A Little Horror, a Lot of Delight:

Andre Norton's Ralestone Luck



Of all the Norton books I’ve read so far, Ralestone Luck has both delighted and horrified me the most. According to the introduction to The Andre Norton Megapack, this was her first novel, written while she was in high school, though it didn’t appear in print until about a decade later, in 1938, as her second published novel.

I had no idea what to expect, except that it would not be science fiction and would probably have a historical bent. It turns out to be a contemporary, set in the Thirties, but it’s steeped in history. There’s a very old family with very old secrets, a crumbling castle that’s purportedly haunted—in the Louisiana bayou, no less—and a series of mysteries to solve. Also, pirates. And the Crusades. And rogue oil drillers.

When I was in high school, I would have eaten this with the biggest spoon I could get my hands on. It begins with a medieval legend attached to the Ralestone family, as represented by a trio of bright young things tooling along in a somewhat rattletrap roadster. Rupert is almost a decade older than Val and Ricky—short for Valerius and Richanda. Their parents are dead, Rupert is their guardian, and they’re in financial straits, reduced to moving into the partially renovated and mostly ruinous family manse. Which, naturally, has a resident ghost.

The three young Ralestones hope, in varying degrees, to find the lost Luck of the family. It’s an actual physical object, though they’re not totally sure what it is. Just that it attached itself to the family during the Crusades, brought them centuries worth of luck, and followed them from England to Louisiana, until it was lost in a fatal conflict between twin brothers. The family’s fortunes have been on a downhill slide ever since.

To add to the fun, there’s now a rival claimant for the property. If he wins the case, the siblings will be straight out of luck. Why, they might have to make their own way in the world, rather than survive on what’s left of the family fortune.

There’s also a lovely young lady artist named Charity, who rents the carriage house and earns a living illustrating potboilers for a New York publisher. One of her models is a laconic swamp denizen named Jeems, who happens to look just like Val, who takes after the slight, dark, French-descended branch of the family, as opposed to the tall, red-haired, pale-skinned branch as represented by Rupert and Ricky.

Keeping all of this going, managing the household and looking after the property, are the Loyal Retainers: stalwart Sam and his formidable wife Lucy and their large and obedient family. Because of course our young aristocrats can’t be left to do their own cooking and cleaning, though they do expect to do just that when they first move in. No, Sam and Lucy inform them, that won’t do. They will be Looked After, and that is that.

The house is an actual castle, complete with hidden doorways, secret passages, and tunnels constructed to store pirate loot—that having been the occupation of the original builder of the manse. Though smuggler and privateer might be a better description: his activities were quasi-legal and at least marginally acceptable to the society of the time.

It’s grand fun. Of course we find out what the Luck is, and who Jeems really is, and what the oil prospectors are up to and whether the rival claimant really is who he says he is. And as for the lovely Charity, well.

The best part for me, ghosts and medieval legends and piracy aside, is the subplot (one of the many) about the “scout” for the publisher who comes down in search of the author of a synopsis and partial of an unfinished ms. that is, the scout declares, absolutely brilliant and his boss wants the author found and signed immediately. This glimpse of the publishing world of eighty years ago is just so precious—when a publisher would actively go hunting unknown talent, and offer a contract based on five chapters and a synopsis. These days, that only happens when the author is a celebrity with a serious platform. Otherwise you’d better have a finished, polished ms., you probably need to send it through an agent, and you’re dealing with a giant corporation instead of a small personal company.

Sigh. Those were the days.

Reading this was like digging around in my grandparents’ bookshelves. My grandmother loved this kind of book and had a nice collection of mostly hardcovers, except for the large, catalogue-like, heavily illustrated Hollywood edition of a book that was a clear antecedent of this one, Gone With the Wind. Gothic romance (though the romance here, true to Norton’s long career, is minimal and tacked on at the end), sneering villains, mysteries, castles, hidden treasures, it’s all there. And it’s written in a bright, breezy, thoroughly Thirties style, remarkably like the romantic-comedy films of the time.

That style is delightful. Later Norton is anything but bright or breezy. The word that comes to mind in thinking of her later work is earnest. Her subject matter is serious, she has important things to say, and there’s no time to be frivolous.

I can’t help but think that World War II and all that came after affected her profoundly. This work of her youth has some awareness of the earlier world war (she was born in 1912 so would probably not have remembered much about the war itself), and there are indications that the crash of 1929 and the Depression affected the fate of the siblings, but their world is a much sunnier, less challenging place than the worlds she wrote after the war.

Just knowing what was happening while she was writing this book and embarking on what proved to be an amazingly long career, and what was about to happen in the world, makes this novel a very interesting and complex reading experience. There are hints of what she would become: the late and hasty romantic element, the tropism toward the fantastic, the love for adventures in dark underground places. Val has a disability, a leg injured in a plane crash, which looks ahead to Norton’s many disabled protagonists.

And then there’s the part that outright horrified me. The racism. Oh ye gods, is that bad. And yes, longtime commenters, it is absolutely of its time.

This is the era that went wild over Gone With the Wind. The romance of the Old South, the myth of the happy slaves happily serving their beloved masters on the plantations, the romantic aristocrats fighting for their Lost Cause with their loyal slaves beside them—it’s all there. Complete with dialect as thick as molasses.

Oh, the stereotypes. Big, massive, loyal Sam, who adamantly refuses to let the descendants of the old masters pay him or any of his family for their services. Heroically plump, forthright, masterful Lucy with her painfully marcel-waved hair, ordering her pack of children and her husband about and taking charge of the young Ralestones—she’s played, I’m sure, by the great Hattie McDaniel.

It really is horrifying. Lucy gets a touch of humanity when the house fills up with random and semi-random white people; she looks tired, and she’s a bit stretched to look after it all. But she’s still a superwoman, and she never flags in her mission to make sure all the white folks are properly looked after.

Because that, of course, is the purpose of black people. To serve white people. Their dialect is a way of othering them, and it works.

Jeems also speaks dialect not too different from the black people’s, but we learn right up front that he’s really very intelligent and he only speaks swamp patois because he wants to. Jeems is white, which means that even when he’s a stereotype, we have to understand that he’s better than that. It’s a point of pride for him to talk the way he does. Versus the black people, for whom this is their assigned and ineluctable role in life.

Norton found her way out of this later, not always completely successfully, but now I see where she came from, I’m a fair bit more impressed by what she did in her more mature works. She learned to see the humanity in all ethnicities, and tried hard to convey it in her works.

I have found the Tor paperback reissue of her first published novel, The Prince Commands (1934), but it probably won’t arrive in time for the next Reread deadline. In the meantime, I’ll move on to the next novel collected in the Megapack, Ride Proud, Rebel! It was first published in 1961, so I’m slightly less apprehensive about its racial politics than I might be, but we’ll see.

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