Uncertain Ground by Carolyn Osborn
Although Carolyn Osborn, past president of the Texas Institute of Letters and winner of the group's Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement, has long been a visible force in Texas writing, it may surprise many readers that this is her premiere novel.
192 pp. Wings Press
Better known for her award-winning short stories, Osborne’s first long fiction details the bittersweet adventures of a college student during her visit to Galveston Island in the summer of 1953. The story flows like a gulf breeze and offers a sometimes intoxicating mixture of nostalgia and, possibly, autobiography.
Celia Henderson, an upper-middle-class small-town girl, joins her rake and rambling first cousin, Emmett, on a summer vacation from their drought-stricken ranchland homes in Central Texas. Celia narrates a series of tender, girlish adventures in what is arguably Texas’ most exotic setting. As the summer progresses, she meanders about the island, wading in the surf and strolling the relatively new seawall, making friends and examining the nature of life – growing up, in sum.
There are, as most Texans know, many Galvestons, mostly defined by devastating storms and their aftermath, or by wars. Osborn’s setting is post-World War II Galveston, that watershed, pre-modern-development- period when the island was still a lazy tourist getaway offering a bit of benign vice and a generous amount of sun and sand.
Landmarks appear throughout, most especially the Galvez Hotel. Gaido’s Restaurant, LaFitte’s Garden, the old downtown financial district, the historic churches, and venerable and apparently hurricane-impervious Victorian homes provide the backdrop. There are snatches of popular music and references to fashion that recall a more innocent and more relaxed society. Darker hints of racism and the Cold War do not much detract from the novel’s sweetness.
The Galveston that Celia visits is dominated by a singular family with (alleged) connections to organized crime; it was, compared with any other city in Texas, wide open. Gambling, prostitution and open saloons operated freely on the island, especially along the infamous Post Office Street. This is a stimulating world for an emotionally confused young woman who worries initially about her sometime-boyfriend in Colorado and also about the unwelcome sexual advances of her handsome but irresponsible cousin. Her main anchor in the bewildering storm of urges is a local artist, Luis, whose Mexican-American lineage and rumored homosexuality appeal to Celia’s taste for the unusual.
There are no hurricane-force plot twists. Events unfold with the rhythmic undulation of a rising tide, but the novel builds to no genuine climax, no moment of truth. Instead, Celia’s innocence is eroded by the ebb and flow of circumstance. She gradually gathers the maturity and wisdom she needs to enter a complacent and conservative adult life.
One problem is that Celia is often a bit smug. She comes off as nearly too perfect, too practical and entirely too sensible to allow herself any real adventure. Clinging to her sense of values, she passes through the summer squalls high and dry. She’s made no mistakes, gathered no regrets; but she’s also taken no chances, felt no passion, no desire. As a result, she emerges from the experience self-satisfied and a bit judgmental.
Osborne’s characterizations, particularly of the older folks already fading into history, are endearing, just as her portrait of emerging young adults, more worldly and, perhaps, more cynical, is sharp with occasional irony.
Celia belongs to the quiet generation, too young for war, too old for revolution, destined to settle and be bland. Osborn captures this transition in culture just as she anticipates the evolutions that are beginning to take place on Galveston and blends them together in a nostalgic romance that entertains and never gives in to melancholy.
Reviewer Clay Reynolds is professor of arts and humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.