By Mari Sandoz
Published 1939, reprinted November 2007
Reviewed June 10, 2008
Originally reviewed in: BookReview.com
Originally published in 1939, Mari Sandoz’s “Capital City” fits into the many novels reacting to the poverty and politics of America during the Great Depression. Drawing on personal experience and the archives of Midwestern newspapers, Sandoz crafted the fictional state of Kanewa, home to an elite circle of families and an ever-widening circle of the disenfranchised. Her aim was to use fiction to depict the bitter competition driving the families, the anger working people felt and the rise of fascist thought in the Great Plains.
Does she succeed? Well, yes and no – the book certainly contains ample instances of hedonism, elitism and short-sightedness, showing Sandoz certainly did her research on the area’s culture. The problem is that Sandoz, considered the definitive historian on Plains Indians and the Lakota chief Crazy Horse, feels ill-fitted writing a work of fiction. Used to a scholarly audience, her literary work never quite grabs the reader’s full interest.
The chief culprit in holding the book back is its slow, almost dreary pace. The first third of “Capital City” is all exposition, setting up the framework of the city’s “nobility” – a genealogy on par with Mafia families or royalty who barter their children for political alliances. Every character has a backstory, every business has a political history and everyone seems to be against someone else. It’s a tangled mass almost requiring an organizational chart, especially since they spend half their time scheming against the others.
Once the book develops narrative it gets more interesting, since the city is full of complicated subplots. A firebrand farmer running a long-shot Senate campaign, the death of a city official during a grand elitist celebration, a university professor whose novel is excoriated by the town for its brutal honesty (a foreshadowing of Sandoz fleeing to Denver after “Capital City” was published) – all are factors in the city’s restless agitation. But those plots don’t make up for a slower start, every development paired with three pages of exposition.
This is not to say that “Capital City” is as painfully dry as the Great Plains. Sandoz is one of Nebraska’s preeminent writers for a reason, and her skills are repeatedly exercised when describing the Depression’s attitude. There are frequent allusions to the city and her residents as whores and parasites, and the term “capital city” is written with the sort of fear and vitriol that matches the Ministry of Truth from Orwell’s “1984.” Her characters fit a variety of descriptions, ranging from straight and aged as smokestacks to old crows on the fence waiting for carrion.
One particularly noteworthy passage attributed to the novel’s protagonist shows Sandoz’s grasp of prose writing: “He was like those others born in Franklin, mere followers, his brother and all the others here, content with the feel of money flowing under their hands, their mothers’ money, or their grandmothers’, or somewhere much farther removed; even exhilarated by the movement, as though it were their own making, like the blanket of green plantlets rising and falling with the pulse of a turgid stream.”
As a historical piece of fiction “Capital City” is certainly a strong look at Midwestern politics during the Depression, and its techniques earn it a place among the early works of new journalism. Sandoz has a great deal of frustration at Midwestern culture and uses many of the right words to express it, and it’s a frustrating thing that the book never truly lights afire.