Twelve-year-old Emma Graham and elderly Mr. Root sit outside the grocery store in a little town in the mountains of Maryland, discussing poetry. From Martha Grimes’ Fadeaway Girl:
“What’s the poem, Mr. Root?”
. . . It was a paperback, not very thick. I saw it was the poetry of Robert Frost. “But I thought you didn’t like Robert Frost. You were all against ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ Remember?”
“That one, yeah. But he’s wrote a couple of good ones. I kind of put ’em in between Emily’s, you know, . . .” Mr. Root cleared his throat and intoned in a sing-song fashion:
This saying good-by on the edge of the dark—
It shut my eyes, that line did, as sure as someone passing a hand over them. “Oh,” I said.
He read on, although I was still back there on the edge of the dark.
Then he came to:
I wish I could promise to lie in the night And think of an orchard’s ar-bo-re-al plight When slowly (and nobody comes with a light) Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
My eyes snapped shut again. I had never heard anything so fearfully sad. I bit my lip to keep from crying. I could almost see it, the trees too young to be left alone, waiting for someone or something to come, and finally knowing no one ever would.
“Yep,” said Mr. Root. “Some of his, well, I’d say he knows what he’s talking about. Straight talk. That’s what Frost was really good at, none of those namby-pamby poems about Greek urns and stuff. Nope”—he held up the book—”just plainspoken, to-the-point words about nature and stuff.”
“Mr. Root,” I said, “I don’t think he’s plainspoken. He means a lot more than what he seems to be saying.” . . .
Mr. Root pushed his feed cap back on his head and scratched his forehead. . . .
“What do you mean by that?” His eyes narrowed as if I were insulting him.
I didn’t want to talk about it; I don’t know why I had to open my big mouth. “Well, I think he means something different from what he’s saying. Or seems to be saying.” . . .
I asked Mr. Root if I could borrow the book for a minute, and he handed it to me.
“And could I have a piece of paper and use your pencil?”
He tore off a little sheet and handed that to me, too, along with his pencil. “Whatcha doin’?”
I wrote the last lines on the paper and folded it up and stuck it in my change purse.
Are there any lines of poetry or prose that shut your eyes?
I didn’t sleep well last night and as a result am as dumb as a box of rocks today. My husband came home with a “temporary” flip phone to replace the flip phone I lost (I think it’s really Under Something), and I told him I had to keep my phone number because I’m incapable of remembering any new numbers, even when I get plenty of sleep. It’ll take several hours to two business days for them to arrange for the new number.* I also have to think carefully before saying or writing my new address. I scramble the numbers. Anyway, this may turn out to be a disjointed post, but it won’t be the first.
David and I saw the latest adaptation of Little Women two weeks ago. I’d read glowing reviews but had also heard some viewers are conflicted, haven’t decided what to think.
I loved it. Absolutely loved it.
I’m embarrassed, sort of, to admit I’ve never read the book. I’ve skimmed it. But, as high school freshmen say, I saw the movie—the one made in the ’90s, and I loved it, too. I’ve also seen the version in which Katherine Hepburn played Jo. And the series aired on PBS a couple of years ago.
I’ve read three or four of Alcott’s other novels. In the sixth grade, I read Alcott’s Eight Cousins–and recently found the book report I did on it–and its sequel, Rose in Bloom. The latter was very affecting; I cried when that poor young man died in an alcohol-induced accident, but that’s what happens to young men who’ve been spoilt by their mothers and as a result are wild and even their Cousin Rose can’t reform them. Rose then fell in love with her medical doctor Cousin Mac, whom she’d always thought of as “the worm”; that’s what happens to women in novels of that period. I think Mac was a doctor. Or a medical student. He was Serious and Responsible. So was Rose.
At the end of Little Women, Alcott marries Jo to a teacher and scholar, as the director does at the end of the movie—hurrah for faithful adaptations—but the movie makes clear that Jo did so reluctantly. The director allows viewers to infer that Alcott was just as reluctant. But she wanted the book to sell, and the public wouldn’t have accepted a spinster who goes to New York to publish or perish.
A documentary that aired a few years ago on PBS includes the reading of a letter Alcott wrote refusing a proposal of marriage. It was hilarious. I’m glad I wasn’t the would-be groom who received it.
The movie’s one flaw is that the story is not told in chronological order. I think the format works perfectly. But the movie jumps back and forth in time without adequate transition from scene to scene. Viewers unfamiliar with the story might have trouble following along.
I also have a concern about the script, which applies to all the LW feature films I’ve seen—the characterization of Marmee. In this movie and the one made in the ’90s, she’s depicted as a cheerful, youthful feminist, neatly and attractively dressed, rather perky. In the PBS series, she looks older, as if she’s raising four daughters on a tight budget, with a husband away at war, and a seriously ill daughter, and mid-19th century housework that affords no time for idleness. She’s happy, but not perky, and she often looks tired. “Housekeeping,” wrote Louisa May Alcott, “ain’t no joke.” She knew. At one point, while her impractical philosopher father discussed and wrote about ideas, his wife and daughter worked as domestics.
When David and I got to the ticket window, we were told there were only three seats available, first row. We took the two on the far aisle. I hadn’t sat on the front row since I saw Toby Tyler when I was nine. Fortunately, the seats reclined, so I didn’t get a crick in my neck from looking up at an 88-degree angle. There were four people, including David and me, on the front row, the other two on the opposite aisle. At least half of the reserved seats were empty.
David commented afterward that there weren’t many young(er) people in the audience. No, the majority had gray hair, or at least visible wrinkles. Post-Boomers don’t know, or want to know, I guess, about Little Women. It’s all Game of Thrones, or whatever. Since retiring and losing the school’s subscription to Booklist, I don’t know anything about recent publications. My latest read was written in 1908. It was delightful. More about that later.
The other movie—there was a trailer—was a new Dr. Doolittle. It’s a 2020 adaptation. I think Robert Downey, Jr. is as cute as a bug, but I’ll skip this one. There’s so much noise (chaos) I couldn’t hear the animals talk, except for one little bear, or something, lying on his back and crying, “I’m too pitiful to die.” I think that was what he said. He was on board a ship in a terrible storm on the open sea.
I once cried something like that when I was on board a cruise ship in choppy waters. Nine other relatives and me, celebrating Thanksgiving in style. First night out, a norther hit. The next morning, when I phoned for someone to come attend to the carpet, the man in housekeeping, or whatever they call it, said, “You bomited in your room?” Yes, I bomited in my room. Which was better than the rest of the revelers, who were bomiting in the halls. That afternoon, they had to give me an injection of phenergan and pills to take every three hours, after which, because I was blissfully unconscious, I stopped wailing to my travel-agent cousin/roommate, who that morning had brought me a Sprite and abandoned me to my fate, “I’m going home. When we find land, you get me a plane ticket or I’ll walk home.”** The next day, we walked to the market in Cozumel and I bought some earrings.
Well, sorry for the disgusting story, but when I saw that poor little bear, that’s what I thought about. He might have just been afraid, but I suspect he was plain old seasick.***
*It might be a burner phone, which will come handy for research when I put one in a mystery, or if I myself decide to do something untoward.
**Her leaving was heartless but for the best. An optimist, she kept saying I would be fine tomorrow and I was not going home. Mal de mer is misery enough. Victims do not need the added affliction of cheerful healthy people.
***Those patches work. The next cruise, I went prepared.
It’s 1967, and two sixth-grade girls are selling candy so Baltimore’s Herbert Malone Elementary School Orchestra can travel to regional competition in Harrisburg. Both girls have “sworn they would absolutely die if they didn’t get to go . . . ”
“Hold the whole carton up when they open the door,” Sonya told Willa. “Not just one candy bar. Ask, ‘Would you like to buy some candy bars?’ Plural.”
“I’m going to ask?” Willa said. “I thought you were.”
“I’d feel silly asking.”
“What, you don’t think I’d feel silly?”
“But you’re much better with grownups.”
“What will you be doing?”
“I’ll be in charge of the money,” Sonya said, and she waved her envelope.
Willa said, “Okay, but then you have to ask at the next house.”
“Fine,” Sonya said.
Of course it was fine, because the next house was bound to be easier. But Willa tightened her arms around the carton, and Sonya turned to lead the way up the flagstone walk.
The house had a metal sculpture out front that was nothing but a tall, swooping curve, very modern. The doorbell was lit with a light that glowed even in the daytime. Sonya poked it. A rich-sounding two-note chime rang somewhere inside, followed by a silence so deep that they could begin to hope no one was home. But then footsteps approached, and the door opened, and a woman stood smiling at them. She was younger than their mothers and more stylish, with short brown hair and bright lipstick, and she wore a miniskirt. “Why, hello, girls,” she said, while behind her a little boy came toddling up, dragging a pull toy and asking, “Who’s that, Mama? Who’s that, Mama?”
Willa looked at Sonya. Sonya looked at Willa. Something about Sonya’s expression–so trusting, so expectant, her lips moistened and slightly parted as if she planned to start speaking along with Willa–struck Willa as comical, and she felt a little burp of laughter rising in her chest and then bubbling in her throat. The sudden, surprising squeak that popped out seemed comical too—hilarious, in fact—and the bubble of laughter turned to gales of laughter, whole water falls of laughter, and next to her Sonya broke into sputters and doubled in on herself while the woman stood looking at them, still smiling with a question smile. Willa asked, “Would you like—? Would you like—?” But she couldn’t finish; she was overcome; she couldn’t catch her breath.
“Are you two offering to sell me something?” the woman suggested kindly. Willa could tell that she’d probably gotten the giggles herself when she was their age, although surely—oh, lord—surely not such hysterical giggles, such helpless, overpowering, uncontrollable giggles. These giggles were like a liquid that flooded Willa’s whole body, causing tears to stream from her eyes and forcing her to crumple over her carton and clamp her legs together so as not to pee. She was mortified, and she could see from Sonya’s desperate, wild-eyed face that she was mortified too, but at the same time it was the most wonderful, loose, relaxing feeling. Her cheeks ached and her stomach muscles seemed to have softened into silk. She could have melted into a puddle right there on the stoop.
Sonya was the first to give up. She flapped an arm wearily in the woman’s direction and turned to start back down the flagstone walk, and Willa turned too and followed without another word. After a moment, they heard the front door gently closing behind them.
They weren’t laughing any more. Willa felt tired to the bone, and emptied and a little sad. And Sonya might have felt the same way, because the sun still hung like a thin white dime above Bert Kane ridge, but she said, “We ought to wait till the weekend. It’s too hard when we’ve got all this homework.” Willa didn’t argue.
I observed in a recent post that Anne Tyler has a tendency to kill my favorite characters (and characters my favorite characters care about). I declare today that if Anne Tyler does that in Clock Dance, she will have much to answer for.
I don’t buy many physical books these days; in the interest of storage space and the planet, I buy ebooks. But reading some books, even those by authors who keep killing off characters I love—especially those who keep killing off characters I love—requires old technology. It’s an emotional thing.
And so today, breaking my own rules, I bought a paperback copy of Clock Dance. I’m up to page sixty-three and already see trouble coming—because Tyler writes about real people and tells the truth. And the thumb on my left hand—I call it my holding-the-book-open thumb—will protest for weeks after its job is done.
What’s worse, I’ll probably cry and my head will get all stuffy.
But as David once told me, “That’s okay. I’m getting used to sad movies.”
So, no matter how many crying towels I go through, I’ll have a warm and fuzzy feeling and memories of being curled up with a good book.
Anne Tyler Clock Dance
Vintage (July 10, 2018)
A friend told me something about her family history. Her grandmother, who was born in 1910, had 12 children. By the time the last child came along, her oldest daughter was in her twenties, childless, and wishing she could have a baby. So that youngest child was given to her sister and grew up believing that her sister was her mother and her mother was her grandmother.
The way my friend told it, the situation played out without great trauma—the little girl learned that she was adopted in the usual sort of way. But to me, the possibilities for very deep emotional upheaval were striking, just depending on the circumstances. For my main character, Regina, being given to her sister was a disaster, and the feelings of betrayal, rejection, and abandonment are intense.
Why the mid-century setting?
Another friend, who read a very early draft of this story, said, “It’s great but the setting in time falls between contemporary and historical. Can’t you tell the same story set in present day?”
The answer is no. For two reasons. One: too many things that happen in the story could not happen now. Advances in forensic science, victim services, and child protection would be expected to change the outcome at nearly every stage. And yet I think that many of the old attitudes and assumptions—especially about female victims, racial prejudice, and the sovereignty of the family—are stubbornly alive today.
Two: There is a shape to that era—the twenties, the Crash, the Depression, World War II, emerging modernism—that is unique and still shapes our world experience. And I don’t think anyone disputes that the Old South continues to haunt us.
This book is very different from your first!
It is! LAY DEATH AT HER DOORwas a much riskier project, having a protagonist who was in so many ways also an antagonist. And it was contemporary. And although the crimes reached back decades, the truth about them was entirely accessible in the end.
In Blue Lake, the violence reaches back so far in the past, and in a time when the truth about an isolated incident could so much more easily slip out of reach forever, that it felt to me as though Regina would never be able penetrate the mystery. It was a challenge to lead her to the answers she so desperately needed.
Always murder! Why do you write about murder?
To me it is the ultimate drama, when human emotions result in one person killing another. I try to treat murder with respect, for the extreme and shocking act that it is for real. I love a good cozy mystery as much as the next person, but I cannot write one. Murder is a deadly serious topic—could not be more so.
I also read mysteries and thrillers that feature serial killers, though these are not my favorites at all. These murders are committed by people who fall well outside the realm of normal human emotional response. I am more interested in a murder that is understandable, so to speak.
I would not go so far as to say that we are all capable of killing another human being. I have no idea whether that is true—probably not? But I think we all recognize and experience emotions which, if we were tested to a limit and beyond, could make us really want to kill another person.
Laws are quite clear about issues such as self-defense and justifiable homicide, but our individual perceptions of these concepts, in extreme and highly emotional circumstances, can be quite elastic. And it may well be that anyone who murders has a deeply flawed character. But character flaws are universally human, too.
Elizabeth Buhmann is originally from Virginia, where both of her novels are set. Growing up as the daughter of an Army officer, she lived in France, Germany, New York, Japan, and Saint Louis. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. For twenty years she worked for the Texas Attorney General as a researcher and writer on criminal justice and crime victim issues. Her first murder mystery, Lay Death at Her Door, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and twice reached the Amazon Top 100 (paid Kindle). Elizabeth lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and dog. She is an avid gardener, loves murder mysteries, and is a long-time student of Tai Chi.
“Rural Virginia, 1945. The Second World War had just ended when Alice Hannon found the lifeless body of her five-year-old daughter, Eugenie, floating in Blue Lake. The tragedy of the little girl’s death destroyed the Hannon family.
“More than twenty years later, Alice’s youngest daughter, Regina, returns home after a long estrangement because her father is dying. She is shocked to discover, quite by accident, that her sister’s drowning was briefly investigated as a murder at the time.
“For as long as she can remember, Regina has lived in the shadow of her family’s grief. She becomes convinced that if she can discover the truth about Eugenie’s death, she can mend the central rift in her life. With little to go on but old newspapers and letters, the dead girl’s hairpin, and her own earliest memories, Regina teases out a family history of cascading tragedy that turns her world upside down.”
When I began Elizabeth Buhmann’s BLUE LAKE, I was–I’m ashamed to say–afraid I would be disappointed. Her first novel, LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR, was so well constructed, clues so obviously placed, that I should have been able to predict the ending–but so deftly woven into the plot that the last chapter was a complete surprise. More than a surprise–a shock. That novel was so good, I knew BLUE LAKE couldn’t match it.
I was wrong. BLUE LAKE is different from its predecessor, of course, but just as well written and just as suspenseful. And when I reached the end, I said, “I should have known.”
BLUE LAKE does not disappoint.
Buhmann hides things in plain sight–the mark of a good mystery writer, and the delight of every mystery reader.
Tomorrow I’ll post an interview with Elizabeth Buhmann.
FTC Disclaimer: Elizabeth Buhmann is a friend and fellow writer. When we were both members of Austin Mystery Writers, I read the first chapters of BLUE LAKE in draft form and then waited impatiently for it to reach publication. The synopsis above is quoted from Amazon. The rest is mine. Nobody told me what to think or to say, and I posted because I wanted to. I bought the ebook with my very own money. No reviewers were bribed in the writing of this review.
Unable to think of an H word I could get a post out of (I searched the dictionary for a likely candidate, but in vain), I fall back on a post that appeared April 9, 2018, exactly one year ago, for Day H of the A to Z Challenge. It’s a little English majory, but I restrained myself as best I could. For example, I used only five semicolons.
Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody, moved from Concord to Salem in 1845 and the next year he was appointed “Surveyor for the District of Salem and Beverly and Inspector of the Revenue for the Port of Salem.” While in the position, he had difficulty writing, and told writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom he’d met in college, “Whenever I sit alone, or walk alone, I find myself dreaming about stories, as of old; but these forenoons in the Custom House undo all that the afternoons and evenings have done. I should be happier if I could write.”
After Whig Zachary Taylor’s election to the presidency in 1848 election Hawthorne, a Democrat, lost his job. A letter he wrote in protest was published in a Boston newspaper, and his dismissal became known and talked about throughout New England. But he returned to writing and in 1850 published The Scarlet Letter.
It was one of the first mass-produced books in America, selling 2,500 volumes within ten days and earning Hawthorne $1,500 over 14 years. The book was pirated by booksellers in London and became a best-seller in the United States; it initiated his most lucrative period as a writer. (Wikipedia)
It has been called the first psychological novel, and writer D. H. Lawrence later said that there “could be no more perfect work of the American imagination.
Unfortunately, Hawthorne died long before Lawrence expressed his opinion; among his contemporaries, the novel became the subject of controversy.
Hawthorne’s friend Edwin Percy Whippleobjected to the novel’s “morbid intensity” and its dense psychological details, writing that the book “is therefore apt to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of them.”
It also added to his troubles. There was a “furious” response from newspapers, politicians, and members of the clergy. (Hawthorne also mentioned his job in the introduction and referred to certain politicians, so he shouldn’t have been surprised that those readers weren’t complimentary. Just my opinion.)
I detest this town so much that I hate to go into the streets, or to have the people see me. . .I feel an infinite contempt for them, and probably have expressed more of it than I intended; for my preliminary chapter has caused the greatest uproar that ever happened here since witch-times.
“He half-expected the crowds to tar and feather him,” says St. John: ‘from such judges as my fellow-citizens, I should look upon it as a higher honor than a laurel-crown.'”
The Scarlet letter was published in mid-March 1850. In late March, the Hawthorne family moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. In 1851, he published The House of the Seven Gables, which poet James Russell Lowell said was better than The Scarlet Letter and called “‘the most valuable contribution to New England history that has been made.'”
When I began this post, I intended it to comprise mostly pictures of the House of the Seven Gables. But to ensure I got my facts straight, I googled, found the chapter by St. John, and was struck by Hawthorne’s opinion of Salem. I’d assumed he was happy there. After all, he’d set a novel there.
The last time I wrote about her, I was in a snit. She’d killed off my favorite character halfway through the novel I was reading, and I was not happy.
I’m writing this time because she’s made me laugh. The book is Vinegar Girl, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and in it she kills no one at all. She must have had a wonderful time writing it.
For a quick recap: Shakespeare’s shrew is Katherina, daughter of Baptista and older sister of the gentle Bianca. Afraid Katherina, whose reputation precedes her, will never receive a proposal, Baptista tells two young men eager to marry Bianca that his older daughter must marry before the younger. The suitors recruit Petruchio to woo Katherina; Katherina resists, but finding him her intellectual equal, agrees to marry him. Then Petruchio sets about “taming” his bride. At the end, Petruchio presents her to the public as the model of a sweet-tempered, obedient wife
Tyler’s Katherina is Kate Battista. Ten years before the story begins, Kate was invited to leave college after telling her botany professor his explanation of photosynthesis was “half-assed.” Her medical research scientist father made no fuss about her expulsion because he agreed the explanation was half-assed.
Since then, Kate has worked as a teacher’s aide at the Charles Village Little People’s School, where she spends a lot of time in Mrs. Darling’s office, being counseled in the need to use tact, diplomacy, and restraint when speaking with parents. For example, when Jameesha’s father asked her to do something about Jameesha’s finger sucking–Jameesha has a “habit of sucking her two middle fingers, with her pinkie and her index finger sticking up on either side like the sign language for ‘I love you'”–Kate told him not to worry: “Chances are she’ll stop soon enough, once her fingers grow so long that she pokes both her eyes out.” Mrs. Darling says she must develop “some social skills. Some tact, some restraint, some diplomacy.” Difficulty navigating the school’s “mysterious” etiquette has Kate on what Mrs. Darling calls “thin ice.”
Kate also runs the household and takes care of her father and her fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. Taking care of her father includes delivering his oft-forgotten lunches to his lab and doing his taxes. Taking care of Bunny includes preventing her from getting too friendly with her “Spanish tutor,” next-door neighbor, Edward Mintz, whose mother says he has “that Japanese disease . . . the one where young people shut themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to go on with their lives.” Bunny, who was normal until about the time she turned twelve, also has the “irksome habit” of “turning declarative sentences into questions.” Bunny isn’t easy to deal with, and Kate has been dealing with her since their mother died, when Bunny was six years old.
Working at a preschool and being a family manager isn’t the life Kate expected to have, but when the story opens, she’s not expecting anything to change. Then her father introduces her to his research assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov.
When they meet, Kate says, “Hi,” but Pyotr says, “Vwwouwv!” That’s the kind of thing men often say when they first see Kate, “due to a bunch of dead cells: her hair, which was blue-black and billowy and extended below her waist.”
(She stopped getting her hair cut when she was thirteen because she couldn’t take any more of the “Chatty Cathy act”:
“In the beauty parlor. Talk, talk, talk; those places are crawling with talk. The women there start going before they even sit down–talk about boyfriends, husbands, mothers-in-laws. Roommates, jealous girlfriends. Feuds and misunderstandings and romances and divorces. How can they find so much to say? I could never think of anything, myself. I kept disappointing the beautician. Finally I went, ‘Shoot. I’ll just quit getting my hair cut.'”)
Then Dr. Battista brings Pyotr home to dinner. And snaps photos of her and Pyotr with his cell phone, which he never uses because he’s a little afraid of it. And tells her that in two months, Pyotr’s visa will expire and he’ll have to leave the country, and he’s the best assistant Dr. Battista has ever had, ever could have, and the whole scientific community knows about Pyotr Cherbakov, and he’s the only one Dr. Battista can possibly work with, and without Pyotr he might as well abandon his research, because it’s doomed . . . unless . . .
“Unless, perhaps, we could get him an . . . adjustment of status.
“Oh, good, get him an adjustment of status.”
She brushed past him and went out to the hall. “Bunny!” she shouted. “Supper’s on!”
“We could adjust his status to ‘married to an American.'”
“Pyotr’s married to an American?”
“Well, not quite yet,” her father said. He trailed her back to the dining room. “But he’s fairly nice-looking, don’t you agree? All those girls working in the building: they seem to find different reasons to talk to him.”
“So he could marry a girl in the building?” Kate asked. She sat down at her place and shook out her napkin.
“I don’t think so,” her father said. “He doesn’t . . . the conversations never seem to develop any further, unfortunately.”
Her father sat down at the head of the table. He cleared his throat. “You, maybe?”
And so it begins. Such fun.
Or maybe not.
Shrews aren’t usually born shrewish. Shakespeare shows that Baptista favors Bianca; it’s no wonder Katherina is out of sorts.
Kate Battista, too, is the daughter of a widowed father who seems to take her for granted while focusing his attention on his younger child. When Pyotr observes Kate is pretty, Dr. Battista says, “You should see her sister.” That must hurt.
And then he makes a heartless request, urges her to marry a man she doesn’t know so he can keep his research assistant.
“I guess I just couldn’t believe my own father would conceive of such a thing. . . . You would never ask Bunny to do this . . . Your precious treasure Bunny-poo.”
The Taming of the Shrew poses a problem for modern audiences: It is misogynistic? Maybe. Maybe not. Some scholars say Katherina isn’t tamed at all, but that she and Petruchio are putting on an elaborate show for the banquet guests and are enjoying every minute of it.
Vinegar Girl poses no such problem. Kate is no Katherina, rife for taming. But after ten years of routine, she suddenly has a lot more to think about than doing taxes and cooking meat mash and keeping Bunny in line. The idea of marrying Pyotr is unthinkable. But it’s so important to her father.
Will she please her father or herself? Can she do both? Will her sense of honor and self-respect survive the ordeal?
Does she have the tact, diplomacy, and restraint to carry her through? Or will her own mysterious etiquette be enough?
And, by the way, where does Pyotr fit into this puzzle?
Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is a delightful romp, part Shakespeare, part Jane Austen, all Anne Tyler. It would make a fine summer read. Or fall. Or winter.
Her interest in people and other animals was warm, personal, and friendly. She always found something to excuse, and as a rule to love, in the toughest of them–even if she had to put it there herself. She was the natural ally and friend of the friendless. It was believed that, Presbyterian as she was, she could be beguiled into saying a soft word for the devil himself, and so the experiment was tried. The abuse of Satan began; one conspirator after another added his bitter word, his malign reproach, his pitiless censure, till at last, sure enough, the unsuspecting subject of the trick walked into the trap. She admitted that the indictment was sound, that Satan was utterly wicked and abandoned, just as these people had said; but would any claim that he had been treated fairly? A sinner was but a sinner; Satan was just that, like the rest. What saves the rest?–their own efforts alone? No–or none might ever be saved. To their feeble efforts is added the mighty help of pathetic, appealing, imploring prayers that go up daily out of all the churches in Christendom and out of myriads upon myriads of pitying hearts. But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for th pelain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
This friend of Satan was a most gentle spirit and an unstudied and unconscious pathos was her native speech. When her pity or her indignation was stirred by hurt or shame inflicted upon some defenseless person or creature, she was the most eloquent person I have heard speak. It was seldom eloquence of a fiery or violent sort, but gentle, pitying, persuasive, appealing; and so genuine and so nobly and simply worded and so touchingly uttered, that many times I have seen it win the reluctant and splendid applause of tears.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider. New York: HarperPerennial, 2013.
The cover displayed above is from the Deluxe Modern Classic (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) Kindle edition, published in 2011.
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the look-out for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. To-morrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling – something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim….
I hate that. I hate the author. I continue to like the book, but the author I despise.
This time it’s Anne Tyler. I love her novels. The Accidental Tourist. Breathing Lessons. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My favorites, if I have favorites, are Back When We Were Grownups and Saint Maybe.
Tyler’s plots are rather loose. Instead of going directly from here to there, they detour, turn corners you didn’t see coming, abandon the now for backstory that might take you a generation or two into the past before returning to the main narrative. “[C]haracter is everything,” Tyler said in an interview. “I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.”
She writes about families: ordinary, quirky, dysfunctional families–dysfunctional as ordinary families tend to be. They’re humble people, living in ordinary houses, working at ordinary jobs; their furniture is often mismatched and their carpet runners often worn from someone’s pacing. Her families stick together; children and grandchildren don’t stray far, come home often, and sometimes don’t leave at all.
Even their extraordinary problems are ordinary, the kinds of problems real people experience.
Her characters’ days are filled with matters of little importance. “As for huge events vs. small events,” says Tyler, “I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me….It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful.”
She loves to “think about chance–about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe…The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure.”
If her plots meander, it’s because they reflect the common, insignificant, everyday events that are so important, because, taken together, they form the essence of life.
Tyler cares about her characters. “My people wander around my study until the novel is done,” she said in another interview. “It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out.”
And therein lies my problem, and the reason that Anne Tyler is, for the moment, on my bad list.
She isn’t alone in liking her characters. I like them, too. Some of them, I love. And when one dies–or, as I see it, when she kills one–I take it personally. The character’s family stand around in the kitchen saying all the plain, simple, often awkward, frequently funny things that real people say when someone they love has died. They crowd together in pews to hear a sermon by a minister who didn’t know the loved one and might not know how to pronounce his name. They return home to refrigerators stuffed with casseroles and play host to friends and neighbors until they’re so tired they’re about to drop. Left alone, they get on one another’s nerves and offend with, or take offense at, the most innocent remarks. Then they pick themselves up and go on with their lives.
But I don’t. Because even though I stand outside the novel, reading about people who don’t exist, never have, never will, I know them. I’ve been where they are, said what they say, done what they do. And when I have to go through it one more time, with them–that seriously messes up my day.
Tyler always manages to redeem herself, though. One of her characters says or does something so remarkable, so absolutely right. And the world of the novel shifts. And so does mine.
In the book I’m reading now–I won’t mention the title so as not to spoil it for you–Tyler gives that role to the “disconcertingly young” minister who conducts the funeral. After a friend and a sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old granddaughter wearing “patent leather heels and a shiny, froufrou dress so short she could have been a cocktail waitress,” have paid tribute to the deceased, he approaches the lectern and does what the deceased wanted–to “say something brief and–if it wasn’t asking too much–‘not too heavy on religion.'”
He starts by saying he didn’t know their loved one and so doesn’t have memories like they have.
But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories–all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth. The hardware store their father owned with the cat asleep on the grass seed, and the friend they used to laugh with till the tears streamed down their cheeks… The spring mornings they woke up to a million birds singing their hearts out, and the summer afternoons with the swim towels hung over the porch rail… and the warm yellow windows of home when they came in on a snowy night. “That’s what my experience has been,” they say, and it gets folded in with the others–one more report on what living felt like. What it was to be alive.
And so Anne Tyler performs her magic. Once more I start bawling. I reconsider. My hostility passes into nothingness. I forgive her. We’re friends again.
I leave the church and go home with the family to a refrigerator stuffed with casseroles, and visit with their friends, and watch them give and take offense but then quickly, or perhaps slowly, repair their relationships, and pick themselves up and go on with life.
Now I have to read the second half of the book. That’s a lot of pages to cover without the character I love. But, like the others, I pick myself up and get on with it.
If I can’t have the character, I can still love Anne Tyler. And I will. And I do.
*Experts (says an article on the web) say readers are attracted to lists with numbers in the titles. We’ll see.
**I have other possibilities. These are the ones I can see without getting up and crossing the room.
***I started this post last night but fiddled so long with it that I didn’t have time to read.
I’m still fiddling with it.
But tonight . . .
I love WordPress, but sometimes we disagree about formatting, mostly about position of photographs and about spacing. What I see here on the edit page isn’t always what both of us see on the published page. I have done my darndest to make it do what I tell it to do. At this point, I don’t care. If the post looks funny, please just read it and ignore the WordPress deficiencies. My deficiencies you are welcome to notice and even to point out.
Mark Twain is given official credit for this poem, but it was really composed by Emmeline Grangerford, whose family Huckleberry Finn met on his Adventures down the Mississippi River.
Below, Huck quotes Emmeline’s tribute to Stephen Dowling Bots, who came to a watery end. He also records what happened to Emmeline, whose compulsive rhyming finally led to her sadful demise.
This young girl kept a scrap-book when she was alive, and used to paste obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering in it out of the Presbyterian Observer, and write poetry after them out of her own head. It was very good poetry. This is what she wrote about a boy by the name of Stephen Dowling Bots that fell down a well and was drownded:
Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d. And did young Stephen sicken, And did young Stephen die? And did the sad hearts thicken, And did the mourners cry?
* No; such was not the fate of Young Stephen Dowling Bots; Though sad hearts round him thickened, ‘Twas not from sickness’ shots. * No whooping-cough did rack his frame, Nor measles drear, with spots; Not these impaired the sacred name Of Stephen Dowling Bots.
* Despised love struck not with woe That head of curly knots, Nor stomach troubles laid him low, Young Stephen Dowling Bots.
* O no. Then list with tearful eye, Whilst I his fate do tell. His soul did from this cold world fly, By falling down a well.
* They got him out and emptied him; Alas it was too late; His spirit was gone for to sport aloft In the realms of the good and great.
If Emmeline Grangerford could make poetry like that before she was fourteen, there ain’t no telling what she could a done by-and-by. Buck said she could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn’t ever have to stop to think. He said she would slap down a line, and if she couldn’t find anything to rhyme with it she would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead. She warn’t particular, she could write about anything you choose to give her to write about, just so it was sadful. Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her “tribute” before he was cold. She called them tributes. The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker- the undertaker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme the dead person’s name, which was Whistler. She warn’t ever the same, after that; she never complained, but she kind of pined away and did not live long.
Mark Twain cared about words: Pa’s boot with a couple of his toes leaking out of the front end; the sow lying in the middle of the street looking as happy as if she was on salary; and Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on.
In his autobiography, he tells the story of a time his mother used the right words to teach him a lesson that lasted a lifetime.
There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years. We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends, half way across the American continent, and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing – it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper, and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes, and her lip trembled, and she said something like this—
“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”
It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home, and Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more. She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work. She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years, and was capable with her tongue to the last – especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.
In yesterday's post I wrote about Lynna Williams' story "Personal Testimony." Here are the first three paragraphs of the story.
“The last night of church camp, 1963, and I am sitting on the front row of the junior mixed-voice choir looking out on the crowd in the big sanctuary tent. The tent glows, green and white and unexpected, in the Oklahoma night; our choir director, Dr. Bledsoe, has schooled us in the sudden crescendos needed to compete with the sounds cars make when their drivers cut the corner after a night at the bars on Highway 10 and see the tent rising out of the plain for the first time. The tent is new to Faith Camp this year, a gift to God and the Southern Baptist Convention from the owner of a small circus who repented, and then retired, in nearby Oklahoma City. It is widely rumored among the campers that Mr. Talliferro came to Jesus late in life, after having what my mother would call Life Experiences. Now he walks through camp with the unfailing good humor of a man who, after years of begging hardscrabble farmers to forsake their fields for an afternoon of elephants and acrobats, has finally found a real draw: His weekly talks to the senior boys on “Sin and the Circus?” incorporate a standing-room-only question-and-answer period, and no one ever leaves early.
“Although I will never be allowed to hear one of Mr. Talliferro’s talks—I will not be twelve forever, but I will always be a girl—I am encouraged by his late arrival into our Fellowship of Believers. I will take my time, too, I think: first I will go to high school, to college, to bed with a boy, to New York. (I think of those last two items as one since, as little as I know about sex, I do know it is not something I will ever be able to do in the same time zone as my mother.) Then when I’m fifty-two or so and have had, like Mr. Talliferro, sufficient Life Experiences, I’ll move back to west Texas and repent.
“Normally, thoughts of that touching—and distant—scene of repentance are how I entertain myself during evening worship service. But tonight I am unable to work up any enthusiasm for the vision of myself sweeping into my hometown to be forgiven. For once my thoughts are entirely on the worship service ahead.”
Yesterday I wrote that the narrator of “Personal Experience” is eleven years old. When I discovered the excerpt, I was reminded she’s really twelve. I’ll correct my error. My narrator, however, continues to be eleven.
On my way home from work one night in the ’90s, I heard actress Judith Ivey on Selected Shorts, reading “Personal Testimony,” a short story by Lynna Williams.
The narrator is eleven-year-old Ellen Whitmore, a preacher’s daughter from Fort Worth, who is at Southern Baptist summer camp in Oklahoma. At evening services, when campers are expected to witness to their experiences of sin and repentance, Ellen demonstrates a talent that catches the attention of fifteen-year-old Michael. Although he’s reputed to be most spiritual boy in camp, Michael has what Ellen’s brother calls “Jesus Jaw”– he has plenty to say but can’t complete a simple sentence: “I just–I mean, it’s just so–I just . . .” He tells Ellen he wishes he could speak about his spiritual life as easily as she can speak about hers, so, following her mother’s example, she offers to help. Within days, she has a thriving business writing personal testimonies for older campers, a gratifying popularity, and a fat stack of bills stashed in her Bible at John 3:16. Her adventure in capitalism ends at the summer’s final service, when she sees her father in the congregation, realizes he knows, and makes one last and very public attempt to avoid his wrath.
I’ve heard that people don’t laugh aloud when alone. That’s not true. I sailed down I-35 guffawing and then quickly broke out in tears.
(I hate it when writers manipulate me like that. It’s just one more skill to covet.)
I’d been writing off and on for a few years but hadn’t produced anything even marginally successful. A small circle of friends and family liked the pieces I showed them, but they also liked me– most of the time–and they weren’t seasoned critics anyway. The writing was bad. I was frustrated. Not knowing what was wrong, I couldn’t make it right. Classes and workshops didn’t help.
The night I heard Judith Ivey read, all that changed. I didn’t experience an epiphany, per se, but there was a definite moment of enlightenment: My best work was bad because it had no voice. I had no voice. The nearest I could manage was a small-time literary critic in love with semicolons.
Listening to “Personal Testimony,” I heard Lynna William’ voice and knew what I should do.
My work should sound natural to my ear. Informal. Fluid. First person narration by a self-absorbed eleven-year-old girl with attitude, precocious in some areas and in others absolutely clueless. That comprised Enlightenment, Part I.
Then came Enlightenment, Part II: I’ve been hearing that voice most of my life. It’s the one I think in. I didn’t have to worry about copying Williams–it’s my voice, too. I’d just never recognized its potential.
Not long after hearing “Personal Testimony,” I allowed the eleven-year-old in my head to dictate a story while I wrote. Then she dictated another. And they worked.
My inner child is different from Ellen, as is only right. Mine is sharper, has more attitude. I have no idea why.
A year ago, my eleven-year-old suddenly morphed into a forty-year-old woman. She has so much attitude she’s scary. Now there’s a third voice, very different from the other two, stronger and scarier even than the forty-year-old. The third voice came as a relief. I’d wondered whether the pre-teen was all I had. What if everything I wrote came from the same source and sounded just like what had come before? The child is fun to listen to, for a while, but after a time, she can become wearing. I spend enough time with her as it is. Readers would soon get their fill.
There are some things that can’t be learned in a classroom. An instructor might have told me my work lacked voice, but he couldn’t have said how to find the right fit.
I’m indebted to Lynna Williams for helping me to hear a girl’s voice, and to recognize its value. She inspired hope. She showed me that if I listen, the eleven-year-old in my head will tell me what I need to know.