically, of course, Porter Square is in Cambridge, but Michener may be forgiven his slight ignorance of local geography in his retelling of a saga played out every day on the streets of — Somerville.

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