MacDougall, Ruth Doan

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MacDOUGALL, Ruth Doan

Born 19 March 1939, Laconia, New Hampshire

Daughter of Daniel and Ernestine Crone Doan; married Donald K. MacDougall, 1957

Ruth Doan MacDougall's novels reflect her affection for the New England scenes of her youth; a constant theme is regret and anger over the encroachments of "civilization" on the natural beauties of the countryside. A frequent motif is female friendships between contemporaries or between a girl and an older woman who serves as mentor and confidant. MacDougall's male characters are drawn in brief, telling strokes; they are vivid but secondary to the women.

The Lilting House (1965) progresses from the point of view of the "wise innocent" to the informed commentary of Celia, the narrator, as a young woman taking charge of her life; Celia's development is the novel's frame. The inner story traces the late maturation of Felicia Polichnowski, an intellectual, imaginative woman married to a laborer. The Lilting House contrasts several mother-daughter relationships, Felicia's and Celia's families, and the characters' various abilities to reconcile dream and reality.

One of the decade's most powerful novels, The Cost of Living (1971), opens with a massacre in a New England supermarket; the motivation is then provided in a long flashback. As narrated sympathetically but unsentimentally by her lifelong friend, Jane, Polly Hall's attempt to be an ideal daughter, wife, and mother is symbolized by her efforts to restore her old home to perfection. The realism of Polly's struggle with an inadequate budget and other details of daily life is contrasted brilliantly with the almost mythic sense of fate that controls the novel's tone.

One Minus One (1971) is a character study of newly divorced Emily Bean, who fears being a single woman. Her relationships with two roommates—one soon to be married, one desperately wishing to be—and her affairs with two men form the plot, which compares her life with those of her mother and grandmother, employing passages from the grandmother's diary. The novel ends on a note of restrained hope; Emily is simply drifting professionally, but she has confronted her former husband's happy second marriage and has faced the impossibility of averting change.

Both these novels also present fascinating studies of one kind of modern American nomad—high school teachers who move from job to job, seeking the good life. All yearn to put down roots, but most move on, searching for a natural environment that no longer exists and an ideal town that perhaps exists only in imagination. MacDougall's stark contrasting of their realistic need for decent pay and good working conditions with their more dreamlike goals contributes greatly to the tension of these novels.

The Cheerleader (1973, reprinted 1998) is a bildungsroman that clearly depicts high school life and mores in the 1950s, often employing references to music and films to enhance the realism of the setting. The characterization of the protagonist, Henrietta Snow, is remarkably lifelike because of MacDougall's treatment of teenage friendships, sexuality, bondage to dress and behavior codes, and desire for both popularity and recognition. Snowy's maturation, though at times painful, is successful, as symbolized by her rejection of childish alliances in favor of the intellectual stimulation of a good college.

The central characters in Wife and Mother (1976) are clearly designed to symbolize two forces in American society, with Carolyn representing intellectual values and conservationist attitudes and John representing single-minded business sense and exploitation of the land. Yet the portrait of Carolyn Ash, who marries only because she is pregnant and who achieves a sense of herself largely because of her friendship with Dee Winkler, one of MacDougall's best realized characters, is sharply drawn. The novel is a strong, useful metaphor for modern life; its celebration of the simple joys of gardening and of animal and bird watching is all the more effective because of the pervading consciousness that John's ambition dooms the environment Carolyn has learned to love.

MacDougall is an accurate, careful reporter of contemporary middle-class life; her novels are well crafted, serious, and worthy of attention.

Other Works:

Aunt Pleasantine (1979). The Flowers of the Forest (1982). A Lovely Time Was Had By All (1982). My Old Man of the Mountain: A Profile of Daniel Doan (1994). Snowy (1993).

Bibliography:

NYT (13 Jan. 1971, 1 Feb. 1973). NYTBR (12 Sept. 1971, 4 Feb. 1973).

—JANE S. BAKERMAN