Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘coming-of-age story’

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

 

 

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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

 

S is for Song of Solomon

I picked up Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison at the supermarket when my sons were very young, probably five or six years after its publication. Standing at the checkout line, I read enough to be hooked. Long aware (in general) of the terrible injustices suffered by African Americans, this book was an astonishing revelation to me. Not only did it depict a lifestyle I’d never imagined, but Morrison proved a brilliant storyteller with characters who engaged me with their originality, prose that transformed ordinary moments to sublime experience, and a plot that revealed truths about who we are as Americans. This is a book worthy of giving up common pursuits to settle into reading. Everything else can wait while you are taken to communities in our country you may have never before noticed. While you are lured by characters evil, noble, or conflicted, language as much poetry as prose, and social injustice that will make you cringe.

It begins with a man in a blue cape standing atop Mercy Hospital in a town in Michigan, intending to fly across Lake Superior. Among the crowd waiting to witness his flight is Ruth, the daughter of the first black doctor in the city and pregnant, resting on the hospital steps, unable to be admitted because she is black. When the man who believes he can fly leaps to his death, Ruth is admitted to the hospital, and the first black child is born there. So begins the life of Milkman Dead, a child marked by one strange twist of fate after another. When at age four, Milkman finds he can’t fly any more than the man who leapt to his death, “he lost all interest in himself.”

Not really, but he lost the compass directing his best interests, and for many years Milkman is torn between choosing an easy life of criminal tendencies, and the respectable life to which he might aspire. He is loved by his mother and by his aunt Pilate, his father’s sister, a decent and honorable woman despite many hardships.  Persuaded by rumors his father promotes, he and his best friend, Guitar, plan to steal the gold they are sure Pilate harbors in her house. When that proves to be false, Milkman goes off in search of his roots. One of his discoveries is that the legendary Solomon who flew back to Africa to escape slavery is in fact his own great-grandfather. Flight is a constant objective as a means of escaping injustice or discovering riches, and the eventual outcome of the book reflects this quest.

Pilate is the other predominate character in the story, her indomitable spirit a guide post and anchor to the very best of human endeavors. She remains stalwart after the theft of her strange green bundle, said to hold gold, and the death of her beloved but lovelorn granddaughter. People of lesser spirit would succumb to a bitter reclusion or angry aggression but Pilate remains an independent and kind woman who nurtures the greatness within all people. Including Milkman.

The story is rich with characters whose lives are unlike anyone I’d ever known, circumstances I couldn’t imagine, and metaphors and references that stretch a reader’s perception beyond the obvious surface connections. It opened my sheltered eyes to a culture I’d only glimpsed as an outsider. Morrison uses magic realism, local myths, children’s nursery rhymes, Biblical and classical tales, and songs as the means of conveying a multi-layered story. The plot doesn’t follow a traditional chronological order, yet it never left me stranded for explanation. Even the perverse characters generate sympathy for the human frailties that beckon their worst behaviors.

I won’t tell you the ending.  In truth, I’ve told you very little of the story.  Read the book and discover a journey within yourself as you follow the journeys of these memorable people in this remarkable landscape in a country said to offer equality to all people.

Song of Solomon was published in 1970 but its depiction of African Americans seeking their rightful place in a predominantly racist white society tragically compelling today. In some ways it’s a story of a young man coming of age, finding himself and establishing the adult he will become. In that sense, it’s one of the legions of similar stories, always interesting, but almost never as well written as Morrison’s book whose writing exponentially transcends ordinary.

Song of Solomon was the first Morrison book I read. I went on to read Sula, The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Tar Baby, and it’s because this book introduced me not only to a remarkable story but also to the monumental body of work of a commanding author that I chose it for my S selection.

Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. Morrison has also won the Pulitzer for Beloved in 1987 and was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for S:

 

Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo

The Sand Pebbles by Robert Wise

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosney

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

A Separate Peace by John Fowles

The Seventh Beggar by Pearl Abraham

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Sotah by Naomi Ragen

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovksy,

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Alfred Knopf