The Bramble Bush Revisited

I was recently reminded of a book I talked about on The Point back in June, when a copy of the book showed up unexpectedly in my office. Many thanks to our listener who had tracked down a paperback copy in order to read it, and thought the library could use an extra copy. For those of you that might have missed the radio show, The Bramble Bush was written by Charles Mergendahl in 1958. It originally caught my attention because the story is located in the fictional town of East Norton, which essentially stands in for Falmouth. There are mentions of the actual town of Falmouth as well as Mashpee, and the main character is a doctor at the local hospital. (FYI … Falmouth Hospital opened in 1963, but according to The Book of Falmouth the idea for a hospital was conceived in 1955.)

The novel was poorly reviewed in The New York Times, but reading it while sitting in the town of Falmouth makes it more riveting than you might think. Not to mention our hero’s trips to New Bedford and Nantucket. Here is the beginning of the review:

“Everything happens to Dr. Guy Montford. To begin with, one of his best friends, Larry McFie, is brought back to the Cape Cod town of East Norton dying of Hodgkin’s disease. Guy can’t save his life, but he can offer heart’s balm to Larry’s wife, Margreth – a gesture that ripens into full-fledged and guilty love. To complicate matters – and Mr. Mergendahl’s story – Guy, driven by Larry’s suffering, gives him an intentional overdose of narcotics, is tried for homicide and acquitted. At last he and Margreth are free to marry.”

As it says on the front of the paperback edition: “Makes Peyton Place look like a book of hymns.” The cover also describes the plot: “A woman’s shame, a man’s guilt – the big novel of the loves and scandals that shook a small New England town.” The St. Louis Dispatch wasn’t too happy with the novel writing: “Another trashy story of small town degredation. The murder trial is one of the few parts of the book that doesn’t rely for impact on dirt for dirt’s sake”. In a fascinating advertising ploy, the publisher put both the good and the bad reviews on the back of the paperback.

The novel was in fact made into a movie in 1960 starring Richard Burton, Barbara Rush, and Angie Dickinson. The movie was also reviewed in The New York Times. Bosley Crowther writes of the film:

“Up to the last twenty minutes of this hour-and-three-quarters-long film, it does look, indeed, as though its makers are onto a pretty fine thing in its genre, that genre being social drama demonstrated in intimate personal terms. … Richard Burton is remarkably substantial and aptly sensitive as the medical man who goes through a deal of personal torment to reach the point of mercy-killing his best friend.”

As it turns out the author, Charles Mergendahl, died at the age of 40 in 1959. The headline for his New York Times obituary reads: “Charles Megendahl Dead at 40; Novelist Wrote ‘Bramble Bush’” The cause of death was “head injuries in a fall in his home”. As it happens he wrote seven other novels! (The only one available in CLAMS is The Bramble Bush.) The obituary also tells us: Mr. Mergendahl was born in Lynne, Mass., the son of a high school teacher. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Bowdoin College. His Cape connection appears to be that in 1942 he wrote a play called Me and Harry which was produced at the Provincetown Summer Theatre and off Broadway.

So if you are looking for a local read, with a Peyton Place plot, then The Bramble Bush is the novel for you!

3 comments on “The Bramble Bush Revisited

  1. Tom Revitt says:

    In a brief search for information about this novel (The Bramble Bush) your review is the best written and most balanced information I have seen. It speaks well of you and the Falmouth Public Library. Much appreciated

  2. Dan Mitzner says:

    Great review! I found from another source (a reliable one, I believe) that Mr. Mergendahl took his own life in 1959. Not sure if that is true or not, despite the reach of the internet I can’t find any more information on him.

  3. Jill says:

    Hi Dan, Thanks for your comment. This is quite interesting. Of course, the NEW YORK TIMES obit does not mention the possibility of suicide. If you come across the source, I would be very interested. Jill

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