Chapbook with Card
Cover, 53 pp.
ISBN 1-896648-64-9 @ 12.00
Introduction by Peter Ruber
When the indomitable Aunt May sets her mind to something, no amount of common
sense advice from her husband or her own father can deter her from completing
her crusade. As Sac Prairie's self-proclaimed keeper of public morals, and a
paragon of virtue who goes to church every day and twice on Sunday, Aunt May is
one of August Derleth's most color village characters, after Gus Elker and the
Aunt May's misadventures or misdeeds, if you prefer have a way of turning against her in the most delightful ways. She is a pious do-gooder who minds everybody's business but her own, and deserves the unflattering mantle of being the town's most obnoxious citizen. In these stories we learn about her determination to turn her "heathen Indian" gardener into a God-fearing person; how she tries to prevent a young, pretty housemaid from selling her favors in haylofts for extra money to buy fine clothes and jewelry; how she willingly becomes the foster mother to two English war refugees, but is horrified to discover that their religious beliefs conflict with her own; and when she pits her Women's Club against the local Horticultural Society, the village of Sac Prairie almost becomes a battleground.
Horse-faced Aunt May, with a smile as endearing as a "crack in a rock," appeared in only five delightful stories. The first four in this collection were published in August Derleth's Country Growth (1940), Sac Prairie People (1948), and Wisconsin in their Bones (1961). One wishes there could be a whole book of them. It is curious to note that of the more than 160 Sac Prairie stories and novelettes the author published during his lifetime, the Aunt May stories were never published in any magazine prior to book publication.
That may have been due to the fact that the stories poke fun at religious fanatics, an editorial taboo of many popular magazines published during the 1930s and 1940s. The fifth story, The Regeneration of Ben Secker, added another dimension to the forbidden topics of the times, the subject of venereal disease. This is the first time this story has been published, anywhere. I found it among a huge cache of unpublished Derleth manuscript given to me by his daughter April, after the first edition of this chapbook was published in June, 1996.
In the genealogy of Sac Prairie, Aunt May is one of five daughters of Grandfather Adams, whose sister Rose is the mother of Stephen Grendon, the narrator of these tales. Grendon, of course, is the fictional alter ego of August Derleth. Aunt May also appeared in Derleth's Evening in Spring (1941), quite possibly Derleth's best and most satisfying novel, which deals with the trials and tribulations of young love in a small community inhabited by gossips and religious bigots. It is a fictionalized account of the author's first romantic entanglement with a girl named Margery Estabrook.
The story is told with a great deal of compassion and understanding; and though it is set in the early 1920s it seems as vibrant today as when it was written fifty-five years ago. I mention this book because Aunt May is one of the principal characters, who spins her web of destruction with the wrath of an avenging angel, and her scenes are among the most delightful in the book.
Evening in Spring will be reprinted by this publisher in 1997. In the meantime, here are five tales featuring the indomitable Aunt May, someone you're not likely to forget anytime soon.
September 25, 1996