Book and Movie Review: The Valley of Decision

This 1942 book by Marcia Davenport could be subtitled An Industrial Romance, as could the 1945 movie starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck.

Pittsburgh, 1873. The Scott family owns a steel mill, and sixteen-year-old Mary Rafferty has just started work as maid in their home.  There are 5 Scott children, but 17-year-old Paul is the only one who truly values the mill as anything other than a source of dividends.  William Jr, the eldest, is  engaged to a young Boston socialite and wants to to maximize his take from the mill to support their joint social ambitions.  Elizabeth is “plain and angular and earnest, full of purpose and good works.”  The twins Constance and Edgar, 9-year-olds when Mary first meets them, are always into mischief–“known in the backyards and nurseries of Western Avenue as holy terrors and limbs of the devil”…as they grow older, Constance dreams of marrying an English aristocrats, moving to Europe to get away from what she sees as her boring famile, and meeting “all the wicked people,” while Edgar prefers life as a rather raffish gentleman of leisure than doing any kind of serious work.

Paul, though, shares with his father William a strong personal bond with the mill, the work it does, and the people who work there. Will Jr, who as oldest is the presumptive future chief of the mill,  has no desire whatsoever to be a part of scenes such as a Bessemer Converter blow:

And now excitement, familiar but primevally keen, swept everything else aside. The great bulbous brute towering above him began to rumble and belch. From its mouth high overhead a stream of scarlet flame threw itself at the acid winter sky. The blower gave a sign. The blow was ready, and suddenly the usual concert of barbaric noises in the shed was drowned in one fearful ear-crushing roar as the cold blast was shot into the converter’s belly.  Element grappled with element, oxygen in a death-struggle with carbon, a battle more terrible and wonderful than man had ever made before.  The flame, steady and fearfully red, began to change color, a descending scale of blinding flashes echoing from the death-and-birth agony of the elements. Inside the beast steel was being born, and from the vessel’s roaring mouth the solid fire changed from red to blue, to orange, to yellow…

Paul does see things differently from his father in that believes that a more scientific approach to steelmaking will be necessary if they are to compete successfully with giants like Carnegie Steel. When he returns from college he sets up a metallurgical laboratory at the mill, and an open hearth furnace is installed to help in the switch of focus to specialty steels.

There is an immediate strong attraction between Paul and Mary, but the are obstacles–not only the very different class positions of Paul and Mary, but the fact that Mary’s brother..a key skilled worker at the mill…is also a labor leader, attempting to organize a union among Scott employees. And while William Scott Sr does care about his workers, he will resist any attempts to interfere with what he see as his management prerogatives.

Mary quickly comes to share Paul’s emotional bond with the mill, and she also develops a strong sense of connection to and responsibility for the entire family..indeed, more of a sense of connection and responsibility that than felt by some of the family’s own members.

The book begins with Mary starting work for the Scott family, but the history of the mill goes back further, to its founding by Paul’s immigrant grandfather–and the book extends the story through multiple generations, up through the early years of World War II.  The mill played an important role in arming Union forces in the Civil War, and a similar role in later conflicts.  The importance of this exemplar of heavy industry to the national defense is played up strongly, as one might expect in a book published in 1941.


Ethnic conflicts are a continuing thread–Scottish workers and owners looking down on the Irish, and, later, the Irish taking an even more derogatory attitude toward the immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Part of the book actually takes place in Europe during the rise of Naziism, as seen by William Scott’s granddaughter Claire, who has become an international journalist, There is a particular focus on Czechoslovakia before, during, and after the German takeover. (The author spent much time in Czechoslovakia and knew Masaryk personally.)

The book is very long, but never got boring…I was sorry to reach the end.  The movie, which covers a much more compressed timeframe than the book, was recommended by Anthony Esolen, whose excellent review is here.

One big difference between the book and the movie is is how Mary’s father, Pat Rafferty, is portrayed.  While Pat Rafferty is wheelchair-bound in both versions, in the book version his disability was caused by a Confederate cannonball during the Civil War, whereas the movie version has Rafferty (played by Lionel Barrymore) having been crippled by an accident at the Scott’s mill–and filled with overflowing anger against all members of the Scott family (despite the fact that the firm is paying him a lifetime pension at his full former wage rate).  In the book, the labor leader Jim Brennan is Mary’s brother, in the movie, he is her family’s boarder and her aspiring suitor.

I watched the movie at Anthony Esolen’s recommendation and liked it so much that I immediately got and read the book.  The film isn’t available anywhere online that I could find–DVDs are available at Amazon and Ebay–but a clip can be seen at Anthony’s review link…oddly, images and music but no voice.

I’d love to see a remake of this movie–a lot could be done with a big-screen color version to show the visual drama of steelmaking, or a mini-series format could extend the story through time as did the book.  Is there any possibility of this?  It seems unlikely–Hollywood seems obsessed with sequels and political correctness. Anthony says in his review:

I doubt that Hollywood nowadays is any more interested in industrial matters than most politicians are.  Industry is too muscular, perhaps.

also, though:

But the situation is ideal for high drama: brute matter against human intelligence and will; men risking life and limb; immense outlays, and immense gains or losses; commodities that bring ease and even beauty to our lives, but also smoke belched into the air and sludge leached into the water. And the factories flare at night like outposts of hell.

In recent years, there seems to be a renewed understanding in America of the importance of industry and of what is lost when it is abandoned. There are certainly opportunities for films on this theme–perhaps a new version of Valley of Decision could do very well.  At a minimum, the existing movie deserves some promotion and also availability via streaming.

Author Marcia Davenport, in her new 1988 introduction to the book, wrote:

But how could I foresee in the 1930s and the subsequent war years the dire fates which would overtake my intense concerns, not only Czechoslovakia, but the whole mighty steel industry of Pittsburgh itself? I ought to feel reassured by those who say that the transformation of Pittsburgh from steel to technology and service and finance is a splendid transition. But I know too that life for the people in the Monongahela Valley steel towns and others nearby is cruel and seemingly hopeless as it is for many in Communist Europe.  I could not foresee such fates fifty years ago, and that is as well–for if I had had such foresight, I could not have written The Valley of Decision.

Book and movie, both highly recommended.

6 thoughts on “Book and Movie Review: The Valley of Decision”

  1. There are a lot of German ‘mittelstand’ companies that are family-owned, as was the fictional Scott mill. I wonder if there are any German novels or movies on this theme.

  2. Another film (a TV mini-series, actually) with an industrial setting is the British TV series that was based on David Lodge’s novel, which I reviewe here:

    I watched the video, but the version I saw was so clogged with ad–much more obnoxious than American TV advertising, it seemed to me…that I couldn’t really form an opinion as to how good it was. I found a review here:

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