False Witness by Irving Stone. Doubleday, Doran (1940), 275 pp.
In the years since his arrival in the 1860s, John Annister has become the most respected resident of Mission Valley, a small farming community north of Glendale. Everyone in the valley attends a single church, which John founded on the ninth commandment’s principle of absolute honesty. John lives contentedly on his ranch with his whiney daughter, Grace, and his spunky granddaughter, Margaret. Another long-time resident, August Hauser, has taken a different road to local influence. He’s bought land, made loans, sold crops and otherwise gathered unparalleled economic power. When the Widow Smithers accuses selfless household worker Mary Shoemaker of stealing fifty dollars, John is certain of her innocence. Then someone reports seeing August’s unruly daughter, Hilda, leaving the widow’s house. John suggests she might be the thief, an idea that her father moves forcefully to suppress.
What Stone has created is closer to a parable than a well-rounded piece of fiction. The two main characters, John and August, are not reminiscent of real people. Instead, they stand for abstract qualities -- purity and corruption. Stone apparently wants readers to conclude that even fairly minor lies threaten to unravel the most tightly knit community. So honesty must prevail at all costs. But the lesson might be just the opposite, that small equivications must be tolerated for people to live together peacefully. August is open to compromise; John wants nothing but the truth. As he moves on toward martyrdom, John’s intransigence seems more like monomania than virtue. So the book raises more issues than Stone apparently understands. It might nevertheless find a small modern audience among those with a simple view of morality.