“There was no denying the fact that Honor Carmody liked the boys. No one ever attempted to deny it, least of all Honor herself.”
And with these words, we are kicked off into the Los Angeles roaring ‘20s in the book “Play the Game!” by Ruth Comfort Mitchell. Unlike how we might read these words today, Mitchell starts her novel by declaring that Honor Carmody was a Tomboy. A high school girl, whose most important thing in life was ensuring that her High School football team would have their star captain ready to go for the next big game.
At 39 years of age, sitting in the hills of Los Gatos, California, western writer Ruth Comfort Mitchell simply projected the life that she was living. As portrayed in the above photograph, Ms. Mitchell was more of a Tomboy herself. A larger than life figure that dominated the small cadre of people that came in contact with her. Sitting in her tiny writing room, in her mansion in the hills of Northern California, she would write many hours of the day on her latest novel, poetry, or play.
Now largely forgotten, Mitchell is best recognized as the enemy of John Steinbeck, who also lived in the Los Gatos area, but she was on the east side of town, and he was more in the mountainous west side of town. While both loved the outdoors and art, there could never be two people more different. Their writings were in many ways the direct mirror opposites of each other. Coming from the coast, Steinbeck was true the left side of the town, and Mitchell was firmly on the right, echoing the temperaments of their politics..
Coming from a family of means, Mitchell grew up in San Francisco to a successful hotel operator. Summers for Ruth were spent in the tiny town of Los Gatos, which she was a died hard fan for all of her life. When eventually she got married, she moved to a place on the Los Gatos hills that overlooked the San Jose Valley below. Ruth saw America as a place where people could make their way and be successful.
In this novel, Honor was a girl driven by her own internal clock. In many ways, as you read her story, you will be slightly reminded of “Scout” from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The similarities and plain spoken language makes me wonder if somewhere along the line Ms. Lee may have read Mitchell’s novel. Mitchell was a well known author, and her novel came out in the 1920s, many years before Lee’s novel came out.
Both novels hinge around a young lady, and both novels play off the interaction of the father with the young girl. While in Mitchell’s novel, the father is adopted, both novels have the father called out by a title that is somewhat much more frank than what we would image would be the stereotypical father and daughter relationship. In the same way, both novels have the father calling the daughter by a short nickname. While Lee has the father calling the daughter as “Scout,” the father in “Play The Game!” calls his daughter “Top Step” to indicate his fondness of his adopted step daughter.
However, the subject matter couldn’t be more wildly divergent. While both novels speak of betrayal and deception, Mitchell’s novel is one of a love story and the desire to find the right mate in life. Mitchell speaks to people of character that simply do the right thing, but says nothing about race. Although an author and intellectual at an early age, Mitchell fundamentally calls out that marriage is not about intellect, but about spirit.
In what I consider the crux of the novel, the stepfather remarks on a potential match for his daughter, who is bright, but not brilliant. When asked if her mate is the right choice, the novel reports the father says the following:
“…that fellows of our type, yours and mine," he was not looking at him now, he was running his long fingers lazily through the hot and shining sand, "are apt to be a little contemptuous in our minds of his sort. Being rather long on brain, we fancy, we allow ourselves a scorn of the more or less unadorned brawn. And yet,—they're the salt of the earth, Carter; they're the cities set on hills. They do the world's red-blooded vital jobs while we—think. And Honor's not clever either; you know that, Carter. All the sense and balance and character in the world, Top Step, God love her, but not a flash of brilliancy. They're capitally suited. Sane, sound, sweet; gloriously fit and healthy young animals—" this was calculated cruelty; Carter might as well face things; there would be a girl, waiting now somewhere, no doubt, who wouldn't mind his limp, but Honor must have a mate of her own vigorous breed,—Honor who had always and would always "run with the boys,"—"who will produce their own sort again."
His step daughter is smart and capable, and she makes good grades in school. When he says that she is not clever or brilliant, he means that there is nothing that will cause her to standout in the annuals of time. But for the father, and for the author, this is the whole point. Mitchell, already a successful author with a play that has toured the nation, knows that she is an intellect, but she does not aspire to write a novel with too many folds. She works hard, and she is good with the verse. However, she understands that her novels and work may not be enshrined in the great works of literature. However, she write a good verse, and she is true to herself.
For Mitchell, the act of working and character in the everyday grind of life is what counts. When the novel is done, you will find no bittersweet ending. You will find doubt and deception, but in the end, character outweighs all of the threats. In the end, Mitchell herself is more clever than what she would have us believe of her characters. In the end, she believes in a simple message of right is right, and wrong is wrong. Those of the more capable intellect are those that are more capable of justifying their wrong doing on a moral level. In her mind, this is the most threatening of all things. The person not only deceives others, but in the end, those of superior intellect have the ability of deceiving themselves.