Donald Barthelme, “The School”

 

This is my second entry in the “2019 Deal Me In Short Story Challenge” hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This week, I drew a 5 of Clubs, which took me to Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” originally published in 1975.  I found the story in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor.

Donald Barthelme (pictured above), who lived from 1931-1989, was known for writing short stories that are “surreal” or “postmodern” or “experimental.”  These are all fancy ways of saying his stories don’t make a lot of sense.  (This is not a criticism, just an observation.)

“The School” is narrated by a teacher named Edgar.  He starts the story by explaining how his 30 students all planted orange trees as part of their education.  All of the trees died.  Then we learned that the children’s snakes all died as well. So did the herb gardens they worked on, as did the tropical fish.  The puppy, too, died, as did the Korean orphan, two children, and one child’s father.

Eventually, the children asked the teacher what happened to  all of these dead creatures? Where did they go?  The teacher said nobody knew.

And then the children asked “is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life.  Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don’t like it.”  (310)

In recompense, the children wanted the teacher to make love with the teaching assistant, Helen, in front of them.  They want to know how lovemaking is done.

The teacher said he couldn’t do that, but he kissed Helen a few times on the brow.  Then a gerbil knocked on the door and walked into the class, after which “The children cheered wildly.”

That’s how the story ends.

I would say this story is a postmodern experiment in surrealism.   Or maybe a surreal experiment in postmodernism.  In other words, I really don’t know what it means.  I would guess it is a meditation on the inevitable cycle of life, death, lovemaking, and gerbils.  But mostly death.  So you might as well make love with the teaching assistant.

Year of Shakespeare 2019

 

I signed up to join the 2019 Year of Shakespeare challenge with Hibernatorslibrary.  The goal is to read one comedy in January-April, one history in May-August, and one tragedy in September-December.

I plan to start with Taming of the Shrew.

Feel free to join me!

 

Trademark Louise Erdrich: Humor

In the past few weeks, I have been binging on Louise Erdrich’s novels.

(Erdrich is the acclaimed Ojibwe author of so many books I can’t keep track–maybe 16 novels?   If you are unfamiliar with her work, here is a review of her latest novel by the New York Times. It serves as a good introduction to her work.)

These are the novels I have recently read (or re-read):

  • Love Medicine (1984)
  • Tracks (1988)
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
  • The Plague of Doves (2008)
  • The Round House (2012)

Several years ago, I also read her Crown of Columbus, and I am now starting to read her Bingo Palace (1994).

It would be an understatement to say that I am a fan of her work. The woman is a literary goddess.  Each of her novels creates a world unto itself.  However, most of them are connected to each other as well.  She focuses on a small (fictional) area of North Dakota and many of the same families are featured in each work.   In terms of her style, each work is unique.  Nonetheless, certain themes and stylistic traits recur throughout her work.  Taken together, the combination of these traits add up to a distinct Erdrich voice or “trademark.”

In this short series, I want to focus on a few elements of her voice, the things that mark her as distinct. Today I am focusing on her sense of humor.  In general, I would not classify Erdrich as a comic writer.  Taken as a whole, her fiction veers more towards the lyrical, the tragic, or even magical.   However, her vision is consistently punctuated with episodes of broad comedy.  Often the comedy is physical, even slapstick.  The humor provides some relief from the sadness of much of her writing, but it also expresses her view of the world—one in which the tragic and the comic cannot be neatly separated.

One example of trademark Erdrich humor can be seen in her first novel, Love Medicine.  In this work, Lipsha Morrissey accidentally walks in on his grandfather having an adulterous tryst in the laundry room at the senior center with his old flame, Lulu Lamartine.  In the context of the entire work, Grandfather Nector Kashpaw’s yearning for Lulu is portrayed as poignant, sad, touching.  In this particular scene, though, the perspective is one of broad comedy:

“There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather.  Sheets was flapping on the lines above, and washcloths, pillowcase, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear out a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.  The washers and dryers was all on, chock full of quarters, shaking and moaning.” (196)

This was an awkward scene for Lipsha to witness, to say the least.  But the awkwardness turns to hilarity when a wig is added to the equation:

“The Lamartine wore a big curly light-brown wig.  Looked like one of them squeaky little white-people dogs.  Poodles they call them.  Anyway, that wig is what saved us from the worse. . . . Turned out, though, in the heat of the clinch, as I was trying to avert my eyes you see, the Lamartine’s curly wig jumped off her head.  And if you ever been in the midst of something and had a big change like that occur in the someone, you can’t help know how it devastates your basic urges.  Not only that, but her wig was almost with a life of its own.  Grandpa’s eyes were bugging at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn’t rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something.  He scrambled up, Grandpa did, and the Lamartine jumped up after him all addled-looking.  They just stared at each other, huffing and puffing, with quizzical expressions.”  (197)

This sort of broad comedy intermingles with scenes of great sadness and even tragedy throughout her works.  We can see another example of her slapstick humor in her 2012 novel The Round House.  This novel focuses on the rape and attempted murder of the narrator’s mother (Geraldine).  The perpetrator is known, but cannot be punished by the legal system because of complex and blatantly unjust issues of jurisdiction on Native reservations.  Not surprisingly, the overall tone of this novel is serious, even grim.  Still, Erdrich manages to interject scenes of pure slapstick, such as this one, in which a teenage boy  named Cappy confesses to a Catholic priest that he has been having sex with his girlfriend—in the church basement.  The confession does not go as well as expected though.  Father Travis, an ex-Marine, was in excellent physical condition and had a temper.  Rather than forgiving Cappy, he explodes in anger and starts chasing him:

“There were arcane sounds—the slide of the priest’s window, the whispering back and forth—then the explosion.  Father Travis burst from the wooden door of the confessional and would have caught Cappy if he hadn’t rolled out from under the curtain and half crawled, half scrambled along the pew.  Father ran back, blocking the exit, but already Cappy had sprung past us, hurdling the pew toward the front of the church, landing on the seats with each bound in a breathtaking series of vaulting leaps that took him nearly to the altar.”  (232)

The ensuing chase scene lasts for three full pages of slapstick adventure reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.

“Cappy had those good shoes, but so, I noticed, did Father Travis.  He wasn’t running in sober clerical blacks but had perhaps been playing basketball or jogging before he dropped in to hear confessions.  The two sprinted hotly down the dusty gravel road that led from the church into town.  Cappy boldly crossed the highway and Father Travis followed.  Cappy cut through yards he knew well and disappeared.  But even in his cassock, which he’d hoisted and tucked into his belt, Father Travis was right behind him heading toward the Dead Custer Bar and Whitey’s gas station.  We marveled at Father’s pale thick-muscled calves blurring in the sun.” (233)

I am not a Catholic, but I am pretty sure that’s not how confession is supposed to work.

Certainly, Erdrich is not the only writer who combines humor and tragedy.  Many southern writers, for example, are famed for their tragic-comic vision.   William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.  I think Erdrich’s humor is particularly broad, even cartoonish.  The combination of this slapstick humor with serious, even tragic, themes is one of the more striking elements of Erdrich’s voice.

I will discuss other elements of her voice in future posts.  Stay tuned!

erdrich-novels

“Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance

J. D. Vance’s grandmother (“Mamaw”) was tired of her husband (“Papaw”) coming home drunk night after night. Fed up, she told him that if he came home drunk again, she would kill him. One week later, Papaw came home drunk.  Vance tells us in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy that,

“Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest.  When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns” (43-44).

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This depiction of violence in hillbilly culture is nothing new.  Poor white people (a.k.a. hillbillies, rednecks, white trash, trailer trash, po ‘buckra—with their propensity towards violence and addiction–have long been fodder for humor in American popular culture.  The butt of countless jokes, poor whites have been featured over the years in TV shows ranging from The Beverly Hillbillies to Honey Boo-Boo.  At first glance, it might appear that Vance’s book is one more example of derisive humor at this group’s expense.  However, this is not the case.  Despite their failings, Mamaw and Papaw are the heroes of Vance’s memoir.  A graduate of Yale Law School, Vance claims he owes his successful rise out of the rustbelt to his violent, deeply flawed, yet fiercely protective grandparents.

J. D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio—a rust belt town that at one point was prosperous because of the local steel mill, Armco. His family moved there in the 1950s from Jackson, Kentucky, and he refers to himself and his entire family as “hillbillies.” Although they no longer live full-time in the mountains, Vance claims, his clan still proudly bears the marks of a distinct Appalachian culture.  Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s attempt to analyze this culture in order to explain why his people are suffering so much today.

Students of creative nonfiction should note that Hillbilly Elegy is an example of CNF that combines both the personal (memoir) with the public (sociological study of a particular demographic). Vance writes about his family in order to make a larger point about what it is like to grow up in a downwardly mobile subculture.  Vance explains that “Though I will use data, and though I do sometimes rely on academic studies to make a point, my primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem.  My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck” (8).

Knowing that Hillbilly Elegy was an attempt to explain the problems of the white working class, I expected this memoir to be a tale of economic hardship for people who want to work hard, but simply cannot find employment; a tale of good, solid, morally upright folk who, through no fault of their own, simply cannot catch a break.  I was wrong.  Vance does mention briefly the devastating effects of the decline of good-paying factory jobs.  However, he argues that the decline of good factory jobs is only part of the problem.  The other problem, he asserts, is cultural.  To be blunt, he suggests that many of the “hillbillies” with whom he grew up suffer because of their own laziness, short-sightedness, prickly sense of honor, and tendency to blame others for their own problems.  As he states, this book “is about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.  It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it” (7).

Vance explains that his grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) grew up in the Appalachian mountains in a subculture known for his honor, fierce loyalty to family, and violence.  They moved to Ohio when they were still young, and Papaw found a good job at the local steel factory.   His grandparents lived a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle—at least, economically.  They never really developed mainstream, middle-class values.  They brought with them, though, their hillbilly lifestyle (complete with violent responses to any perceived slight), which they passed on to their own children.

Vance’s own parents were divorced when he was very young.  His mother went through a revolving door of relationships with men and eventually became addicted to drugs herself.  By his own reckoning, Vance would have been lost without the solid home base of his Mamaw and Papaw.  Despite their many shortcomings, they did provide him with a solid work ethic, a respect for education, and a stable home.   These things, Vance believes, are what helped him to succeed and what so many of his peers were lacking.

In some ways, Vance’s memoir reminds me of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.   Like Vance, Karr wrote about being raised in a hard-scrabble, working-class town in a deeply dysfunctional family.  Interestingly, both Karr and Vance recount memories in which their mothers try to kill them.  Karr, however, is less analytical.  She does not attempt to draw conclusions about the socio-economic group into which she is born.  Vance does.  For me, this attempt to combine memoir with socio-ethnic-economic analysis is both the strength and the drawback of Hillbilly Elegy.  I found Vance’s cultural analysis compelling and insightful.  He painted the portrait of a culture in pain, but did not pretend that the pain was all inflicted from the outside (globalization, immigrants, the government, or whatever).  This was refreshing.  On the other hand, I found his book less effective at portraying characters as individuals with unique personalities and motivations.  He does not have Karr’s gift at creating a strong voice or plumbing the depths of individual psyches.

Overall, I found Hillbilly Elegy excellent as an insider’s view of a particular sub-culture (rust belt hillbilly/working class white), with both its strengths and weaknesses.  Given Trump’s unexpected victory, some political pundits have been urging democrats to pay more attention to working class whites and their concerns.  Vance’s memoir is a good place to start.

 

“Tracks” by Louise Erdrich

This weekend here in Minnesota is snowy and bitterly cold, good weather to hunker down and continue to gorge on Louise Erdrich novels. I just finished reading Tracks (1988), a story of the decimation and dispossession of the Ojibwe (a.k.a Chippewa) Indians of Minnesota and North Dakota during the years 1912-1924.    This is how the novel begins:

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.  It was surprising there were so many of us left to die.  For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissioux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.
By then, we thought disaster must surely have spent its force, that disease must have claimed all of the Anishinabe that the earth could hold and bury.
But the earth is limitless and so is luck and so were our people once.” (1)

This sense of unfathomable loss permeates Tracks, and yet it is not entirely bleak.  This novel is recounted by two alternating narrators, Nanapush and Pauline.  Pauline is an odd young woman, half mad, full of longing and resentments.  She gravitates towards a masochistic kind of religiosity and eventually becomes a nun, albeit one who is twisted and sometimes sadistic.

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Nanapush, a man of about fifty, is the only surviving member of his family.   He possesses a wealth of historical knowledge about the tribe that he is passing on orally to his granddaughter, Lulu.  We readers are positioned as eavesdroppers to his oral history.    He says to Lulu, “Although I had lived no more than fifty winters, I was considered an old man.  I’d seen enough to be one.  In the years I’d passed, I saw more change than in a hundred upon a hundred before.  My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know.”

In the beginning of the novel, Nanapush finds a young woman named Fleur Pillager barely alive in her cabin, surrounded by five dead family members.  Fleur, like Nanapush, is also the last survivor of her family.  Nanapush takes Fleur home with him and becomes like a father to her.  They are both overwhelmed with the spirits of the dead who surround them.  The names [of their dead family members] “grew within us, swelled to the brink of our lips, forced our eyes open in the middle of the night.  We were filled with the water of the drowned, cold and black, airless water that lapped against the seal of our tongues or leaked slowly from the corners of our eyes.  Within us, like ice shards, their names bobbed and shifted.  Then the slivers of ice began to collect and cover us” (6).

Nanapush and Fleur almost succumbed to their grief by moving on to the next world; many people did.  Nanapush notes that “there were many of our people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness.”  They do not die, though.   It might be too much to claim that Fleur, Nanapush, and Pauline flourish, but they do lead vigorous lives of passion, love, violence, vengeance and even laughter.   Erdrich writes in a lyrical style in which the line between realism and myth often blurs. Her prose is beautiful and her characters are magnificent.

This is the second time I have read Tracks.  The first time was long ago in a different century.  I remembered very little about the book except for the haunting power of Fleur Pillager.  All three main characters—Nanapush, Pauline, and Fleur—are compelling creations.  Fleur, however, is mesmerizing.  She is strong.  She is beautiful.  She is frightening.  Nanapush calls her “a woman gone wild, striking down whatever got into her path” (45).  Pauline claims she almost destroyed the town of Argus.

What I find interesting (from a craft perspective) is that this untamed woman does not have a voice in the novel.   Fleur has a huge impact on the people around her.  We read about her from Nanapush’s and Pauline’s perspective, but we never hear her own voice, her own story.

In this sense, Fleur reminds me a little bit of Caddy Compson from William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury.  Caddy has three brothers who are all obsessed with her, but in different ways. Each brother narrates his own section of the novel in which Caddy plays a central role. We never hear Caddy’s story.

Writers, take note.  One might expect that not giving a character her own voice would dilute her power.  I am not sure if that is the case, though.  For me, at least, Fleur and Caddy both remain indelibly ingrained in my mind long after I was done reading.  Might they have had even more impact if they could have spoken for themselves?  It is hard to say, but my guess would be no.  Maybe observing other characters trying to hard (yet failing) to understand and “capture” these female characters is what makes them so compelling.

What do you think?  If you have read Tracks or Sound and the Fury, do you think Fleur and Caddy should have been allowed to speak for themselves?  Why or why not?  Can you think of other really compelling characters who were not given a voice?  Have you written any?

 

 

 

 

 

The Piano Man

Writing about erotic love is hard.  One has to navigate so many obstacles: romantic clichés, pornography, cynicism, and the desire to sing Barry Manilow lyrics.  Writing about ghost lovers is even harder.   Is it possible for an author of realistic literary fiction to write about a character who believes herself to be in a romantic relationship with a dead man—and to do so without mocking the character?   Louise Erdrich does so in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001).

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The main character of The Last Report is Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest who serves the Ojibwe Indians on a North Dakota reservation named Little No Horse.  He has tended them faithfully for many decades and has earned their trust.  One thing his flock does not know about him, however, is that he is actually a woman named Agnes (a.k.a. Sister Cecilia). (I am not giving anything away here.  Readers know this from the beginning of the novel.)  Agnes has had a few romantic relationships in her life.  Perhaps the most passionate of them was with the spirit of Frederic Chopin.

The Last Report is a long and complex novel with many disparate strands.  Agnes’ erotic relationship to a dead composer is just one thread of this intoxicating book.  It is a strand I found compelling, though–maybe because I am learning to play the piano myself, or maybe because I find it easy to become deeply attached to a beloved author.  (I may have had an erotic dream about Chaucer when I was younger.)

As a very young woman, Agnes DeWitt becomes a nun and is called Sister Cecilia.  She takes her vows seriously and considers herself married to God.  God has some competition, though.  Her true love is music:

“She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be concentrated in her being—which was half music, half divine light, only flesh to the degree she could not admit otherwise.  At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling sound.”  (14)

Agnes empties her whole soul into her piano, especially when she plays Chopin.  It was “as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascade of notes” (14).    Put simply, “Chopin’s spirit became her lover.  His flats caressed her.  His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles.  His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue.   His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane” (15).

Her relationship with Chopin is so real to her that she feels guilty about it.  After Agnes leaves the convent and receives a marriage proposal from Berndt Vogel, she tells him “that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself soul to soul with Christ, but she had already been unfaithful—her phantom lover the Polish composer—thus already living out too grievous a destiny to become a bride” (17).  Chopin, through his music, has become more real to her than anything else in her life.

To be clear, Agnes is not psychotic.  She is not pathetic.  She has simply realized that piano music is where she can best express the essence of herself.  In a very real sense, she finds herself in communion with Chopin through the music he composed a century earlier.   When she plays his music, he comes alive for her:

“There was the scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere.  The silk of his heavy, brown hair.  A man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat.  His voice, she heard it, avid and light.  It was as though the composer himself had entered the room.  Who knows?  Surely there was no more desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s.  Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the grave.  At any rate, she played Chopin” (16).

chopin
Frederic Chopin

Because she is able to summon him through his music, Chopin the man exists as a real lover for Agnes, one who provides erotic satisfaction.  Berndt Vogel realizes this truth about Agnes as he watches her play: “and as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed Berndt had just watched the woman he loved [Agnes] make love to a dead man” (22).

I find Louise Erdrich an astonishing writer for many reasons.  One of them is her abililty to convey how the unseen world—be it the world of the spirit or the world of the imagination —is for some people more vivid and meaningful than the so-called “real world.”   I wish I could tell you in Three Easy Steps how Erdrich does it so well.  Certainly she relies on sensory detail and a varied sentence structure.  Mostly, though, I think it is her openness to the possibilities of the world.  She refuses to reduce the world to simple categories of real/not real, physical/not physical.  She sees fullness where others might see lack, magic where others see drabness.   If you have not read her books before, I recommend that you do.

 

 

Humorist Marietta Holley on Man Logic

You would be hard-pressed to find an American who had never heard of Mark Twain, the famous 19th century writer and humorist.  It would be almost as difficult to find an American who had even heard of Marietta Holley, much less read her work.  And yet, in her lifetime (1836-1926), Holley was nearly as popular a literary humorist as Mark Twain was.

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She published twenty-four books between 1873 and 1914, many of them humor books written under the pseudonym “Samantha Allen” or “Josiah Allen’s Wife.”  In these works, Holley uses humor to advocate for women’s rights and temperance, the two issues about which she was most passionate.  A best-selling writer in her own time, she was forgotten after her death.

samantha woman question

Living as we do in a time period in which some people still openly claim women are not funny, or at least not as funny as men, I think it is important to keep the voices of past female humorists alive. (Click here and here for random examples of the women-aren’t-funny claim.)  Although we would all like to think the struggles women faced over a century ago are no longer relevant, unfortunately this is not the case.  The role of women in the Christian Church, for example, is still a hot-button issue, and Holley’s satire still rings true.  I will admit that her use of dialect is a little off-putting.  If you can get past the dialect, though, I think you’ll find her humor is still effective.

I am reproducing here an excerpt from Holley’s book Samantha Among the Brethren. In this excerpt from Samantha Among the Brethren, Samantha—a devout Christian—is frustrated with the way women are treated in her church.  In particular, Samantha grapples with trying to understand why women are not allowed to serve as delegates to a church conference.  Although Samantha does not understand the logic governing women’s status in the Church, her husband Josiah understands it perfectly because of his superior mind.   It has to do with how the words “laymen” and “men” are interpreted in official documents.   Women’s minds are too feeble to understand such fine legal distinctions, but Josiah happily tries to explain it to Samantha.

 

“Oh, yes,” sez Josiah in a reasonin’ tone, “the word laymen always means wimmen when it is used in a punishin’ and condemnatory sense, or in the case of work and so forth, but when it comes to settin’ up in high places, or drawin’ sallerys, or anything else difficult, it alweys means men.”

Sez I, in a very dry axent, “Then the word man, when it is used in church matters, always means wimmen, so fur as scrubbin’ is concerned, and drudging round?”

“Yes,” sez Josiah haughtily.  “And it always means men in the higher and more difficult matters of decidin’ questions, drawin’ sallerys, settin’ on Conferences, etc.  It has long been settled to be so,” sez he.

“Who settled it?” sez I.

“Why the men, of course,” sez he.  “The men have always made the rules of the churches, and translated the Bibles, and everything else that is difficult,” sez he.

Sez I, in fearful dry axents, almost husky ones, “It seems to take quite a knack to know jest when the word “laymen” means men and when it means wimmin.”

“That is so,” sez Josiah. “It takes a man’s mind to grapple with it; wimmen’s minds are too weak to tackle it.  It is jest as it is with that word “men” in the Declaration of Independence.  Now that word “men” in that Declaration, means men some of the  time, and some of the time men and wimmen both.  It means both sexes when it relates to punishment, taxin’ property, obeyin’ the laws strictly, etc. etc., and then it goes right on the very next minute and means men only, as to wit, namely, votin’, takin’ charge of public matters, makin’ laws, etc.

Josiah continued:  “I tell you it takes deep minds to follow on and see jest to a hair where the division is made.  It takes statesmanship.  Now take that claws, ‘All men are born free and equal. ‘ Now half of that means men and the other half men and wimmen.  Now to understand them words perfect you have got to divide the tex.  “Men are born.”  That means men and wimmen both—men and wimmen are both born, nobody can dispute that.  Then comes the next claws—‘Free and equal.’  Now that means men only; anybody with one eye can see that.”

“Then the claws, ‘True government consists,’” continued Josiah. “That means men and wimmen both—consists—of course the government consists of men and wimmen, ‘twould be a fool who would dispute that, “in the consent of the governed.’  That means men alone.  Do you see, Samantha?” sez he.

I kept my eye fixed on the tea kettle, fer I stood with my tea-pot in hand waiting for it to bile—“I see a great deal, Josiah Allen.”

Teaser Tuesday: Dear Committee Members

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Julie Schumacher. Photo credit, Catherine Smith
Dear Carole:

This letter’s purpose is to provide the usual gratuitous language recommending a student, one Gunnar Lang, for a work-study fellowship.  Lang–a sophomore with a mop of blond dreadlocks erupting from the topic of his head like the yellow coils of an excess brain–tells me that he has applied, unsuccessfully, for this same golden opportunity three times and that this is his final attempt to satisfy our university’s endless requests for redundant documentation.  He needs a minimum of eight to ten hours of work-study per week–preferably in the library rather than the slops of food service.  Deny him the fellowship and he will undoubtedly turn his hand to something more lucrative, probably hawking illegal substances between the athletic facilities and the Pizza Barn.

This is a short excerpt from the novel Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher.  The novel is a satire of life in academia and would appeal to academics, especially those in the beleaguered departments of humanities.  The novel is written as a series of recommendation letters.  Fortunately for the readers, the main character, Jason Fitger, writes letters that are completely inappropriate and laugh-out-loud funny.  This is the funniest book that I have read in a long time.  It is also, as the best humor is, very sad.

Read it, all right?

This post is a contribution to  Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm.  Here are the rules.  And yes, I cheated by including four sentences rather than two.  Sue me.

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Literary Pairings: Ng and Grenville

I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.

celeste ng
Celeste Ng

We learn from the first sentence of Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You that Lydia, the beloved teenage daughter of Marilyn and James, is dead.  We do not, however, know how or why she died.  In order to understand what caused her death, we need to discover not only Lydia’s history, but also the history of her parents—and grandparents, too, for that matter.  As much as we Americans might like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals who create our own identities, our own lives, Ng reminds us that it is not so easy to escape our family histories.  That is true even if we are not aware of them.

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Lydia’s father James Lee is the son of impoverished Chinese immigrants who toiled ceaselessly to provide a good education for their son.  Their efforts pay off and James earns a Harvard Ph.D. in American history.  His academic success, however, is overshadowed by his lifelong feelings of isolation; he can never escape his feelings of inadequacy at being friendless, at never fitting in.  Because of these feelings, he desperately wants his children to be popular and feels personally stung when he notes their lack of social acceptance.

Lydia’s mother Marilyn has different yearnings.  She is a lovely, blond, white woman who blends into her landscape seamlessly.  She does not want to blend in, though.  She grew up in the 1950s, when women were bred to be cheerful homemakers.  (The present-day of this novel is set in 1977.) To make matters worse for Marilyn, her mother was a home economics teacher who thought Betty Crocker was a goddess.  Lydia, however, was a brainy woman with scientific leanings.  She fervently wanted to be a medical doctor and was on track to becoming one.  Her plans changed, though, when she became pregnant her junior year of college and dropped out to marry James and raise their children.  As Lydia became older, Marilyn funneled all of her frustrated ambitions into Lydia, determined that Lydia would have the medical career she was unable to achieve herself.

Ng’s portrayal of the mostly pain these characters carry in their hearts is touching and sad.  What makes the pain even worse (from my perspective) is that they remain unspoken.  It seems that Marilyn is unaware of her husband’s profound sense of isolation and intense yearning to fit in.  Conversely, James seems unaware of how unhappy Marilyn is to be living as a housewife instead of as a doctor.  These misunderstandings baffle me to a certain extent.  Do these two people never talk to each other?

It seems significant that Ng chose to set this novel in the late 1970s instead of the present day.  I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.  Does that mean the family would be happier overall?  Or would there just be different problems?

The conflicting desires of husband and wife remind me a little bit of the married couple William and Sal Thornhill of The Secret River.  (Click here to see my previous post about it.)  The Secret River is set in the late 1700s, when England sent convicts to what is now the country of Australia.  William was one of those convicts sent to Australia and was accompanied by his wife Sal and their children.  Sal wanted to get out of Australia and back to England as soon as they possibly could and let William know that in no uncertain terms.  He agreed that they would go back in five years.  Sal literally counted off the days until their return.

In the meantime, though, William fell in love with a piece of land and saw in it the beginning of a new future for his family, one in which he could hold his head up high in society, rather than being held down by his class status.  He never wanted to return to England and secretly hoped that Sal would change her mind.  Although Sal was clear on her desires, William was more circumspect about his hopes that she would change her mind.  In the end, William got his way, and the family stayed in Australia.  Sal became resigned to her fate, but I’m not sure how happy she was about it.  I know that Grenville wrote a sequel to The Secret River, but I haven’t read it yet.  I am curious to find out the longer-term repercussions of these basic conflicts between these two strong individuals.

Overall, I loved both of these novels and recommend both of them.

Do you think the problems faced by James and Marilyn are relics of the past?  Or is this story just as likely to occur today? 

What should a couple do when the two people have such strongly divergent basic desires, such as where to live?

For more information on Celeste Ng, click here.

For more information on Kate Grenville, click here.

This is my 1960-1979 entry in my When Are You Reading? challenge.

 

 

Bewitched and Bedeviled: Salem

Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1682

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When I was a child, my main source of knowledge on witches came from the TV series “Bewitched.”  In this show, Elizabeth Montgomery played Samantha, an attractive, likable witch who was married to a hapless mortal named Darrin Stephens.  Darrin hated that Sam was a witch and he made her promise not to use her witchcraft.  She could never completely give it up, however, and used it frequently.  She was a cute witch, though, who made magic by twinkling her nose, and who used her powers to make housework easier.  I was certainly on her side throughout the series, as I suspect most viewers were.  To me, then, witchcraft seemed like a cool party trick that was convenient yet benign.

I was a little confused later in life when I realized that historically speaking, witches were greatly feared and often killed.  They were considered wicked and ugly, not cute and sweet like Samantha.  Eventually, I learned in school about the Salem witch trials of 1692, which remain to this day a national embarrassment that we are hard pressed to explain.

Stacy Schiff, the noted biographer of Cleopatra,  is the most recent writer who attempts to explain the inexplicable in her recent history The Witches: Salem, 1692.    Her book is long and full of details about the many participants in the trials (the accused, the accusers, the judges, the townsfolk).  Some of the details, to be honest, are a bit tedious.  Nonetheless, the subject overall is fascinating (to me) and Schiff’s writing style is lively.

Schiff

Stacy Schiff

Here I have provided some excerpts from Schiff’s book in a question and answer format to give readers a taste of the Salem witchcraft story.

 What is a witch? Joseph Glanville, a distinguished, Oxford-Educated English academic literally wrote the book on witchcraft: Saducismus Triumphatus,  published in England in 1681.  Glanville’s treatise was considered authoritative and was the source that the learned men of New England consulted for knowledge on witches and wizards.

Glanville defined a witch as “one who can do or seems to do strange things, beyond the known power of art and ordinary nature, by virtue of a confederacy with evil spirits” (Schiff 60).

Witches could do all sorts of things, mostly of a troublesome sort.  They liked to torture innocents by making them convulse, putting them into senseless trances, paralyzing their limbs, giving them fits, making them froth, gnash, shake, and so forth.  In New England, they enjoyed drowning oxen, causing cattle to leap four feet from the ground, set pails crashing and kettles dancing, launched candlesticks through the air, flew on broomsticks and so forth.

Witches had the power to transform themselves into cats, wolves, or hares.  They really liked yellow birds.  Witches were most often female but could also be male.  English witches like to maintain a menagerie of “familiars,” demonic mascots that did her bidding, such as hots, turtles, weasels, cats, dogs and toads.

Witches worked their magic with charms or ointments.  To work her magic from a distance, a witch might resort on occasion to poppets—doll-like figures that represent a particular person on whom the witch wishes to cast a spell.

How does one become a witch? By consorting with evil spirits, who offered them bribes in return for the witch’s services.  Ideally, a witch should sign an agreement with the evil spirit in blood.    In New England, the evil master often bribed young women with promises of fine clothing, free time, and trips to beautiful or exotic locations.

How do you know who is a witch? In late 17th century New England, virtually everybody—including the highly educated–believed that witches were real. The only question was determining which particular people were witches.   Some things to look for:  the witch bore a mark on her body indicating her unnatural compact with the evil spirits.  Those marks could be blue or red, raised or inverted.  They might resemble a nipple or a fleabite.  They came and went.  Essentially any dark blemish qualified, though a mark in the genital area was particularly incriminating.  Another sign of witchcraft is the inability to speak the Lord’s Prayer out loud without stumbling.

Traditionally witches were marginal members of the community:  outliers and deviants, cantankerous scolds and choleric foot-stampers.  This was true of some of the Salem accused, but not all of them. Some were prominent members of the community, even a minister.

As the witchcraft craze played out in Salem, all it took to be convicted of witchcraft was testimony against a person.  Once a person was accused, there was no way to prove one’s innocence.  Most of the accused denied that they were witches, but they were not believed.  Not surprisingly, this tense situation made it easy for people to settle scores on their enemies by accusing them of witchcraft.  As the hysteria grew, it seemed nearly everyone was either a witch or bewitched by one.  Neighbors accused neighbors; husbands accused wives; parents and children accused one another.

How did the Salem witch craze start? It started when 11-year-old Abigail Williams and 9-year-old Betty Parris exhibited symptoms of prickling sensations; they reported being bitten and pinched by invisible agents.  They barked, yelped, shuddered and spun.  They went limp or spasmodically rigid.  They had convulsions and were so contorted they could not dress themselves.  Sometimes they were paralyzed.

Their guardian, Samuel Parris, was distraught and did not know what ailed the girls. Eventually, he brought a doctor to attend to them.  In 1692, no university-trained physician had yet arrived in either Salem town or Salem village, where the girls lived.  A basic medical kit of the time looked little different from an ancient Greek one, consisting as it did of beetle’s blood, fox lung, and dried dolphin heart.  In powders or plasters, snails figured in man remedies. Hysteria had appeared before 1692.  A Salem physician treated it with a brew of breast milk and the blood from an amputated tomcat ear.  Given the ignorance of doctors at this time, it is not surprising that the doctor’s visit was not helpful.

How did they know the girls were bewitched?  In an attempt to determine who had bewitched these girls, a woman named Mary Sibley made a “witch cake.”  This required mixing the girls’ urine into a rye-flour cake, baked amid the embers on the hearth.  Then she fed the concoction to the family dog.  It was unclear how the magic worked–possibly by drawing the witch to the animal or transferring the spell to it.  Whether or not it was because of the witch cake, Betty and Abigail soon named names. This started the seemingly endless chain of accusers (girls who had been bewitched) and accused—witches and wizards.

How many people were involved in the Salem (and surroundings) witch craze of 1692?

  • 55 people confessed to witchcraft. (This is not surprising, since it was the only way to save one’s life.  Confessed witches were spared their lives, while those who spoke out against authority and in favor of the accused were hanged.)
  • Somewhere between 144 and 185 witches and wizards were named in 25 villages and towns before the crisis passed.
  • Reports had it that more than seven hundred witches flew about Massachusetts.
  • The youngest of the witches was 5, the eldest nearly 80.
  • Before it was all over, 19 men and women were hanged and one elderly man was crushed to death.

What made Salem so unusual in terms of witches? What sets Salem apart is not the accusations, but the convictions.  At other times raving women had been said to be witches and men dreamed of the devil without anyone thinking twice about it.  Why the unsparing prosecution in 1692?  Schiff believes the reasons for so many convictions was ultimately political.  Hathorne, Corwin, and Gedney—the prime movers—acted in the interests of the orthodoxy, which happened to align with their personal agendas.   (Schiff 401)

Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton was the Chief Justice of the courts in charge of the witchcraft trials and the one ultimately responsible for the outrageous number of convictions. Schiff argues that he was so inflexible in his treatment of accused witches because he needed to prove his own constancy as a well as a new government’s legitimacy.  He was as aware as anyone that to the Crown the colony appeared lax, impertinent, disorderly.  They had paid a crushing price for having deviated from the laws of England.  In prosecuting witches he simultaneously redeemed himself at home and broadcast New England’s proficiency abroad; the colonists could govern themselves in an orderly, Old World way (Schiff 403)

After the witchcraft craze was over, did the Salem/Boston leaders take responsibility for their mistakes?  Not really.  A few prominent figures (such as Samuel Sewall) suggested in a roundabout way that perhaps some mistakes had been made, but there was no full scale acknowledgement of the guilt of the leaders in causing the deaths of so many innocent people.  It was not until more time had passed that later generations could look at the situation with more objective eyes.

 

What actually caused the “bewitched” girls’ symptoms?  We will never know what felled the girls, whether it had more to do with their souls or their chores, with parental attention or inattention.  The prickling sensations, the twitching, stammering, and grimacing, the  ulcerated skin and twisted limbs, the curled tongues and convex backs, the deliriums, the “furious invectives against imaginary individuals” do however conform precisely to what nineteenth-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, with Freud following him, termed hysteria.  Where the seventeenth-century authority saw the devil, we tend to recognize an overtaxed nervous system; what an earlier age called hysteria we term conversion disorder, the body literally translating emotions into symptoms.  When sublimated, distress will manifest physically, holding the body hostage.  Charcot’s drawings of convulsing hysterics agree in every detail with the scenes that left Deodat Lawson reeling (Schiff 387)

“What they developed sounds to have been a form of emotional laryngitis; a sense of suffocation tends to accompany hysteria.  The girls expressed in fits what they could not communicate in words, or what no one seemed to hear when they entrusted it to words. . . Hysteria prefers decorous, sober households, where tensions puddle more deeply; it made sense that the Salem minister wound up with more witchcraft victims under his roof than anyone else” (387).  Shiff points out that “Conversion disorder also favors backwaters, women (especially young women), and the fatherless.  It tends to break out in convents, schools, and hospitals, in tight-knit, emotionally charged environments. Freud noted that the especially visual, intellectually astute child will suffer first” (388).

Fortunately, our country has progressed well beyond the point where we could become hysterical about the demonic influence of any group of people.  We don’t need to worry this could ever happen again.  (Note the heavy sarcasm here.)

P.S.  For a gripping fictional account of the witch trials, read or watch Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  His play is based on Marion Starkey’s history The Devil in Massachusetts, published in the 1940s.

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This blog post is my 1600-1699 entry for the When are you reading? challenge.