Do you ever notice how some authors, for whatever reason, obsessively repeat the same plot? Edith Wharton loved having men fall in love with her wives' cousins. Carson McCullers can't stop writing about pre-teen girls isolated by the process of getting older. Eudora Welty, I guess, loves writing about older men who fall marry younger women. These infant brides are never as good as their husbands, and they come with a boatload of unsavory family members to boot. In the case of The Optimist's Daughter, the bride is a greedy harpy intent on snatching every bit of property she can away from her husband's family. Bonnie Dee Peacock, who marries the titular Daniel Ponder of The Ponder Heart is merely a pretty dullard, who has "not a whit of human curiosity," like an overgrown kewpie doll. The Optimist's Daughter mined this set-up for unexpected, lyric depth; The Ponder Heart is in full-on satirical mode.
And it's really funny. The story is narrated by Edna Earle Ponder, whose duties consist in keeping her Uncle Daniel in check. His childlike--not childish--need to be loved produces a runaway generosity, and Edna Earle has to keep him from giving away every single thing he and everybody else has. I decided that I loved this book as soon as I read about Uncle Daniel leaving Edna Earle on a Ferris Wheel so he could pass out ice cream to the dancing girls at the fair:
He'd belted me into the Ferris Wheel, then vanished, instead of climbing into the next car. And the first thing I made out from the middle of the air was Uncle Daniel's big round hat up on the platform of the Escapades side-show, right in the middle of those ostrich plumes. There he was--passing down the line of those girls doing their come-on dance out front, and handing them out ice cream cones, right while they were shaking their heels to the music, not in very good time. He'd got the cream from the Baptist ladies' tent--banana, and melting fast. And I couldn't get off the Ferris Wheel till I'd been around my nine times, no matter how often I told them who I was. When I finally got loose, I flew up to Uncle Daniel and he stood there and hardly knew me, licking away and beside himself with pride and joy. And his sixty cents was gone, too. Well, he would have followed the fair to Silver City when it left, if I'd turned around for good.
But Edna Earle can't stop Uncle Daniel from marrying Bonnie Dee Peacock (the names!), who does nothing of interest except when she runs away and when she comes home again. When Bonnie Dee dies of fright during a storm, Uncle Daniel is charged with her murder by her backwoods family. During the trial--a hilarious prototype of the kind of Southern courtroom scene that you see in To Kill a Mockingbird or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or A Time to Kill or, obviously, My Cousin Vinny--the Peacocks talk over the lawyers, and get up for water every couple of minutes, and one of the boys spends the whole time playing the harmonica. It's great.
Welty has an ear for the particular music of Southern language and life like no author I've ever read; including McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. Maybe this book wouldn't strike the same chord with someone from another part of the country, but to me it was both hilariously strange and persuasively real. I put it 7th on my top ten list this past year, but looking back at it now, that seems ridiculously low.