The Mountain Lion
by Jean Stafford (1947)
NYRB Classics (2010)
248 pp

Because for years I’ve pulled Jean Stafford’s 1947 novel The Mountain Lion off the shelf with the intention of reading it, I had practically memorized the opening lines:

Ralph was ten and Molly was eight when they had scarlet fever. It left them with some sort of glandular disorder which was not malignant, but which kept them half poisoned most of the time and caused them, frequently, to have such bad nosebleeds that they had to be sent home from school. It nearly always happened that their nosebleeds came at the same time.

Maybe it was a case of liking the opening lines so much I couldn’t quite bear to read the book in case it failed them. Or maybe it was that I thought I knew what I was getting (despite the tone of those opening lines) and so I felt like holding off for a while. See, I thought The Mountain Lion was about two children who, one summer in the 1930s, find themselves away from their home in California to spend time with their Uncle in the mountains of Colorado. I thought: coming of age, harsh reality, maybe some tragedy. And I like the book I imagined The Mountain Lion to be. I was excited by that promise. I was not even close to comprehending what a strange, twisty, dark tale The Mountain Lion would prove itself to be. I absolutely loved it, even though I am still reeling a bit by the experience.

This is a tale of siblings, as we can gather from the opening sentence. In many ways it is a great companion to the book I was finishing up at the time I started The Mountain Lion: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Eliot also examines a sibling relationship — that of Maggie and Tom Tulliver — and each book suggests it might branch out into something else only to have that central relationship keep affecting everyone and everything in the novel.

When the novel begins, Ralph and Molly are at home in California expecting a visit from their Grandpa Kenyon, one of their heroes, in spite of the fact (or because of it) that their mother does not at all her stepfather who visits yearly. In the first few chapters we get to know the world these two children inhabit, along with the adults around them who fail to impress Ralph and Molly at all. Molly, in particular, sees each physical trait as a clear indicator that that adult is disgusting and impure. Both children work hard throughout the novel to ward off such traits in themselves. In many ways the novel is, as Kathryn Davis says in her afterword to the NYRB Classics edition, “a story about the impossibility of growing up and the impossibility of remaining a child.”

But even that entirely correct descriptor does not account for the novels strangely minacious tone or the ways Stafford cuts against that tone with moments brutally curt, including the last few lines of the novel, which I will not spoil here.

There is so much I still need to explore in this book. It demands a reread in short order. I need to spend more time thinking about Molly in particular as to me she embodies so much of the novel’s beautiful and threatening quirks. I need to read the first few chapters knowing already aware of what I’m reading. I think I have just found a new book to throw in among all my other favorites, so I can’t wait to do so.

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