Come to Me, Megan, by Ellen Garwood, Alexandria, Va.: Cameron Press, 184 pp., $14.95/$8.95
Seventeen-year-old Megan Delane, the daughter of a merchant prince in the cotton business, is a suffering wallflower at a country club dance in the strange-to-her city of New Orleans on Christmas Eve, 1919. From this beginning, the novel fades back to Megan's girlhood in "Gaitree," Oklahoma, goes forward through her education at a college in the North, and ends with her engagement.
From the elegance of Galatoire's restaurant to the miserable poverty of the batture (sandbar) dwellers, the New Orleans scenes roll by in vivid colors, smells, and sounds. And France, too, vividly emerges as Megan's friend, Pierre, describes to her his France: "Along the Loire, white fairy castles on hills…loom in gentle rises over a valley of green mist. Even the bridges crossing the river are poems.…"
It is not, however, New Orleans or France, but the people of the small town of Gaitree who take the reader into the author's captivating world of romance. "It's a pioneer town in the heart of this continent," Megan tells Pierre after she has left Gaitree. "There's a zing in the air. A zest, a spirit of challenge to everyone to prove his best." No less real because Megan's imagination invests the town with a spirit of derring-do, Gaitree has all the vices as well as the virtues.
The author's fictional Gaitree is Oklahoma City during its developing years when it had not yet thrown off its Indian affinity. The original Americans still exerted a strong influence on its culture. The town is not one of the old ones that took root in the early 19th century, as did many of the river towns of Arkansas and Mississippi. Founded by the '89ers when Indian territory was opened to white settlers, Gaitree nonetheless embraces the broad culture of the South.
The story centers on Megan's family. Her father, the cotton merchant, Phil Delane, is obviously the famous Will Clayton, who in fact and in the novel championed free trade and the southern farmer, who was held down by the limits placed on free trade.
The cardinal anomaly of international free trade is that it has never been tried, at least for long. Governments always have intervened—not ostensibly against trade, to be sure, but against its freedom and thus indeed against trade. Phil Delane suffers from no illusions about the real-life obstacles to making his dream come true. He says about his hopes: "I'd like to sell directly to the European spinners someday. Create a direct line of transit, with as few intermediaries as possible. Save cost. Handle the farmer's cotton as cheaply as we can, so as to encourage production, develop the country—help clothe the poor, everywhere. With freer trade, even frictions that cause war can be stopped." Then in sober fact he discusses the round bale of cotton, more compact than the square bale, "and you could get more of them into the holds of the European steamers." But "the train freight to eastern ports [is], unfairly, no less expensive than for the square bale which [is] so much bulkier and heavier."
Delane goes on: "Still, what can you expect? Ever since the Civil War the North has controlled freight rates. The same thing with tariffs on foreign goods. The agricultural South and Southwest—in fact, the whole country, the world—suffers. Simply from artificial barriers to trade. Not until Wilson have we had any respite."
Wilson was only a respite. With freight rates and tariffs, Congress discriminated against the South until at least the late '30s of this century.
Phil Delane skillfully maneuvers within the system while attempting to change it. A man who knows no surcease from work, he sometimes loses sight of his ever-supportive wife, who is more for alleviating individual suffering than for the cause of free trade. Megan feels keenly her father's neglect but recounts with sympathy the conspiracies of Phil Delane's enemies and his triumphs over them.
However interesting Phil Delane is as the protagonist of free trade, in the novel he is only a supporting character to Megan, a girl with her father's determination but with a delicate sensitivity that he never fully understands because of his own concentration on his work. The charm of the novel lies not only in the world around Megan but in the inner world of her mind, her spirit, and her heart.
They are filled throughout her girlhood and her teens with Danish Rolf Kroel, the son of the owner of the Gaitree drug store, a classical musical genius, a composer, and an inspired pianist. He returns Megan's love, but the financial difficulties of his father are a constant source of difficulty for Rolf. Megan hopes her father will help with money, but something always prevents the infusion.
Rolf's father, the town's former mayor, becomes a drunkard, jealous of his devoted wife's love for her son. To save his mother from his father's rage, Rolf accompanies his uncle to a small fishing village on the North Sea, where they make their living as fishermen. It is hard, demanding work. Despite occasionally playing at Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, Rolf loses his touch on the piano among the fish pots.
Rolf has affairs with some of the pretty Danish girls, but he regards them as casual. In the end the magnet of Megan pulls him back to Gaitree.
The spell of Rolf gradually diminishes for Megan. Pierre, somewhat older, introduces her to a new world—a Gallic world of art, literature, and an ancient but alive civilization. "Going back very, very far.…The bridges are reminiscent of the Roman aqueducts. Before the Romans—the Gaulois. Then the Visigoths. Later the Franks and Normans and Burgundians. And here in this cafe,…we French—here we are again."
A wounded flyer of World War I who had volunteered at 17, been shot down, captured, and escaped, Pierre becomes a naturalized American citizen and an executive of Delane and Company. He is patient in his courtship of Megan, impeded by her absence to attend college in Boston, but he makes full use of her vacations in New Orleans. His rival is her memory of Rolf, around which she has built her whole emotional existence. In the end, Megan discovers that she loves Pierre as fully as he has loved her for so long.
Young or old, the reader will relive with author Ellen Garwood her journey through the early years of our century. They may not have been "the age of innocence"; they were certainly the age of romance for which we all yearn.
Laurence Beilenson is a retired lawyer and a historian who has written several books on international relations, including The Treaty Trap (1969) and Power through Subversion (1972).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Free-Trade Romance".