The Pulitzer Project: The Able McLaughlins, Margaret Wilson (1924)

the pulitzer project

Hi Friends, in case you’re just joining us, I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! Let me tell you, the first eight years of the Pulitzer Prize have been pretty rough. Only two books were actually unanimously awarded (His Family, Alice Adams), and the rest of the years there were caveats, disagreements, and reluctantly awarded novels. 1924 was no different – the committee only suggested The Able McLaughlins as a last resort. The Committee Report said:

The committee on the Pulitzer Prize has arrived at the following decision: first, that in its opinion there is no book outstanding enough to merit a Prize this year, but that, secondly, if it is deemed that a prize should be awarded anyhow, the committee would name Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.

This makes Willa Cather look like a real winner in comparison! To be honest, I put off reading this book because it wasn’t easy to track down. I checked three libraries, Google-d endlessly, and went to four bookstores before I finally caved and bought the book on Amazon. I was convinced that there was no way a book this so hard to find could have stood the test of time – after all, there must be a reason why a book that is on the Public Domain hasn’t been widely distributed already. The Able McLaughlins was disappointing to me in just about every sense of the word. I wholeheartedly agree that the Pulitzer Committee shouldn’t have awarded any book in 1924 if this was the best choice!

Able mclaughlinsPlot: The McLaughlins are Scottish immigrants settling on the prairies of Iowa. The story begins with Wully McLaughlin returning home after escaping being held as a prisoner during the Civil War. While he is home recovering from his injuries, he discovers that the daughter of his neighbor, Chirstie McNair, has blossomed into a beautiful woman. It’s love (I’d argue it’s probably more akin to lust) at first sight, but Wully has to rejoin his regiment and finish his service. When he comes back, Chirstie is no longer the same girl as before. The Able McLaughlins also follows the story of Chirstie’s parents, and to a lesser extent, to the entire Iowan community of Scottish families.

Fun Fact: This was the first book that Margaret Wilson wrote. I think this marks the first time a writer’s first novel won the Pulitzer!

Setting: Iowa

Time Period: The 1860s

Review: I have a few bones to pick with Margaret Wilson. First, I do not understand her decision to sneak in references to future events at completely random moments. For example:

What he saw there made so great an impression on him, that fifty-seven years later, when that stranger’s grandson was one of the disheartened veterans of the World War who came to his office looking for work…

There were so many of these future references peppered in at the most inane times, it seemed like Wilson was substituting glimpses into the future for adjectives. I read that there was actually a sequel written to this book called The Law and the McLaughlins, but from what I can tell on Wikipedia, it doesn’t actually address any of the little insights into the future that Wilson peppered into this story.

Second, this story was summarized as a “love story between Chirstie and Wully” but there was no palpable chemistry between the two. Chirstie didn’t have much of a personality beyond vulnerable and scared, and neither of these characters had much depth. The wooing of Chirstie seemed more like Wully forcing himself onto her because he fantasized about her the entire time he was in the Army. The fact that Chirstie ultimately accepts has more to do with her own personal circumstances and not at all due to reciprocating Wully’s feelings.

My favorite character was Barbara McNair, whose relationship with Chirstie’s father served as a nice foil to the troubles of Wully & Chirstie. Barbara comes to Iowa thinking that Chirstie’s father is a large, wealthy property owner (which he is, but only because he’s able to buy land by saving money on everything else). She is a kindhearted, generous, and independently wealthy woman, which is my favorite kind of woman!

However, although the main characters were a little lacking, I thought Wilson did a really good job of creating a Scottish community in the 1860s (although I’m not an expert.) From the farming process, to how close and gossipy the locals are, to the social dynamics at church and in town, I was enamored with the atmosphere, if not the plot. In this way, this book reminded me of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which I recommended reading for the wit, and not the characters or plot. However, if you’re not trying to read all of the Pulitzer winners, I would say you could skip this book altogether.


I would recommend this book to people who like reading about the Midwest during the Civil War (are there people out there with this particular interest?) and people who enjoy reading heavy dialects.

Additional Resources:

3 thoughts on “The Pulitzer Project: The Able McLaughlins, Margaret Wilson (1924)

  1. Pingback: The Pulitzer Project | Like Bears to Honey

    • I wonder if the reports were actually released contemporaneously to the announcement of the winner? I am reading about them now in a historical guide, but it may not have been available to the public at the time. If it were available, it can’t have felt very victorious for the writer at all!

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