But buried deep within The Moonflower Vine's seeming indifference to the world outside the family, Smiley finds the same serious consideration of women's lives that would become central to the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s.

"It's fairly frank in its discussion of sexuality," she says. "The women, although they do things secretly, more or less do what they want to do. The family is patriarchal on the surface, but the real power is Mom. A good way to think of [Carleton] is as a novelist of the 1930s who happened to publish in the 1960s."

It's unlikely Carleton intended the book to be read that way. "All she ever wanted to do was write a book," says Beasley. "She was so thrilled when it was originally published. She did it!"

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

Beasley had just graduated from high school when The Moonflower Vine appeared. "I thought it was wonderful," she remembers. "But Jetta's sisters, needless to say, were a little shocked.

"I think she never thought they would think it was about them," Beasley continues. "In her mind, she'd separated it. But it was so real — the descriptions of the family and the farm seemed so real — for a moment I thought, 'Could this have happened?' And because they recognized themselves, they thought everyone else would think it was them."

The members of the Soames family sin enough to keep the gossips in a small town like Nevada busy for decades: One daughter runs off with the hired hand. Another drops out of school to marry a dashing aviator. Matthew Soames, a teacher, has trouble keeping his mind, and occasionally his hands, off his teenage students. ("Baldly summarized," Smiley writes in 13 Ways, "[it] sounds scandalous and best-sellerish, a Peyton Place of the Midwest.")

The book caused a rift between Carleton and her sisters. "Their first reaction was shock and being upset with Jetta," Beasley recalls. "I never got the details. My family didn't talk about those things, especially not to young people. But they talked to her about it, and then they got over it and put it behind them. They never stopped loving each other."

But Carleton may have felt a greater distance from her family than she let on to her great-niece. In The Moonflower Vine, the youngest Soames daughter, Mary Jo, lives in New York, like Carleton, and works in television.

"Mary Jo was the hardest of all them to reach," her mother, Callie, thinks. "The years between them were so many, and the child felt so worldly-wise...Sometimes Callie felt like a stranger to her youngest. Every year there was less they could say to each other."

In the mid '90s, after the death of her husband, Carleton began a new novel. In the 30 years since The Moonflower Vine, she had published nothing aside from a few cookbooks. She seemed destined to become one of those writers like Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) or Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) or Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) who would be remembered for just one great book.

"Novelists who write a single, excellent novel are a rare breed," Smiley writes in her foreword to the new edition of The Moonflower Vine. "Lee and Ellison seem to have balked at their huge success, however. Lee is reported to have said that the reception of To Kill a Mockingbird was 'in some ways...just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.' Ellison even went so far as to report that a house fire had destroyed hundreds of pages of his second novel, when, as it turned out, those pages did not exist."

Carleton never explained why she didn't produce a second novel. Instead, she quietly faded away. In 1970, she and Lyon moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and, with the money she'd earned from Moonflower, set up their own small publishing house, the Lightning Tree. Carleton edited the manuscripts and Lyon typeset, printed and bound the books. They specialized in poetry, cookbooks and regional history.

The venture was never profitable; Carleton considered it "an affair of the heart." Still, it kept her too busy to do much writing, except during her summer visits with her family on the farm.

The Lightning Tree shut down in 1991. Lyon died two years later.

There was a special urgency to Carleton's work on the new novel, which she called The Back Alleys of Spring. She had composed The Moonflower Vine in longhand over the course of six years, but she wrote Back Alleys on a computer. She didn't have one of her own, so she went to a friend's house every afternoon and borrowed his.

"I don't know why she used the computer," says Charlie Langdon, a columnist for the Durango Herald in Colorado, who got to know Carleton through their mutual friend, Larry Calloway, a Santa Fe newspaperman.

"Maybe she was in a hurry," Langdon speculates. "She didn't feel well. She could get it done that way. She was not accustomed to the computer. Larry said she missed having the feeling of a pencil or pen in her hand."

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