The Lemon Jelly Cake, by Madeline Babcock Smith, is a charming portrait of turn-of-the-century (20th century, that is) life in a small Midwestern town. It was written in the 1950s, but displays little of that decade’s blandness. In fact, there are some surprisingly nuanced portraits of the difficulties of small-town life for people (women, especially) who are interested in more of an intellectual challenge in life than how to come up with 19 different pickle recipes to outdo your nemesis at the County Fair.
With its young female narrator (Helene), daughter of the town’s doctor and his “booky” wife (the town’s description of her), this book was reminiscent in some ways of To Kill a Mockingbird, though without the gravitas or Harper Lee‘s lyrical writing. There are moments of genuine hilarity, such as when Helene and her best friend Gracie (the minister’s daughter) find themselves on the loose in big-town Springfield, where they stumble into a part of town where the “hoarfrost” houses are. Another charming episode involves Helene’s attempts to “cure” one of her daddy’s patients (whose “stomach palsy” has churned the cream she is fond of drinking into a ball of butter in her belly) while he and her mother are at the town’s annual Anti-Horsethief Picnic.
All in all, The Lemon Jelly Cake is a pleasant, breezy read. Recommended for anyone who appreciates portraits of small-town Americana that refuse to either sanctify or vilify.