The Seed of the Righteous

June 3, 2018

The Seed of the Righteous feels like Juliet Wilbor Tompkins’s entry into the subgenre that includes V.V.’s Eyes, The Clarion, and A Poor Wise Man. But those are about wealthy young people coming to terms with the ethical realities of their situations, and this is about a poor one.

Sereno Gage was — well, it’s hard to say. A reformer of some kind, who did good things for children. We never hear the specifics. He’s long dead, but his wife and three children still live in the house his statue was built in front of. Mrs. Gage is a tireless worker who helped her husband in his work, and now devotes her time and energy to keeping her family afloat, financially. She’s made a science of sponging off friends and relatives, trading on her husband’s memory. It’s uncomfortable, but there’s also something noble about her. She’s sacrificed and self-consciousness or sense of shame she ever had for the sake of her kids.

Her two eldest children have embraced the sponging part of the family philosophy, but they’re plenty self-conscious. Ralston is an aspiring writer who blames his failures on everyone but himself. Sabra has gone in for reform, like her father, but without any real charitable impulse. Also her “cause” is eugenics, which I don’t think Tompkins meant to be very bad, but of course it actually makes Sabra seem even more awful. Both of them firmly believe that the world owes them a living.

The third child, Chloe, is too young to remember her father at all. There’s no reason for her to be extra uncomfortable with her family’s way of life, but she is. Only she thinks her mother and siblings are in the right, and blames herself for bothering to worry about it. Also she’s very young and slender and wistful, etc., and in love with her cousin, which she takes a while to figure out.

The plot is negligible, and then it’s tragic, and of course everything comes out alright in the end. Overall, I felt like The Seed of the Righteous was either too much or too little, but I don’t know which. I’m trying to come up with something else to say about it, but I’ve got nothing. It feels a little on the ambitious side for Tompkins, and I’m not sure if she succeeds, or if I know what she’s trying for. It has all of her usual charm but less than her usual clarity of purpose. And I liked it.



  1. I found the moral semi-grey areas within the book to be fascinating. I’m on team “let’s remember what we learned in kindergarten about sharing” in general, and generally vigorously against the whole “it’s a sign of True Nobility to starve to death rather than to let any of your well-off friends know you’re hungry” concept, but this family takes reappropriation of unused community resources to a whole new level. And sometimes, in the book, it’s probably fine and/or good. But other times it’s obviously over the line. And other times, it seems like the use of resources would itself be fine except for the entitlement/social-manipulation/? side of it.

    I think I ended up feeling like the book was not tidily tied up in a bow by the end – and like that might be appropriate given the complexity of things dealt with and the way it was trying to look towards future life-continues-to-be-untidy sorts of things, but Juliet Wilbor Tompkins *usually* ties things up in so very tidy of a bow that it was a bit disappointing to have ends straggling a bit in some ways and some general questions remaining open and some character growth uncertain and such. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant by either too much or not enough, but if so, I definitely agree that it was a bit unsatisfying – but maybe it was “right” for it to be unsatisfying? Not sure.

    • Sabra and Rowland are obviously wrong, because they could be useful and refuse, and I guess Alex’s pride is the flip side of the coin, but I like that Tompkins lets some middle ground exist. Mrs. Gage makes me hugely uncomfortable because I hate asking for things, but it’s really hard to say that she’s ever wrong.

      I think that kind of is what I meant by either too much or not enough. There are too many loose ends and unresolved social issues for a light and self-contained romance, but Tompkins doesn’t go deep enough or long enough for the slightly heavier book Seed of the Righteous feels like it wants to be.

      • Yes, there’s definitely some “asking” that lands squarely outside the grey zone on each side! And I like that (so it absolutely can’t end up as just “asking is always bad” or “asking is always good”), and also like that there’s so much in the grey zone – but yes, I would like it to be dug into more. Where *is* that line between making it really easy for people to give generously vs. psychologically/socially manipulating them?

        (also, I love the concept of this as a sub-genre, and sort of see there being a net these land in, but am having a hard time defining it; socio-economic exploration and experiment, perhaps?)

        • It’s definitely not an easy genre to define, and I’ve never really tried? Just, sometimes I start a book and I think, “Oh, it’s one of those.” Socio-economic awakenings?

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