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Literature / The Able McLaughlins

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The Able McLaughlins is a 1923 novel by Margaret Wilson.

It's set in a Scottish farming town on the Iowa prairie, in the time right after the end of the American Civil War. Wully McLaughlin, the eldest son of his clan, comes home after escaping from a Confederate prison camp. He meets neighbor girl Chirstie McNair and is bowled over to find that she has grown into a beautiful young woman while he's been away. They kiss passionately out in the tall grass, and when Wully leaves to rejoin his unit he believes that they are engaged.

A few months later the war is over and Wully comes home for good. He is surprised to find Chirstie now behaving towards him with extreme coldness. Eventually Wully stumbles across a terrible secret: Chirstie is pregnant, after being raped by her cousin, town scumbag Peter Keith.


Received a sequel, The Law and the McLaughlins, in 1936.


  • Bookends: The story opens with a man named Knight from the city giving Wully a ride back home in his carriage. Mr. Knight isn't seen again until the next-to-last chapter, when Wully meets him in the town and they reminisce about old times.
  • Call-Back: Wully fondly remembers when, as he was making a difficult journey home after escaping Confederate captivity, a friendly stranger gave him food and a bed to sleep in and gave him a nice pillow. At the very end, as he is carrying a dying Peter Keith back home in his carriage, Wully decides to stop somewhere and get him a pillow.
  • Child by Rape: Chirstie is raped and impregnated by Peter Keith. She loves and treasures her son John—until the end when she encounters Peter again, and starts acting cold towards her toddler.
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  • Down on the Farm: Scottish immigrants in a tight-knit farming community in the 1860s. Wully's brother John, who is studying for the law, has no interest in farming, but Wully has an emotional connection to his crops and the land.
  • Flash Forward: Scattered throughout the book are asides to events that will happen decades later. Alex McNair's wife Barbara is annoyed when he buys a parcel of land for $3 an acre instead of building her a house; the narration mentions that one day Alex's son Dod will sell that land for $600 an acre. Wully's brother John was once disappointed when he was given a piece of land for a summer's work rather than cash wages; the narration says that one day a town of 40,000 will be built on John's land.
  • Gossipy Hens: All the ladies in town tut-tut when they find out that Chirstie is due to give birth only five months after she gets married. Wully eventually overcomes this by simply refusing to be embarrassed.
  • Kissing Cousins: Brought about in an insular community founded by only a few families that emigrated from Scotland. Wully, Chirstie, and Peter Keith are all first cousins.
  • Love at First Sight: Wully pays a courtesy visit to the McNairs and is shocked to find how beautiful Chirstie has become. Immediately after that they're kissing in the tall grass, and after that Wully is going home thinking that he's going to get married.
  • Right Behind Me: Wully and his brother Allen were in the same unit; Allen was killed in the war. Wully fondly remembers when Allen amused the boys with an imitation of their captain, while the captain lurked behind a bush, hearing everything.
  • Serious Business: Everybody thinks it's a big, big deal when Wully is forced to admit that his bride is four months pregnant—Wully is passing off the baby as his. Wully's mother Isobel makes a huge deal out of it and only comes off her high horse when Chirstie reveals that Wully isn't the father.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Wully is shocked when he comes home and finds that Chirstie has grown into a gorgeous young woman while he's been off fighting in the Civil War.

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