Sparked by Words

Archive for June, 2017

Y is for The Yearling

 

*Draw back the curtain, dusty and threadbare, to my childhood, and you’ll see a kid propped with a book as often as anything else. We had the first color TV in our neighborhood, a modern wonder that everyone came to watch, me gloating over the regal status of our family. A tiny in-ground swimming pool in our backyard cooled us each afternoon while everyone else traipsed to community pools to escape New Jersey’s blistering summers. I threatened all my limbs racing a bike over the uneven landscape of sidewalk slates erupted by the roots of saplings planted fifty years earlier, now grown to jungle size. My childhood also included an excess of torment, from events I won’t describe or attribute.

At night when my jelly jar beamed with lightning bugs signaling for release, when the attic creaked its rotted beams and Jack Parr entertained adult viewers with his suave, nasal humor on late night TV, I lay in bed with a book and entered worlds more fierce and tragic, heroic and dangerous, romantic and exotic than my own. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Borrowers, Heidi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Twenty-One Balloons, A Little Princess, The Swiss Family Robinson, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, The Railway Children – all these and more captivated me and kept me up hours past bedtime. They gave me insight to the difficult lives of others. They gave me courage, come morning, to tackle another day. One book was so special I bought a copy for my grandson years before he could read it.

The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is about Jody, a youngster who lives in the Florida back country with his parents and his orphaned pet fawn, Flag. Life is harsh and hard scrabble shortly after the end of the Civil War. Every grain of corn is a hedge between mere hunger and flat out starvation, every encounter with nature a potential threat to existence, every neighbor an adversary with their own desperate circumstances to overcome. Jody adores his indulgent pa, his remote ma, his sensitive, crippled friend, and Flag. Flag grows up to become a healthy, ravenous buck and a threat to the family’s tenuous grasp on sufficient sustenance for the following year, forcing Jody to make an unthinkable decision. He must sacrifice the thing he loves most to save his family, his first act of manhood.

The Yearling clutched at my heart like no other book. It was first of all much longer than anything I’d read by at least a hundred pages. Rawlings believed I could read a book this long, that I had the stamina to maintain attention for a sustained period. She trusted that I had the intelligence to keep tabs on a large cast of characters, some so ingratiating I still love them, some despicable, all of them original and unforgettable. She engaged me with a complex plot and a sense of language so identifiable that I learned to speak nineteenth century Floridian with the best of the swamp dwellers.

More than that, Rawlings threw me a life raft. All the stories I’d read and loved told tales of people, usually children, surviving unlikely odds, but The Yearling treated me like an adult. (In fact, she wrote a book. It has come to be considered a young adult book.) Her dollar words and profound ideas made me think about the issues that motivate people to endure the impossible. The story gave me insight into how to navigate the unpredictable and sometimes violent swamp of my childhood. It showed me a way to identify the currents beneath my own strange family issues and swim to the surface. I couldn’t understand Jody’s ma, and I couldn’t understand my own mother. And the book made me want to write like Rawlings.

What did a New Jersey kid know about the wilds of the Louisiana or Florida swamps, the vastness of the American prairie, or even the poverty of the downtown Trenton Black neighborhoods? Not much. Didn’t stop me from writing about them. My stories became populated with folks who had Southern drawls or Western twangs and lived in foul places built more of imagination than any reference to real locales. What did an eleven-year-old know about restrictive social impositions on the other side of town that made it impossible for a man to care for his family or for a woman to walk downtown proudly? Hardly a thing. Didn’t stop me from creating them. My characters faced unjust tribulations and resolved them with courage and invention even if the events were outrageous and the outcomes impossible. I didn’t even flinch from occasionally letting a protagonist die. Melodrama was my forte.

My teachers encouraged me, if only because I used lots of adverbs and adjectives and fashioned strange names for my characters. I won a few school awards and fleeting acknowledgement. My parents applauded my effort though I’m pretty sure they never read anything I wrote.

No matter. In the far dark corner of my room sat the spirit of a little woman with a stern face who waited patiently while I put down my stories in longhand. My hero, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, prodded me to write. Decades ago and long interrupted in my adulthood but now restarted, I wrote stories. I wrote first for children, stories about overcoming injustice and facing down heartache. Now I write for adults, stories about the complex relationships between people against the background of momentous historical events. They’re about people who confront savage or mysterious circumstances and overcome personal failure to find a way to triumph. It’s what happened to Jody. I try to engage readers as much as Rawlings engaged me. I hope that people find solace in my stories for what can’t be described or attributed in their lives.

The Yearling won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

What childhood book stays with you?

I look forward to learning about your favorite Y fiction books.

*Note: This article was first published (with slight differences) on Ink Flare in 2013. Though I intended to assign a different book review to Y, The Yearling has had such major impact on my life as a person and a writer, that I realized this is the only book that would reflect my passion for storytelling.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for Y:

The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (series) by Rebecca Wells

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

 

Book cover image courtesy Google images and Charles Scribner’s Sons

 

 

Dear Mr. or Ms. Agent

Dear Mr. or Ms. Agent Hdroski; (I’m pretty sure I spelled your name right but don’t know if you’re are male or female.)

I’m sending you my entire book Going for Cold as an attachment to this email, so you don’t have to bother asking me for it. Its a Gothic historical fiction steampunk romance adventure novel, and you’re gonna love it as much as my mom does. If you don’t count the chapter titles its 175,000 words long, give or take a few. I love to write as you can tell.

I had been reading a whole lot about how to write a really good kwery letter, and I want you to know I pay attention to advice. (WOW!!!! You cannot believe how many blogs out there give advice about how to write a kuwery but I think I’m following the best one!) So I read someplace that you were born in Outer Slobovia. Since I made my story happen in Outer Slobovia, I knew you’d think this is really intresting as well as unique. Of course, I haven’t been able to visit Outer Slobovia, as I can’t afford the plain ticket much less the hotels and renting a car there and everything, so I wouldn’t mind at all if you made a few corrections in my story, but only if neccesary.

My book is about this really beautiful girl in this little village in Outer Slobovia who is looking for her long lost lover who sailed away to find his fortune in some other country and never came back. Well not right away anyway. She was pregnant at the time he left even though, they weren’t married (I know that’s kind of a no-no, but that’s what makes books exciting isn’t it?) so she gave their baby away to Gypsies who were traveling around on the most beautiful Gypsy wagon, you can imagine. (You don’t actually have to imagine it because I describe it at great lenghth in my book but I wanted to keep this qwuery letter short so I’m not putting it in here.) So the baby, a really adorable little boy who looks just like his father except his father doesn’t know he exists, goes all over Outer Slobovia with the Gypsies………

The Gypsies are really nice people except they steel and cheat a lot, but only from people who are not Gypsies, and the whole group of them end up in a really cold part of Outer Slobovia. (I’m hoping you can tell me what part of the country is colder than the rest because I couldn’t find that out on Google. I figured you would’nt mind since you’ll want my story to be as accurate as possible as its really about your country.) So anyway, the little boy’s mother ends up getting sick and dying but mostly she really dies from heartbreak because she had to give her baby away after her boyfriend whom she really really loved didn’t come back in time for them to get married!!! Its so sad, isn’t it?

So meanwhile the boyfriend, whose name is Igor Igor (isn’t this a clever idea to give him two first names that are the same? I just loved it when I thought of it and almost named the girl Alma Alma but I thought that might be too much so she’s only Alma, just one name. And Alma had named the baby boy Igor Two but the Gypsies changed it to Timbo. I looked it up and it really is a Gpysy name) comes back to the little village where he and Alma fell in love when they were teenagers. He’s very sorry that she had died a long time ago but its really for the best because he happened to get married to someone else along the way to getting rich and now he has a wife and six children. And he did find his fortune in a gold mine.

So now someone in the village (I’m not sure if this person should be the village priest or the village gossip, you might want to make a suggestion) tells Igor Igor about his first son being given away to the Gypsies. So of course Igor Igor decides to leave his wife and six other children in the village while he goes in search of his oldest son, whom he thinks is still named Igor Two. All he knows is that they went to the coldest part of Outer Slobovia, and so he has to go to this very cold place to find his boy. But he’s made his fortune in a gold mine, so he has lots of money and other stuff at hand.

So now you get the title, right? Going for Cold instead of Going for Gold like most people would ordinarily say. I have to admit that the title at first was Going for Gold but then I thought of this really GENUIS idea for the new title Going for Cold!!! Everyone is going to want to read the book just to figure out if the title is a typo, right? And of course, all the symbolism about what’s the real gold or the real cold in the sory but I’ll leave all that to other people to figure out.

So back to my story. The rest of the book is about all the adventures Igor Igor has trying to find his baby son who is already a young man by now and very good at steeling and cheating people who are not Gypsies. You can see where this is going, right? Igor Two, who only ever went by the name Timbo, runs into his father but doesn’t know its his father, but he figures out this guy made his fortune in a gold mine, and so he plans to cheat him out of his fortune. It takes a lot of exciting scenes and unexpected things to happen before Igor Igor finaly figures out whom Timbo is, and although I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, its when he’s dying that he finds out. So its one of these really sad but really deep stories about all the truth of everything getting found out but only at the end of the story when its too late for anyone to end up happy.

You might think I told you the whole story here so how could it be 175,000 words long, more or less? Well, you’ll just have to read the whole story to find out. That’s why I attached it to this email. When you decide to call me, try not to call until after 8:00 AM (remember I live in California so you have to allow, for the time difference) as I like to sleep in a bit. But anytime after that is fine. I am excitedly looking forward excitedly to hearing from you so we can talk about how much money you expect this book to make and who would be a good director for the movie version. This will be so fun!!!

Your friend,
Tawny Lionheart; Author  

(It’s my nome de plume. I made it up since my real name is Myrtle Margaret Agnes May Brown and thats just too awful for anyone.)

 

 

Johannes Vermeer painting A Lady Writing, circa 1665

Lion cartoon courtesy Pixaby

 

X is for The Book Whose Title I Can’t Remember

When I was about ten, early 1958, my parents took us to New York City to see the United Nations. Living in Trenton, New Jersey, we were only a few hours’ drive from the Big Apple, but in reality we were a continent removed. Trenton, though it was the capitol of NJ, was small town compared to cosmopolitan NYC. After a tour of the building, (no meeting in session that day) we three kids each got to pick a souvenir from the gift shop. I chose a kid’s book of short stories, and it’s this book I want to honor as my choice for the letter X.

I can no longer recall the title or author, or even if it was written by one person or several. The stories were intended to relate the good work of UN programs and workers all over the world: the unnamed, unsung heroes who brought modernity to cultures lost in the inefficiency of past centuries, health to tribes hampered by eradicable illnesses and looked after by primitive medicine men, and a sense of the connections that the symbol of world unity promised everyone. I will never forget a few of the stories, especially the one I want to tell you about here.

Less than six months after the visit, my parents moved us to Hawaii where we lived for two years before returning to the mainland on my thirteenth birthday. This was our second inhabitance of O’ahu, the first being when I was nearing the age of four. My dad had graduated in 1952 from Thomas Jefferson University Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College) in Philadelphia, where I’d been born. He joined the army and did his first year of medical residency at Tripler Army Medical Center on the mountainous slopes of the Moanalua Ridge. We lived on base housing. It’s comical to call the units “housing.” In the very early 1900’s, they’d been the hospital wards at Fort Shafter, later converted to physician and officer housing when the iconic coral pink edifice was built around 1944. By the time we moved in, my mom was uncomfortably pregnant and unbearably lonely for her family, and the tiny row of converted quarters were nearly unlivable.

Tripler was and remains the largest Army medical facility in the region, serving Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and various other locations in the Pacific Rim and Asia. It’s important to understand that Hawaii was a Petri dish of cultures that converged and mingled from China, Japan, Philippines, and the US mainland, among others. Everyone brought their native diseases along with their luggage and aging grandparents. In addition, Hawaii is tropical, hot and wet, a fertile nursery for bugs, viruses, and germs, pervasive, exotic, and sometimes fatal. My parents made certain that the three of us were inoculated against smallpox, a genuine threat then, before we left Philadelphia. It kept me safe from smallpox.

They couldn’t vaccinate me against my idiotic four-year-old self.

The story I most remember from the UN book tells about an African village where the natives lived in grass huts and suffered from all kinds of illnesses, many borne by bugs. Malaria, widespread because of Anopheles mosquitoes prevalent in many parts of Africa, was of greatest concern, though I don’t know if the disease was mentioned in the story. It was and is a terrible disease, one that causes raging high fevers, vomiting, brutal headaches, long term physical debilitation, coma, even death, especially to young children.

The UN team entered one tiny hamlet and demanded, nicely of course, that every villager present himself to be doused with a miracle spray that would kill any bug making them ill. Everyone showed up and was sprayed with the wonder insecticide: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT, as you’ve probably guessed. Yep, the toxic pollutant that eventually wiped out or endangered many species, is absorbed into the soil, and may be responsible for carcinogenic illnesses in humans. Then the team went hut to hut and sprayed the interiors and all belongings of each. At one hut, a nervous woman tried to prevent the team from entering. When they did, they spotted a bundle of rags, unwrapped it, and discovered her newborn child. She didn’t want her baby sprayed. Smiling, they insisted, and pulled the infant from its swaddling, sprayed its entire body, and returned the baby to mother’s arms. At ten, I considered it a fabulous conclusion. Ignorant, uneducated mother’s baby was now safe from bad bugs. God knows, I hate bugs.

The first time we lived on O’ahu in the ramshackle base housing, (1952 – ‘53) my mom figured I was relatively safe and let me have the run of the area around the houses, as did all the other children. Imagine, two rows of cardboard-thin buildings facing each other across a swath of lush lawn, lantana, Poinciana, hibiscus, plumeria, coconut, and palm trees, and dozens of kids running all over. All the moms looked out for all the kids – sort of. No one really stood watch as it wasn’t necessary. We ran up and down the gardens all day, getting home before dark every evening. Nothing bad ever happened to any of us.

Except that I started coughing. A lot. A deep persistent cough I couldn’t control no matter how often my parents yelled at me. I was a bad advertisement for a doctor. Finally, suspecting tuberculosis, dad and another physician sneaked me into Tripler’s laboratory at midnight, (completely illegal entry) drew my blood, and looked at it under a microscope. No tubercular bugs, thank God, so they went back to telling me to stop coughing. No one knew why I coughed so much, but I knew I couldn’t stop the tickle, the itch, the discomfort that caused me to choke until I coughed. The year after we left Hawaii, we moved to army housing in Enterprise, Alabama. I was five now and kindergarten delayed because I suffered from a strange illness that made me cough and feel exhausted all the time. I was an adult, married and living in California with two sons before my dad told me I’d had mononucleosis that year.

Decades later I came across the UN book and reread it in an afternoon, paying special attention to the story about the African woman and her baby who got sprayed with DDT. And I remembered something long forgotten till then.

In Hawaii in 1952 and ‘53, a small truck came around the base housing neighborhood once a week, driving up the adjacent street, and emitting a sweetish smelling spray from its backside. We kids were fascinated by that truck. We ran through its rear mist, sniffing the spray, lost in its peculiar thick fog, unable to see our own hands much less the other kids. If an adult had been watching, they might not have seen us either. Maybe as many as twenty-five times during that year, I chased the truck, laughing and breathing in DDT.

Rachel Carson, the brilliant, tenacious, observant naturalist, wrote of the dangers of DDT in Silent Spring, published in 1962. The same toxic chemical identified by Rachel Carson as so very dangerous to the environment, to animals, and to people that she advocated persuasively for it to be banned. We’d moved to Hawaii for the second time in 1959, (dad was no longer in the military, he just wanted to live in paradise,) then moved to California in 1961. Whatever damage was done to our young family in 1952 and ‘53, was not repeated during our second sojourn.

I’ve since suffered bronchitis innumerable times and serious bouts of pneumonia approximately ten or eleven times. I’ve had both pneumonia shots and still caught a nasty case of it a day after getting one of them.

Chemical pesticides are dangerous to earth and living things – we know this now. The few who knew early about the dangers of DDT were muffled or ignored. All those illnesses it tried to eradicate were/are also extremely dangerous. I’ve since lost the book, probably forever, but it is my choice for the letter X, representing the unknown factor.

 

NOTE: I read Silent Spring in the 1970’s. Since the book was published and DDT ultimately banned, malaria increased in enormous numbers around the globe but especially in third world countries where other medical help was not easily available. Millions of people suffered and died from malaria. It’s been disputed that DDT caused the numerous deaths from all kinds of cancers that Rachel Carson claimed, and the chemical has since been reinstated. I am neither scientist nor researcher. Readers should consult those who are expert in the field for accurate information. My purpose in writing this review of a non-book was to show my actual experience with DDT and to suggest a warning. Not everything is what appears on its surface, and most new solutions to any kind of problem also generate unexpected consequences. X does indeed represent the unknown factor.

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite X fiction books.

I offer no other books as contenders for X.

 

United Nations image courtesy: Google images and Wikimedia Commons; photo of Sharon Bonin, age 4, courtesy Bonin Family archives

 

 

Writing is Solitary

Writing is a solitary and lonely endeavor, splitting whole language into parcels meant to invite strangers into our homes where we must become the lifeblood of the party. Even when we might like to take shelter in the darkened corner.

 

 

Just a thought, 1

Painting: Rest by Wilhelm Hammershoi, 1905. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.


W is for Where the Wild Things Are

When our oldest son was nearly four and I was well on my way to delivering a baby of unknown gender, my husband and I wandered into a bookstore in the nearby mall. Back then bookstores were not mega edifices, I’d never heard of Maurice Sendak, and the space allotted for picture books was a single half-shelf near the floor. Our budget was too tight for even one book. Still, Where the Wild Things Are stood out for the cover image of a chubby monster with human feet dozing near an ocean. That was my kid, a brilliant, adorable boy who drove me nuts sometimes.

We purchased the book knowing we’d do without the few extras that marked our thin-wallet lifestyle. When it comes to your kid, you suck in a bit to give what you know he should have. I had very few toys as a child, but I had books, and my kids would have books. Still, why choose this picture book to represent my all-time favorite W book when the list at the bottom of this post notes some of the most incredible stories ever written?

It has something to do with childhood, something to do with art, and something to do with the continuing evolvement of human beings.

We all begin as wild things, our dividing first cells connected to the atoms that indicate some kind of life, then developing into homo sapiens. As Newborn Progeny announces his presence with wails and flailing fists, we parent-adults sprint to satisfy his needs – food, comfort, a safe place to sleep – eventually understanding we are giving in to outrageous demands. Food, comfort, a safe place to sleep, entertainment on demand, the center of attention all the time, and everything now, now, now. We parent-adults are exhausted, grumpy, and lacking substantial nourishment, but we still adore the little moppet until we see that he isn’t always so cute and he can take care of some of his own needs, dammit.

There he is, selfish Max in his wolf suit, a wild child who stomps to his bedroom, soon overrun by a forest of Amazonian dimensions. A boat sails by and picks him up to deliver him to the place where the wild things are. Where he belongs, dammit. Who of us does not remember roaring their terrible roars at the injustice of rules, gnashing their terrible teeth when asked to apologize for bad behavior, rolling their terrible eyes at parental expectations, and showing their terrible claws in defense of all things Child? Max may have been only four or five, but I’m certain his terrible attitude continued throughout his teenage years. My sons’ did, as did mine a hundred years before.

Where the Wild Things Are is not about the innocence of babyhood or the curiosity of toddler years. It’s about the primal non-compliance of every growing child who says, “No, I don’t want to, you’re not the boss of me, you can’t make me, I won’t.” And turns his back on you. Every parent (and every teacher) knows this kid: the girl who throws a temper tantrum until she nearly stops breathing, the boy who flings all his toys onto the floor, the child who tears the heads off dolls.

Max partakes of a “wild rumpus,” an activity akin to play. He and the monsters hang from trees and strut in a parade. Best of all, he finds a safe and peaceful way to vent his fury – he retreats into his imagination where he is king of the wild things, until he becomes weary with his rebellion and returns home. Consequences are painless and fleeting, a natural outcome of letting a tantrum deflate on its own, showing the way a child should be able to deal with his demons, if the adults are understanding. The end of the time out, a renewed chance to win favor with his mom. After all, Max is only five.

Sendak’s illustrations show Max as the captain of the ship that sails to the land of the wild things, the monsters themselves featuring huge claws, bulbous eyes, and sharp fangs. They’re not really terrifying but more like a kid’s stuffed animal with a few pointy parts added. Pictures are buffed until soft, rendered with delicate pen and ink lines over pale watercolor washes. They don’t stab you in the eyes – they sidle up to you, letting you linger. The layout of the book lends to its brilliance. Several pages show double-paged illustrations with no words, and the very last page reads simply, “and it was still hot,” with no image at all.

As an art teacher, the story of Max and the wild things provided inspiration for the creation of hundreds of wild monsters, all manner of paintings and collages crafted by my students. I encouraged them to explore every abominable or fantastic thing they could think of. And they did. Because all kids need an outlet for the things without names or borders that rage inside them. Because they do, at times. And that’s what Maurice Sendak understood. We are not perfect as parents, teachers, adults, and not when we were kids either. We were and still are full of fears of the unknown, ire at what seems unfair, confusion over what we cannot grasp. Life is not just, and all we want to do is hang from the trees and make mischief.

We know this wild little one, whether big or small, who wants someone to hug him no matter what. Someone to listen to his outrageous complaints, to hear his ridiculous excuses, to tell him it will be alright. Someone to keep supper hot until the spell of rage is over, the wolf suit lies discarded on the floor, and the child has completed the journey home.

Let me give you a hug, Max, my student, my child, my son. I will love you forever, “back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day,” as long as it takes, as much as you need me. It’s what we parents (and teachers) do – we wait it out until it’s spent.

Maurice Sendak understood the great paradox of childhood: beneath the imploring eyes, between the small shoulders, a child of enormous strength and righteous indignation must learn to grow into his power with grace. But it takes a very long time and a whole lot of failure and a gigantic amount of patience before the monster becomes human. As an art teacher, eager to hang my students’ monsters on the wall. And as a parent, waiting to comfort my child at the end of a very arduous journey.

I still marvel at Sendak’s economically worded story, a skill I have yet to master. He describes the psychological territory of a child in less than four hundred words. After reading Wild Things to my sons and my older grandchildren hundreds of times, I sent my copy to my two younger grandchildren for many more years of enjoyment.

Where the Wild Things Are was written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. It won the 1964 Caldecott Award for “the Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year.” It remains one of the most requested and beloved books ever. Miss you, Maurice. Love you always, Max, Noah, Ethan, and our four Grands. Dinner is waiting – and it’s still hot.

I look forward to learning about your favorite W fiction books.

Other books that were serious contenders for W:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Watership Down by Richard Adams
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
White Oleander by Janet Fitch,
The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
The World to Come by Dara Horn
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Row Publishers

Just the Facts, Ma’am

And get them straight. Know the difference between stalactites and stalagmites because no one likes tripping over stalactites in a cave – it means they’re traveling bat-like, feet up, and feeling nauseous at being upside down. And if you don’t know the difference between elicit and illicit, you may find yourself punctured by barbs volleyed your way by irritated readers. No one likes reading falsehoods, whether in non-fiction or fiction. People want certain inalienable facts to be correct and well established. Even science fiction should begin here on earth before it spins to the outer edges of the Milky Way.

As a kid I figured a word in print was a word in fact. I’ll always remember the first time I knew that to be wrong. I’d been reading a kid’s book, not one that was famous or remarkable in any way except that it occupied time in my boring life. The main character was a homely girl with few talents who was looking for something to make her shine – the same thing every lonely kid wants. A friend washes homely girl’s long hair and discovers that, wet, her hair is curly. Thing is, wet hair, soaking wet hair, is straight. If curly hair is ever going to hang like iron rods, it’s going to be when the shampoo has just been squeezed out. Curly hair releases its springs as it dries, each tendril winding around its invisible cylinder to make a singular corkscrew among hundreds of corkscrews. I know. I have curly hair. I didn’t trust anything else that happened in the book, and it was one of the last kid’s books I read. (Until I became an adult and realized how outstanding some kids’ books are.) Skepticism isn’t a bad trait to have but how unfortunate to have developed it in an activity – reading – I loved.

A colleague is writing a story that includes a common if potentially dangerous medical condition, one of those events you learn to recognize when taking emergency first aid courses. Once trained, the markers are obvious, the course of action to protect the victim is well established, and the possible outcomes are reliably documented. When her story detoured through a completely inaccurate set of medical events, from onset of crisis to the all-clear sign, I wondered if she was trying to hint at the characters taking control by faking the medical incident in order to confuse the other characters. Discussion proved that the writer simply didn’t know her stuff and made up a scenario that fit her plot. Unfortunately the whole scene threw the book out of kilter and made what was supposed to be climactic, silly. The tone of the book went from thrilling to ridiculous.

One of my books relates a devastating local event that happened in our city when I was a teenager. It forms the backdrop of the story. A very dear friend who lived right next to the event, a huge fire, gave me first hand information based on what she saw, literally right out her window.  She told me things I couldn’t have discovered any other way. But she had one crucial piece of information wrong: the year. I knew the actual year, and it was critical to my story to be accurate. She’d even loaned me the dozen or so saved newspapers with the fire as front page news, the date of the fire on top of every page. It provided a trove of facts and details I’ve incorporated into the story. I chalked up her error and insistence that she was right about the wrong year to stubborn one-ups-man-ship, or to the occasional quicksand of her golden years and her temporal distance from the event. (No, I didn’t argue with her. She was a dear friend and there was no need to point out her one little mistake. I did make it right in my book.)

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the main male character exhibits a gift for building and repairing, later for finding hidden, radios. In the hands of rebels, radio transmissions reveal secret Nazi strategy. Thus conveyed, partisans are scuttling the Axis war machine. Fascinated by the ability of radios to condense time, to breach borders and allegiances, Doerr learned everything he could about their operation, how they’re built, how they can be located, and how they transmit across radio waves. A world of beauty and horror, of innocence and moral redemption, is made palpable through the simple but thorough descriptions of mollusks, birds, diamonds, and radios, all of it dependent on in-depth knowledge of the actual items.

Isabelle Allende is famous for lapsing into magical realism in many of her books, a jaunt into what is physiologically impossible yet essential to the story. In The House of the Spirits, based on historical events in twentieth century Latin America, the violence and abuse of a powerful male figure is juxtaposed by the loving spirituality of the women around him, and eventually leads to his reformation. One woman famously plays piano without lifting the piano lid. The connection to a world outside of science and pragmatism lends a radiant quality that makes the accurately depicted historical events ever more exquisite and horrible and ultimately comprehensible.

The difference between knowing what’s real yet choosing to present what isn’t, and not knowing the difference, is what makes one writer’s works celebrated, the next, criticized. Writers must build on a scaffold of fact and history. We may deviate but before we leap off the beams, best we know the tensile strength of the steel and the likelihood that we will be able to fly. I want to hear my readers gasp as they soar over chasms, to touch rock safely on the opposite side. Or believe they have.

 

 

Newsboy painting courtesy: Karol D. Witkowski, and Wikimedia public domain images

 

 

V is for The Valley of Amazement

Like so many kids, I was sure I lived in the home of strangers, people who’d stolen me out of my royal crib and thrust their last name upon me. To wash dishes. To mind the younger kids. To iron laundry. To be quiet in the presence of others. Life would be wonderful when my true parents finally claimed me and set me free. My dolls acted out my dilemma, standing in for my sojourn among foreigners, risking reputation and security in tenacious pursuit of true identity. If you are female, you are nodding your head, maybe with a wry smile. If you are male, you scratch your head a few times, be quiet in the presence of others? So? But young men bristle under their own mistreatment. Send us to the corner once, the punishment seethes in our marrow forever.

So it was no surprise that The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan touched my childhood longing to be reunited with my long lost family. It’s just as much a fabricated story as the one I wove about myself, except that Tan is a much better writer. I’ve read all of her novels, each evocative of other locales, other cultures, reverberations of the relationships that define our human limitations and echo our noble aspirations.

Violet, of the phoenix eyes, is the American daughter of the madam of Hidden Jade Path, an exclusive house of courtesans in Shanghai in the early 1900’s. In other words, she is born in a whorehouse but in a prestigious part of town, one that caters to wealthy Americans and powerful Chinese. No, my young life was not so bad, and I can barely imagine a person born to be abused in such fashion, yet I know how much Tan researches history for her books. An ember smolders in the ash.

I’d already read In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant and Geisha by Arthur Golden, both about women in sexual service. Women in bondage to male authority is not an unusual topic, and if not the primary idea it is often a major component of stories. Still, each book exposes something unexpected – debasing and maddening – about how half the world’s population is forced to endure in order to survive. One would think I’d be a bit inured. Maybe it’s the estrogen in me screaming, “Enough.”

Young Violet’s rebellious and curious nature finds her spying on those who frame sex as an alluring and mysterious contract between men of high station and women of unique talents. Violet knows she is part orphan so she also spies on her mother, trying to ascertain who her father is. She learns there is a brother living in America, a child her mother loves far more. She is left behind when her mother escapes back to the States as Chinese rebellion against the imperial reign looms. She’s then sold to a competitor’s bordello where she is forced into a life of prostitution. She falls in love with an impoverished man she cannot marry, as did her mother years before. In the cruelest turn, she becomes pregnant with a child she cannot keep, and her baby girl is taken from her.

Violet is tutored about dramatic (and bizarre) lessons on how to advertise one’s virginity to be sold to the highest bidder, then how to perform sexual moves to ensure the most male pleasure – and guarantee return liaisons. Her instructor, Magic Gourd, advises Violet on the professional name by which she’ll be known as a courtesan – A Waterfall Dream. “We can come up with the exact meaning later when decide who you really are,” One after another, each experience is more vulgar and humiliating, acts of betrayal, manipulation, and violence. Confronted with dire circumstances, Violet survives, learning to use men as much as they use her. Yet always she longs for love, family, identity, and her daughter.

Toward the end of the story, we again meet Lulu Mintern, Violet’s mother, and discover the history of the woman whose flight for independence wrought the worst kind of confinement – estrangement from her daughter. The story of The Valley of Amazement thus comes full circle, a reflection in the daughter and granddaughter of the grandmother, one generation impacting the next. The title of the book is taken from a painting created by the artist whom Lulu loved, the motivation for her to go to China as a lovelorn teenager. The image haunts some viewers, promises others, depicting illusion or reality depending on what one needs to see.

Amy Tan’s books explore identity and mother-daughter relationships. Eventually I realized I was not a stolen princess consigned to a dreggy life; I really am the ordinary daughter of ordinary people. But I’ve struggled all my life with my relationship with my mother, always needing more love and understanding than she could give. It isn’t easy to read a book where women are a negotiable commodity for a particular attribute of their bodies. China is not unique in forcing women and young girls to labor on their backs, then or now. Amazement divulges the complexity and commonality of human estrangement in a way that is both intimate and universal. My problems are my own, issues I’ll have to resolve, and I am damn lucky that I never faced the brutality of Violet and Lulu’s lives. But they’re also like those of everyone else who struggles to find a way to get along. I’ve come to terms with myself, my family, my mother, not because of Tan’s stories, but because I grew up. Not satisfaction, but a status I can accept.

Maybe it’s the estrogen in me screaming, “Don’t you dare. I know who I am.”

I look forward to learning about your favorite V fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for V:

The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins Publishers