Moonflower Resurrection: Jetta Carleton's long-forgotten bestseller about the secret desires of a Missouri farm family blooms again

Near the end of Jetta Carleton's first — and only — published novel, an old Missouri farm woman named Callie Soames pauses during her round of morning chores to examine the moonflower vine that grows near the smokehouse.

For a few short weeks every summer, Callie, her husband, Matthew, and their three grown daughters, who have returned to the farm for a visit, gather in the evenings to watch the moonflowers bloom. "The flowers were so lovely and they lasted so short a time," Callie reflects. "It was...something you looked forward to all year, then it came, and you enjoyed it so much, and then it was over, in no time."

For a few months after its publication in December 1962, Carleton's novel, The Moonflower Vine, was one of the flowers of the literary world. It spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list, alongside Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J. D. Salinger and John Updike's The Centaur. A main selection of two major book clubs, it was published in eight other countries and appeared as a Reader's Digest Condensed Book, a sure sign of mid-twentieth-century literary success.

Jetta Carleton in 1962
William G. Berkeley
Jetta Carleton in 1962

The reviews were rapturous. "Once in a great, great while comes a new book that makes you thankful you know how to read," wrote one besotted critic in the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin. "The Moonflower Vine is just such a book." The Denver Post compared it to To Kill a Mockingbird, published two years earlier.

The Moonflower Vine's season in the sun, however, was brief. After the excitement of its first publication, the book faded into obscurity, like so many other former bestsellers. Carleton died in 1999. She never published another novel.

Aside from two brief paperback revivals in the late '70s and '80s, The Moonflower Vine was largely forgotten, except among the few readers who discovered musty copies at library sales or abandoned in vacation-rental homes. They formed a small, but passionate, cult. One of these acolytes was the novelist Jane Smiley, who included The Moonflower Vine on her reading list of 100 novels in her 2005 book, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

This spring, in large part because of the attention brought to it by Smiley, Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, has reissued The Moonflower Vine as part of its "Rediscovered Classics" series.

"One of the great things about the time we live in is that so many books get reissued and return," says Smiley. "Books are like viruses. They're passed from hand to hand. Some take hold and infect the whole society. When a book gets revived, it has another chance to infect society. If society is susceptible, it will succeed. If not, it won't."

In 1962 Jetta Carleton was nearly 50 years old, a self-described "Glad Old Girl" and well established in New York's advertising world: She wrote TV ads for Ivory soap. A former dancer, she was slender and red-haired — "quite elfin-looking," in Smiley's words.

"She was an extraordinary person," remembers Charlie Langdon, a long-time friend. "She was so excited about life. She had a wonderful way of talking, very precise."

"You get a feel for Jetta from the book," her great-niece, Susan Beasley, says by phone from her home in Torrance, California. "If you read the book and then talked to her, you would know it was hers."

Every Thanksgiving Carleton and her husband, Jene Lyon, would return to her parents' home in Nevada, Missouri, on the state's western edge, roaring into town in a rented sports car with their two cocker spaniels, one blond and one black.

"Those were things we'd never seen," Beasley remembers. "We were so impressed. She was so fashionable. She was just different, in a good way. She didn't have airs. She kept that farm quality. She loved earthy things, like good homegrown tomatoes. She never talked about her writing."

In Nevada, Carleton slipped back into the family routine, joining her two older sisters, Truma and Yana, in the tiny kitchen to prepare elaborate meals, and later, when the dishes were done, playing canasta with her nieces and nephews.

This sense of a family who loved each other and enjoyed each other's company pervades The Moonflower Vine, along with vivid descriptions of the farm between Leeton and Calhoun, Missouri, 50 miles southeast of Kansas City, where the Carletons often spent summers.

In the opening pages of The Moonflower Vine, Carleton describes the land as "a region cut by creeks, where high pastures rise out of the wooded valleys to catch the sunlight and fall away over limestone bluffs. It is a pretty country. It does not demand your admiration, as some regions do, but seems glad for it all the same...The farm lay in its heart, two hundred acres on a slow brown stream called Little Tebo."

"The moonflowers were true," says Beasley, "and the creek and the food, the jumping into the creek on a hot day. Also, the morality, the worrying about the opinions of the church and neighbors."

Carleton was born on the farm in 1913, in a house that never had indoor plumbing. Her father, P.A. Carleton, was superintendent of schools in Nevada. Her sisters, who were nearly twenty years older than she was, were schoolteachers, too, and Jetta was expected to follow in their footsteps. But, says Beasley, "Jetta didn't want that life. It wasn't her choice."

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