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the heavenly tenants

6 may 2013

The Heavenly Tenants is a wonderfully fey and pointless children's book from 1946, an austere little piece of aestheticism that they truly don't make 'em like anymore. Author William Maxwell was longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker, a mentor to J.D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, Frank O'Connor and other masters of prose restraint. He was also an author of several fictions for adults and children both, one of which (The Folded Leaf) I'd only just heard of for the first time after I'd already ordered The Heavenly Tenants from InterLibrary Loan. Illustrator Ilonka Karasz also worked for The New Yorker, and in The Heavenly Tenants both she and Maxwell pursue the project of locating an authentic America in the salt-of-the-earth Midwest. The implied consumers of such books might be Eastern Establishment types with Park Avenue addresses, but they drew their strength from the soil, even if it was the soil of summer vacations and teenage farm jobs.

The flap copy of the beautiful 1992 Parabola reprint of The Heavenly Tenants identifies the origins of the book in just such a job that Maxwell had had on a Wisconsin farm one summer in his teens. The Heavenly Tenants is full of reverence for the systems of a flourishing farm – systems so natural that the gods themselves will descend to earth to keep things running if the humans are temporarily absent.

The Marvells are a family with Virginia roots and Wisconsin acres. When their somewhat starstruck (but quite agriculturally competent) father packs them up for a trip back to Old Virginia, the hired man forgets to look after the farm. But the twelve Signs of the Zodiac, Mr. Marvell's special astronomical obsession, take up residence on the farm, and make sure that everything is better than new when the owners return.

That's it for plot, though there's one embedded story that seems close to Maxwell's heart, and perhaps less a digression than an excuse for writing the entire book (26-30). Mr. Marvell tells his children of a man who took to spending entire days at the bottom of a well so that he could see the stars in the daytime. Curious about his doings, his wife went down the well in his absence, and another of those dimwit hired men pulled the ladder up and left her there. She was eventually extracted, and then filled the well and planted flowers in it.

The tension between earth and sky in this little story continues across the whole of The Heavenly Tenants. The tenants themselves are benign but also inherently awful; the light they emit attracts the attention of whole Wisconsin counties. They will look after us; but they clearly have the power to destroy us.

Karasz makes the most of this majestic theme, filling two-page spreads with images of Zodiac characters and rural Midwesterners in counterpoint to one another. And as good as her one-color drawings (in blue on white or white on blue) are Maxwell's sentences, which avoid attributive adjectives like the no-good rotten evil nasty plague. I'm not entirely sure what The Heavenly Tenants is actually about, but it's a triumph of good style.

Maxwell, William. The Heavenly Tenants. Illustrated by Ilonka Karasz. 1946. New York: Parabola, 1992.