The title Vein of Iron refers
to the "strong blood" of the Fincastle family members in the face of
such adversities as poverty, ill health, religious persecution,
unwelcome relocation, and loss of loved ones through betrayal and
death. Fincastles have lived in the fictional Appalachian village of
Ironside, Virginia, since before the Revolution. The Fincastle men were
Presbyterian ministers until present-day John, who lost his faith and
was defrocked. As Vein
of Iron opens, John; his sickly wife, Mary Evelyn; their
10-year-old daughter, Ada; his tough widowed mother; and his
warm-hearted sister Meggie are struggling to get by. John is teaching
youngsters in their home while the women grow the family's food.
All of the characters are fully and sympathetically portrayed, especially the central character, Ada, who develops from a child to a middle-aged wife and mother in the course of the long book. Also well-drawn is Ada's husband, Ralph McBride, her childhood friend and then sweetheart whom she lost for a few years after he was tricked into marrying Ada's best friend to preserve the latter's reputation.
A particular strength of Vein of Iron is its depiction of suffering during Depression years, when the family (by then Ada, Ralph, their son Remmy, John, and Meggie) has moved to the fictional town of Queensborough to seek jobs. The Buddhist meditation "May all beings be delivered from suffering" is repeated at several points and sums up the guiding philosophy of the family, especially Ada and John, as they try to help neighbors who struggle to scrape by and then lose their last savings in the banking collapse.
The emphasis on compassion points to a theme of the book: the quest for meaning and happiness. After leaving the Presbyterian church, John Fincastle devotes what free time he has to writing a multivolume work of philosophy that encompasses Eastern and Western thought. Without condemning Grandmother and Aunt Meggie for strictly observing traditional religion, Glasgow, who was interested in Buddhist thought herself, suggests readers should look broadly for values and meaning.
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