Review: Ward Just's latest novel, 'Rodin's Debutante'

June 21, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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Photo courtesy of Michael Romanos
Author Ward Just's latest novel 'Rodin's Debutante' is set in mid-century Chicago.

Ward Just was born into an Illinois newspaper family.  So it came as no surprise that he wound up a writer. Now in his 70s, the former journalist has 17 books under his belt. Most of them are historical fiction. Mid-twentieth century Chicago is the setting of his latest novel, Rodin's Debutante. WBEZ's book critic Donna Seaman has a review.

Beneath the rolling terrain of Ward Just’s fast-paced novel flows a subterranean river that carries from book to book his signature themes. The slipknot bond between sons and fathers. The catalyst that launches a boy into manhood. Class divides. Questions of honor. The endless pain of war. The quietude of Midwestern rural life, where the land is as flat as paper and the glow from Chicago’s inferno can be seen from miles away.

Sharply observant, pragmatic, mordantly funny, and stubbornly romantic, Ward Just is a spellbinding storyteller whose muscular prose is rooted in the best of Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. His new novel, Rodin’s Debutante, is a powerful tale of daunting revelations and determined self-expression. It begins when a wealthy Chicago family travels to France. There the great sculptor Rodin creates a bust of their lovely eldest daughter. The marble sculpture is proudly displayed in the family’s Astor Street home. Soon Rodin’s debutante is “the talk of Chicago” and beyond as the buzz reaches the vast Illinois estate of one Tommy Ogden.

Tommy is heir to a railroad fortune. He’s gruff, formidable, and contrary. He cares only for two things: shooting animals, the more beautiful and rare the better, and his secret passion for drawing. Tommy’s wife Marie longs to sail to France. She would like to sit for Rodin, but her ogre of a husband scoffs. In the midst of hosting a dinner party, and privy to insider information about America’s impending entry into World War I, Tommy unceremoniously announces that things are over between him and Marie. He is going to turn his prairie mansion, Ogden Hall, into a boarding school for “Midwestern boys of good families” who “had trouble fitting in elsewhere.” Boys like himself.

The novel leapfrogs ahead to the immediate aftermath of World War II. Hard times have arrived in New Jesper, Illinois, a small factory town. The son of a judge, Lee Goodell is smart, and perceptive. He loves to roam the countryside in search of adventure. That is until two brutal crimes change everything. One involves a tramp down by the railroad tracks, the other a high school student. Lee’s worried father sends Lee to the Ogden Hall School for Boys. There he dreams of becoming a sculptor, enthralled by a legendary school treasure, a bust by Rodin of a beautiful woman.

In Ward Just’s provocative novel, art is a sanctuary and a beacon. Tommy Ogden’s devotion to drawing tempers his bloodlust. The frustrated headmaster at Ogden Hall finds inspiration in the novels of Herman Melville. Lee is dedicated to sculpting. Wielding mallet and chisel late into the night, he becomes involved in the lives of his struggling neighbors on the south side of Chicago.

Ward Just is a master at evoking the particulars of place––from the ever-changing sky above open land to the quick, slicing choreography of city streets. But Just is also a painter of mindscapes, illuminating the inner lives of his complex, questing characters. As the compelling story lines in Rodin’s Debutante converge in a blazing conclusion, we are left contemplating, with recharged wonder, crucial questions of ambition and justice, truth and beauty.