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.”

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.

 

 

Watching the Moss Grow: “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert

I do not know how to write about Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things without gushing.  I really love this book!  It’s been awhile since I curled up with such a big, fat, 19th-century-ish novel and found myself swept away so pleasurably in the story.

I call this a 19th-century-ish novel for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is set in the 19th century.  The main character, Alma Whittaker, was born in 1800, so as her story progresses, so does the century.  The Signature, like many 19th-century novels, is grand in scope, covering not only the entire life of its protagonist, but also grapples with some of the century’s major ideas, most notably the theory of evolution.

Alma is an amateur biologist.  (She is an amateur not because she lacks the training or rigor of university scientists, but because she is a woman and lacks the proper credentials.)  She loves studying nature, and eventually specializes in mosses.  That may sound like a rather dry premise for a novel, but Gilbert manages to make it fascinating.  The novel is not just about moss, however.  It is also about love, sexual desire, ambition, regret, and even contains a jaunt to Tahiti.

signature_paperwiget_new

I enjoyed many things about The Signature of All Things, but I think the best part is the protagonist Alma Whittaker.  Alma is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 19th century.  Alma is not a physically beautiful woman, and men are not attracted to her.  She is, however, ferociously intelligent, and her parents encourage her to develop her mind to its fullest potential.

Because of her mind and her keen interest in studying the world around, Alma is able to find contentment and even happiness in her life.  As she notes here:

“I think I have been the most fortunate woman who ever lived.  My heart has been broken, certainly, and most of my wishes did not come true.  I have disappointed myself in my own behavior, and others have disappointed me.  I have outlived nearly everyone I have ever loved. . . I have not had an illustrious career.  I had one original idea in my life—and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given me a chance to be known—but I hesitated to put it forth, and thus I missed my opportunity.  I have no husband.  I have no heirs.  I once had a fortune, but I gave it away. . . I do not think I will live to see another spring. . . Surely you are asking yourself now—why does this miserably unlucky woman call herself fortunate?”

“I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world.  As such, I have never felt insignificant.  This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so—for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities. . . All I ever wanted was to know this word.  I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived.  Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history—added to the great library, as it were.  That is no small feat, sir.  Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.”  (497)

It seems to me that mainstream American culture gives women the message that the path to a satisfying life is narrow.  First of all women have to be beautiful.  Or, if not beautiful, at least reasonably attractive.  Second, women need to have husbands.  Third, women must have children.  Women are allowed to have a career, if they must, but it is optional and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  The purpose of a career, of course, is to make as much money as possible. Other considerations are considered frivolous.

And that’s it.  That’s the path for happiness.  Given the extraordinary diversity of women, with all of our different interests, strengths, and weaknesses, I’ve always found the narrowness of this prescription ridiculous.  For that reason, I enjoy finding out about women (real or fictional) who defy the path and yet lead satisfying lives.  Alma Whittaker is a great example of such a woman and I think young women need to have more examples like her to emulate.

In the end, though, what makes The Signature of All Things such a great read is simply that Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful storyteller.  Her success with Eat, Pray Love was no fluke.  This lady knows how to write!

How to be a Concord New Englander in 10 Easy Steps

Central Concord
Central Concord

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town
Sarah Payne Stuart
Nonfiction, Penguin 2014

Perfectly MiserableSarah Payne Stuart

A few months ago, I spent a day visiting Concord, Massachusetts. Concord was settled by Puritans in 1635 and “is America’s oldest continuously inhabited inland town” (Stuart 10).   While there, I developed a serious “crush” on the town.  I was infatuated by its idyllic charm, its beautiful old homes, its literary legacy, and its hundreds years of American history seeping out of every crevice.  I wondered what it would have been like to grow up in Concord; surely it would have been wonderful, right?

I was delighted, then, to discover not long afterwards Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town.  Her nonfiction book is in part a memoir of her growing up in Concord, leaving it as a young adult, and then coming back to raise her own children. The most important element of her decision to both leave and return to Concord has to do with Stuart’s complicated relationship to her mother.  The book is also about some of the famous previous inhabitants of Concord–especially Louisa May Alcott and her family. Mostly, though, her book is about Concord and the quirks of the proud Concord residents.

I am not sure how well all the different strands of Stuart’s book work together; at times it seemed as if she was trying to juggle too many different topics.  I enjoyed reading about all of them, though, and I enjoyed Stuart’s sharp, witty writing style. I think my favorite parts of the book, though, are her many pithy insights on what it means to be a New Englander.

So, dear readers, if you are like me and plan to be reincarnated as a Concord resident, here are the rules you need to learn:

  1. You have to be convinced that you are a wretched sinner, but also, simultaneously, better than everybody else.    As Stuart writes, New Englanders live with  “the creeping certainty that you are a bad person.”   At the same time, you are secretly convinced that you are better than other people.  In this way, you “are like your Puritan forefathers who loathed themselves on the one hand, and thought they were above everyone else on the other” (9).
  2.  You have to have impossibly high expectations of others, and, especially of yourself. “New England is an unforgiving place.  Like the adored but disapproving mothers who populate it, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations” (10).
  3.  Although you may not like these impossibly high expectations, you are not allowed to complain about them. Stuart notes that, “The Puritans bottled up their complaints and made ‘griping’ a punishable offense” (10). Concord still lives by these rules, if not legally, then psychologically.
  4.  If you are woman living there today, you should be an industrious, no-frills, no-nonsense type of woman, preferably one dressed in L. L. Bean.  Concord is populated by “matrons of steel. . . no-nonsense women of indiscernible ages out walking their dogs, slickered and zippered against the promising weather, huffing disapproval as they go.”  Stuart also notes that “This is the first town I have lived in as an adult where most of the women, rich and otherwise, don’t work for a living. They are nicer, less pretentious than at the tony private pre-school of my friends in Cambridge. . . And yet I am far more frightened of the bustling, competent Concord mothers who have become the leaders of the elementary school, rising like cream to the top of the parent groups, as they had once risen in their professions (77).
  5.  You must be industrious at all times, even if you have nothing to do. “One of the goals of the Concord matron of my mother’s generation was to stand monument to the fact that, though never idle, she did not work for money—to prove in my father’s parlance, that she was a lady.  A feeling of accomplishment was important for a lady, as long as what you accomplished was ephemeral, like running a booth at the church fair or finishing a spring clean of a house.” (17)
  6.  You must be nice to everybody. “My parents were, in terms of their tribe, “well-bred,” as only a New Englander or a Southerner could be—meaning they were nice to everyone and especially nice to the cleaning lady.
  7.  You should be artistic, but not in a professional way. You should not expect to sell your work to anybody who does not know you.  “Since the days of May Alcott, the ladies of Concord have been sketching and painting with the clear-sighted purpose of finishing the picture to put it in a show in order to sell it to one another.  Almost every one of my mother’s peers was an artist.” (19)
  8.  You should make sure you never have too much fun because it is not lady-like. For example, Stuart’s mother gave up amateur acting because “the high she felt when she acted interfered with the person she felt she should be—a New England lady who kept herself in check.” (20)
  9.  You can drink alcohol in excess—but only for an hour a day.    Happy hour was “the one time they were allowed to relax with impunity, and…only the Protestant could drink so deeply and limit it to an hour (31).
  10.  You must be really messed up about money. This is probably the most important criterion for being a true Concord resident.  Stuart devotes a significant amount of space to explaining how Puritanism affected New Englanders’ relationship to money, even today.  There are so many contradictions in this ethos that I had a hard time understanding it, to be honest.  Here are a few of her quotations to illustrate:
    • “For New England Protestants, appearances are everything: they must look like they have money (and therefore clearly belong to God’s Elect), and yet they must seem to care nothing for it.  At the root of the tangled New England neurosis is a deep respect for the money it loathes.
    • The anxiety that Puritanism produced about money still shakes my hometown. By the time I was growing up, moralistic conflict about money had pretty much taken the place of religion.  I don’t remember if my parents ever used God in a sentence when I was little, but I certainly heard plenty about the value of a dollar on the one hand, and money as the root of all evil on the other.  As a result, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. . . I don’t know whether I want people to think I’m rich or I’m poor; frugal, extravagant, or generous.  I feel miserable when I spend money and sad when I don’t.  (109)
    •  Money and one’s attitude toward it is so intrinsic to the New Englander’s identity that it is nearly impossible for him or her to have objectivity toward it. As moths to the flame, old-moneyed Yankees are drawn to bemoaning their lack of money even in front of, say, the person who cleans their house.  Having money was nobody’s business, in this complicated culture, but not having it (as long, of course, as you actually did have it) was a subject suitable for any audience.   So, if I understand correctly, a good New Englander will have inherited wealth, which makes him or her feel superior to the rest of the crowd. However, he or she will feel guilty both for having this inheritance and for this feeling of superiority over others, so he or she will try to hide the wealth from others. The one exception to this rule is that the Concordian needs to buy as big and beautiful a house as possible—but then to keep it as threadbare as possible on the inside.
      •  A large house wasn’t just permissible in the Protestant ethic, it was a sign of election.” (22)
      • So the one luxury the old money permit themselves is a well-proportioned house in the right part of town, big enough to allow its owners to complain that they can’t afford to live there. The bedroom floors are ice cold with a strip of thin, fraying carpet for one’s feet to land upon from the tall, creaky inherited bed (with its original mattress); the towels are balding with hanging threads; the ceilings are high, and the temperatures low in the winter and stifling in the summer; the food is plentiful, but plain and predictable, a rotation of meals handed down from generation to generation.  But the houses—one gasps at the sight of their pillars and the breadths of their front halls.”  (22)

OK, I need to stop right here.  My Concord fantasy is now over.  While I still think the town is charming, I would find it really hard to live by some of these rules.  Being nice to other people is great.  Not selling any of my artistic or literary output works well for me since nobody seems inclined to buy them anyway.  However, as much as I like L.L. Bean, I find these stern, industrious Concord matrons scary.  I do not believe in being busy just for the sake of being busy. (I work because I need the money and I enjoy my profession.)  And the money part is just too complicated for my simple Midwestern brain.  If I had a lot of money, I would spend it.  If I had a big, old, house and money in the bank, I would certainly furnish it and decorate it to my heart’s content.

I guess I’m just not a Puritan at heart, much less a lady.

One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.
One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.

P.S.  This is my first North American entry for my Reading Around the World Challenge, 2015.  I chose it because it is not only written by an American author, but also because it is about a uniquely American subject.

What is the “Right” Amount of Grief?

Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace, a novel by William Kent Krueger, 2013 .  Atria/Simon & Schuster

 “He who learns must suffer.  And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, fails drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”  -Aeschylus (quoted in Ordinary Grace)

Semi-Spoiler Alert:  In this post, I will not reveal “whodunit,” but I will reveal one of the characters who is found dead in the middle of the novel.

In the early 1960s in New Bremen, a small town in Minnesota, nothing much ever happened—at least most of the time.   During one hot summer, however, several people died unexpectedly, some of them from foul play.   We learn about this town and these deaths in the novel Ordinary Grace, told from the perspective of 13-year old Frank Drum.  Frank is the son of Nathan, a preacher whose faith in God is unshakeable, and Ruth, a restless woman who wants more than her small-town life can give her.  Frank has a younger brother, Jake, and an older sister, Ariel. As the novel unfolds we learn more about the dynamics of this family and their interactions with other members of the small community.

Minnesota author William Kent Krueger is perhaps best-known for his mystery novels featuring detective Cork O’Connor, most of which are set in northern Minnesota.   Writing about murder, then, is nothing new to him.  However, Ordinary Grace is not a crime or mystery novel.   Figuring out who is responsible for the various deaths that occur this summer is only part of what this novel is about.  It is, more importantly, about how survivors respond to loss and how grief affects us all differently.

William Kent Krueger by Tony Nelson
William Kent Krueger by Tony Nelson

This question of loss comes to the fore midway through the novel when we find out that one of the people found dead is Ariel, the beloved daughter of Nathan and Ariel.   It is one thing for a pastor to minister to other people who are suffering.  It is quite another thing when this pastor has to grapple with his own devastating loss.   As Nathan and his wife attempt to come to terms with the murder of their daughter, readers see how differently the husband and wife respond to their loss.  Their reactions are so different, in fact, that their marriage nearly founders upon the rocks of their grief.

Despite the horror of losing his young daughter, Nathan never for a moment falters in his Christian faith.  This is not to say that he does not grieve for Ariel; of course he does.  His soul, however, is not tormented to anywhere near the extent his wife’s is.  Far from being comforted by her husband’s faith, she is, in fact, enraged by it.

In one scene, for example, Ruth expresses her despair to Frank by saying, “There is no God to care about us.  We’ve got only ourselves and each other. . . . But your father, Frankie, he cares more about God than he does about us.  And to me that’s like saying he cares more about the air and I hate him for that.”  (224)

This scene, I think, beautifully encapsulates one of the core conflicts of this book.  Not only does Ruth not share her husband’s faith in God, she actively resents it.  She cannot understand why Nathan is not as shattered and full of rage as she is.  It appears to her that he simply does not love her or their child as much as he should.  She mistakes spiritual peace for indifference.

I found Krueger’s portrayal of a family’s grief and their struggles with faith profound and moving.  Overall, I found the novel compulsively readable as well as emotionally satisfying and I would highly recommend it to others.  One element of the novel, though struck me as false:  the quickness with which Ruth recovers her equanimity.  One day she is raging with fury and even leaves her husband because he says the word “God” too much.  Then, already a day after her beloved daughter’s funeral, her emotional fragility is gone and she says, “It hurts terribly, Emil.  Maybe it always will.  But I’ve survived and I believe I’ll be all right.”

This scene strikes me as unrealistic, happening just a few days (possibly a week?) after the child in whom she had invested all her hopes for the future is taken away by a murderer.   Krueger’s portrayal of her earlier fragility and rage seem believable, but this “recovery” strikes me as coming much too soon.  Yes, the narrator tells us he does find her crying occasionally in the next few months, but still that does not seem like enough to me for a parent who has lost their child far ahead of their time.

But maybe I am wrong.  Maybe people CAN recover more quickly than I expect them to.  This discussion reminds me last season of “Downton Abbey,” in which Lady Mary was grieving from the sudden loss of her husband.  The family “allowed” her six months to grieve.  After that, she was expected to “get on with living.”  Yes, I know, “Downton Abbey” is not real life.  But I do see this reaction in the broader society as well.  It seems that we get the message that if we are to grieve, we should get it done as quickly as possible and we shouldn’t make too much of a spectacle of ourselves.   This strikes me as being more about the needs of the non-grievers than about the needs of the grievers.   It seems that others simply do not want to be bothered too much with other people’s pain.  But perhaps I am off-base here.

What do you think?  Do you think we are “supposed” to grieve for a set amount of time?  If so, how much is the “right” amount?

Debra Goes Mild with Cheryl Strayed

"Wild"
“Wild”

In the past couple of weeks, I have read the memoir “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and seen the movie version of it starring Reese Witherspoon.  My reaction to both the book and the movie was a constant oscillation between “Strayed is amazing!” and “Strayed is batshit crazy!”

Strayed’s memoir is about a period in her early twenties after her mother died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45.  Reeling with grief, Strayed’s life started to unravel with her self-destructive behavior.  She became promiscuous, used heroin, and divorced her kind and loving husband while on her downward spiral.

Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed

One day, Ms. Strayed, who had never done an overnight hiking trip in her life, decided it would be a good idea to hike 1000 or so miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself.  “Wild” is her account of both her downward spiral and the hiking trip that helped her recover from her grief.

“Wild” is not a hiking guide or a self-help book.  It is a memoir, a work of literature.  Strayed writes beautifully and honestly about the beauty of the landscape she traversed, but also, frequently about the physical pain she endured.  Her backpack, which she affectionately called “Monster,” was way, way too heavy for her.  Not only was it difficult to walk with such a burden on her back, but it left her seriously bruised and blistered.  Even worse were her feet.  I don’t know if this is common for long-distance hikers, but her feet were in constant agony and she lost six toenails by the end of the trip.

Nonetheless, her book was inspiring to me.  I have done a little bit of hiking I my life, but not a great deal.  And I certainly do not enjoy pain.  But what she wrote about the healing effects of strenuous outdoor activity makes sense to me:

“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back.  And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.  That I could bear the unbearable.  These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm.  That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.  It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away.  By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear.” (92)

Strayed suggests that there is something about strenuous effort or—to be more blunt—physical pain in the wilderness that can make a person stronger, not just physically, but also emotionally.  Whereas heroin and sex were attempts to get outside of herself, Strayed realized on her hike that she need to stay inside herself in order to heal.

“But walking along a path I carved myself. . . was the opposite of using heroin. . . Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something.  That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me.  Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

So I am now inspired by Strayed to experience more of the strenuous outdoor life.  Yet, I still think hiking 1100 miles by oneself is crazy.  I’m not interested in doing anything like that.  However, I would like to get out into nature more often than I normally do.  So here is my compromise, my very Mild response to Strayed’s “Wild” adventure.

Strayed hiked a total of approximately 1100 miles.  My goal is to do 1100 miles this summer, by combining biking and hiking.  I pledge to hike a total of 100 miles and bike a total of 1000 miles this year.  I am no Cheryl Strayed, so these miles will be cumulative, not all at once.

I live in Minnesota, so I can’t really get outside until probably late April, when the snow melts and the temperatures are regularly above freezing.  Because of the generally crappy climate I live in, I henceforth declare the spinning classes can count toward my mileage.

I will update my blog periodically about my progress, so stay tuned!