Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Book Review: "At Midnight on the Thirty-First of March"

A friend recently asked me to try and locate a copy of Josephine Young Case's At Midnight on the Thirty-First of March, an out-of-print title most recently published in 1990 by Syracuse University Press (it was originally published by Houghton Mifflin in 1938). When the book finally arrived yesterday (after an interminably long wait), I decided to dip into it for a few minutes ... famous last words, I know. After just the first few pages, I was hooked; I couldn't get anything done until I'd read the whole darn thing (thankfully at just 132 pages it only took most of the evening and just cut a few hours out of my night's sleep).

Written entirely in blank verse, At Midnight is the story of the sleepy upstate New York town of Saugersville, whose occupants suddenly (at midnight, on the 31st of March) finds themselves entirely cut off from the outside world. The roads mysteriously end just outside of town; electricity, radio and phone transmissions simply don't exist. The people of Saugersville are alone. The poem tracks the community through an entire year, as residents adjust to life without gasoline, new supplies, or news from beyond their little valley (or even the knowledge that any human life exists beyond their town). They struggle to revise their lives, debate what should be taught to their children in school (one of the most interesting segments), and all in their own ways try to cope with their new situation. Some, of course, are more successful in this than others.

Midway through the year, one of the community's leaders muses, internally, on life as it has become. I think this has tremendous power to speak to us today living in the age that we do - perhaps even more power than it had to Ms. Case's audience back in the late 1930s.

"'What will become of us? We seem to be
The only human beings left alive.
If there are ever going to be again
Races of men, and cities, governments, -
At least upon this continent, like us,
Americans, - we are their fathers now,
And they depends on us and what we bring.
I do not think this can be really so.
There must be other villages alive.
One day we will discover them, they us,
And meeting fall to talking of a day
When we were all so near we did not care
Who lived or died or what became of us,
Too sure of everything - heat, light and power
And public education and the roads, -
Too little parts of a machine too great
For us to understand, or anyone,
So that we blamed ourselves no more at all
For anything that happened - that was bad;
I guess we took some credit for the good -
Complaining always of the government
Or capital, or labor, or the weather.
The last is all we can complain of now
With no one to account for but ourselves,
And near enough to see where blame is due,
If blame there is where everyone works hard
And does his best to keep himself alive.'"

It's a frightening scenario, and one that's pretty difficult to think about. Case's poem is imaginative, poignant and eerie, with very careful pacing as well as opening and closing sections which are just unforgettable. It deserves a wider audience.