Thursday, October 5, 2017

"The name--of it--is 'Autumn'--"

The name—of it—is "Autumn"—
The hue—of it—is Blood—
An Artery—upon the Hill—
A Vein—along the Road—

Great Globules—in the Alleys—
And Oh, the Shower of Stain—
When Winds—upset the Basin—
And spill the Scarlet Rain—

It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
It gathers ruddy Pools—
Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
Upon Vermilion Wheels—

--Emily Dickinson

How many people do you know who would associate the spectacular red displays of fall color with blood?  The conventional view would be of nature in red apparel putting on a vivid show of beauty.

But Emily Dickinson did not see the world conventionally.  Her poems are more likely to disrupt and challenge our conventional views of reality.  (See blog posts September 2009)

“The hue of" Autumn “is Blood”; the tree line upon the hill is “an Artery”; and “along the Road” it is “a Vein.”  Fallen leaves “in the Alleys” are “Great Globules,” while falling leaves are a “shower of Stain” and “Scarlet Rain” (which, like blood, is spilled).  Is it the blood of violence and death?  Menstrual blood that sheds potential life? Is it the “stain” of human sin and guilt?

In the third stanza the imagery becomes more innocent, as leaf fall “sprinkles” ladies’ “Bonnets”; it “eddies like a Rose and whirls away “Upon Vermilion Wheels.”  But even here “It gathers ruddy Pools.”

Is this representation of fall an image of that ancient “fall” from innocence that recurs in nature and in every human life?  Is it a harbinger of the death of nature in winter yet to come?  Written in 1862, is it an image of bloody civil war?

Regardless, even the more playful images of leaves sprinkling bonnets and wheeling away on the wind, cannot save this poem from suggestions of the dark side of human experience—violence, death, evil.

Even if we interpret references to arteries and veins as images of life coursing through our bodies, this life leaves a stain when it is spilled in falling leaves.

What are we to make of this virtual riot of red?

It certainly seems to suggest that, just as Dickinson explored psychological pain as no other poet before her had done (see Sept. 19, 2009, blog post), she also explored the dark underbelly of nature’s beauty—nature red in tooth and claw, violence, death, the “fallen” side of creation (including human nature).

Another poem about Autumn, “These are the days when Birds come back,” treats Autumn as a “fraud” that can sometimes fool us into thinking summer is still with us.  She compares the reprise of summer warmth in Autumn to a “Sacrament of summer days” and a “Last Communion,” a remembrance of summer’s death, just as holy communion commemorates Christ’s sacrifice.

While Dickinson has many poems that celebrate nature, it seems the dark side was never far from her mind.

However spectacular the displays of fall color, she seems to have been ever cognizant of the coming winter.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Dream Eater

Recently I saw the film Wonder Woman, which draws on ancient Greek mythology to depict an intersection of mortal and immortal dimensions in a World War I setting.  Like Wonder Woman, Koi, the main character of this 2017 novel by my daughter’s friend, K. Bird Lincoln, brings super-human powers into the human realm.  And they both pit female power against the male deities that would control them and the rest of humanity.

Unlike Wonder Woman, Koi, a Japanese American, has grown up in the human world of contemporary Portland, Oregon.  She is only partly aware of her paranormal/supernatural/mythological ancestry and lives in fear of human touch, which triggers her power to read people’s dreams. Also, while Wonder Woman invokes Western myth, Dream Eater draws on non-Western sources--Japanese, Middle Eastern and Native American. 

Because of her fear of human touch, Koi has isolated herself, even from her family.  In an effort to build a normal life, despite the continual flashes of other people’s dreams, she begins working toward an accounting degree at Portland Community College.  One day she crosses paths with a Japanese Kitsune (fox) shape-shifter, who, she later learns is on a mission from the mythic “Council” to retrieve her father.  At about the same time, Koi bumps into a professor and reads his dreams of murder.  Later, the professor enlists Koi’s help in translating her family’s obscure Japanese dialect.  Meanwhile, Koi’s sister, Marlin, who has a real job, calls on Koi to take over temporary care of their father, who apparently suffers from Alzheimer’s, so she can get some work done.  It seems the Kitsune, Ken, has experience with elder care, so he offers to help, not revealing his ulterior motive. 

From this point on the narrative resembles an action adventure, which is played out as much in Koi’s body as in external reality.  Her proximity to Ken stirs erotic sensations while the professor arouses fear and horror.  When the professor kidnaps Marlin, Koi and Ken, with Dad in tow, are off on an adventure involving rescue, encounters with such mythological powers as the Middle Eastern Ullikemi and Native American Thunderbird, deception, multiple battles, and eventually Koi’s discovery of her own superhuman powers.  Throughout it all, we vicariously experience Koi’s psychic drama, as well as the physical action.  There is constant turmoil, made all the more chaotic by the ambiguity of just who is good and who is evil, who is the ultimate power and who is the surrogate.

Allegorically speaking, this urban fantasy can be read as a coming of age narrative, in which Koi, innocent of her full power, encounters the evil in the world, discovers her true identity and learns that she can not only read dreams but eat them, that is, take their power into herself, and, if the dreams are evil, she can use that power to fight evil.  In other words, she discovers, not only the evil in the world, but also her own capacity for evil.  The moral allegory is thus no simple tale of good vs. evil, but a complicated interrogation of power, in which good must know evil in order to defeat it. 

The novel is also a budding love story, as, parallel to the action adventure, Koi also battles her increasing attraction to and attachment to Ken.  Her journey of self-discovery becomes a sexual awakening, as well as a lesson in the power of relationships and interdependence, thus overcoming her initial isolation.  And it is not only the relationship with Ken that ultimately breaks through Koi’s isolation, for her primary motive in the action adventure is to rescue her sister and protect her father.  Thus, as her relationship with Ken develops, her family relationships are restored.  She is able to honor both her Japanese Baku (dream eater) father and her human Hawaiian mother, and thus her own hybrid nature.

What is most striking about the novel, besides the blending of non-Western mythological traditions, is, as noted earlier, the way in which so much of the action takes place in Koi’s body and psyche.  Her sensations, including physical cravings for coffee and dark chocolate; distinctive smells, especially spices; powerful images and sounds; erotic attraction; emotional turmoil; and the non-human sensations of dream fragments, dream-eating, and ultimately the wielding of dream power.  Dream-eating is paralleled by human hunger for pizza, burritos, and her father's Bi Bim Bap. All this is conveyed in a language that juxtaposes contemporary vernacular with ancient traditions, just as Koi’s human self is juxtaposed with her mythic self.

At one point Ken makes specific reference to Joseph Campbell and his book The Power of Myth, based on the PBS documentary with Bill Moyers, and its theory of universal patterns that cross the boundaries of culture and society.  Thus, Japanese Baku are paralleled by Morpheus in Western myth, Ojibwe dream catchers, Slavic Nocnitsa, and medieval succubi.  Campbell would argue that universal cross-cultural images and narratives reflect shared human experience and a common human nature. 

With the rise of postmodernism in the later 20th century, Campbell’s theories fell out of favor.  Postmodernists highlighted difference in human experience, culture, and society, even going so far in some cases as to deny human nature.  Human belief and behavior is individual, arising out of culturally specific influences, distinct social environments, and unique individual experience. 

Rather than reducing this debate to an either-or choice, I prefer a both-and approach.  While cultural, social, and individual differences are significant, they are not necessarily definitive, and it is our shared humanity that enables cross-cultural communication and understanding.  While we are always mired, to some extent, in our own history, experience, and culture, we are capable of transcending, to some extent, those limitations in order, not only to co-exist, but also to participate in a shared human community.

Whatever cultural limitations define Wonder Woman and Dream Eater, they both serve as images, not only of female power, but also of the intersection between the human realm and that of imagination, of history and myth, of time and infinity, society and vision.  They both participate in Joseph Campbell’s universal hero myth of trial and quest.  And they both interrogate, not only female power, but all power, using power-from-within and power-with to defeat power-over.

Dreams, like myth, exist in a borderland between human reality and mysteries beyond human comprehension.  In Dream Eater dreams are the gateway to self-discovery, empowerment, connectedness, and higher consciousness.  Eating becomes a trope for fully participating in both worlds.  As Koi says in the end, "That's what people did, wasn't it?  Eat evil, battle dragons, and then go home and make sushi."  So, as K. Bird says, “Dream without fear…”  And, when back in reality, “…drink coffee without limit."

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale

Last April we moved my 93-year-old Mom to a retirement community and put her house up for sale.  We spent all of last September cleaning it out for the buyers, going through drawers and closets, giving things away to relatives and neighbors, donating to Good Will, selling some things, filling up a large refuse container, and claiming a few items for ourselves. Back home, when I reported on this experience, a Buddhist friend recommended this 2012 novel by Lynda Rutledge.  “I learned a lot about attachment and detachment from reading this novel,” my friend said. 

Faith Bass Darling is a wealthy widow in Bass, Texas, who is suffering early symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  At midnight on December 31, 1999, she awakes to a what she thinks is the voice of God telling her to sell all the accumulated possessions in the mansion she has lived in all her life, the valuable antiques and art works, precious heirlooms, and family memorabilia.  The next morning she begins pulling as much as she can out onto the lawn and selling her “goods” for whatever few dollars and cents anyone who stopped by would offer her.

The local antique dealer is appalled, tries to salvage what she can and calls Faith’s daughter to come immediately from where she lives a hundred miles away.  The local sheriff’s deputy and the local Episcopal priest also get involved.  All of these folks have a history with the Darling family, and just as Faith battles her memories, so do they. 

My Mom has the usual garden-variety age-related memory issues, but no dementia.  We spent hours going through her possessions, trying to be patient with her reminiscing as each newly discovered item triggered a chain of memories.  She struggled with detachment, as she had limited room in her one-bedroom apartment.  Children and grandchildren, likewise, had limited space.  She had to learn how to let go, to detach.

Faith Bass Darling’s memories come and go.  Sometimes she remembers her family’s past, her husband’s abuse, her son’s death, her daughter’s estrangement, and her husband’s death.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes she associates certain memories with her possessions, sometimes not.  She seems to always know she is on a mission to cleanse her home, her past, her very self from the burdens they carry. 

Similarly, the daughter, Claudia, who at one time considered herself a Buddhist, must cleanse herself of her unhappy family memories: the resentments, the grief, the pain and suffering of absence and loss, not to mention the burden of her own life failures and mistakes.

John Jasper, the deputy sheriff, had been the best friend of Claudia’s brother, Mike, and bears responsibility for his untimely death.  Not only is John Jasper burdened by that guilty memory, but also by the memory of Mike’s father, Claude, verbally abusing both his son and John Jasper himself. 

Bobbie, the antique dealer, Claudia’s best friend growing up, had admired the treasures in the Darling house from childhood.  She knows the full material value of Faith’s possessions, but may not fully appreciate the emotional and psychological cost of those “goods,” the extent to which one can be “possessed” by possessions and the memories associated with them.  Bobbie is focused on resale value, and, like the calls that come in on her lost cell phone, she misses Faith’s need to exorcise her painful memories.

Father George A. Fallow is struggling with his faith at a time when Faith most needs him.  She needs him to affirm her mission from God and to actually perform an exorcism on her house.  Like the rich young man who asks Jesus how he can get to heaven and is told to go and sell all he owns, Faith wants to know that she too is following a divine command that will save her soul.

At a crucial moment Father George finds the right words for Faith:  “The problem isn’t ‘things.” It’s the thing.  Everybody has one big, blinding thing that’s in the way.”  For Faith it is the memory of her husband, Claude, and the role she had played in his death.  When she returns to the scene of that memory, both in physical space and in her mind, she is able to free herself.

For Claudia it is the family heirloom ring, which her mother thinks she has stolen.  When Claudia recovers the lost ring, she redeems herself.  For John Jasper, of course it is the memory of his role in Mike’s death.  When he finally brings himself to revisit the scene of that tragedy, he is finally able to unburden himself.  For Bobbie it is her lifetime envy of the Darling wealth and the memory of having broken a valuable item while visiting in the home, all of which has contributed to her own career in antiques.  Her role in salvaging some of the Darling “goods,” and especially the elephant clock, is her redemption.  Father George has lost his faith, not only in religion, but also in the power of words, including the Word of God, by which he has made his living.  When he finds the right words for Faith, his faith in himself and the power of words is restored.

Alzheimer’s could be considered a form of exorcism, a purging of all the memories we might want to erase, but it also purges the good memories, not to mention one’s identity.  A quote by Milan Kundera serves as a headnote to the novel: “What is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember.”

As Faith loses her memory, her possessions, and herself, she seems to find a new freedom.  At the same time, she becomes the catalyst by which the other characters transcend the past and renew themselves.  Fittingly, the action of the novel takes place on December 31, 1999, the end of one century and the beginning of the next, Y2K, the new millennium.  At the stroke of midnight, 2000, an explosion occurs, a destructive force that is also a cleansing.  One life ends and others begin anew.

As my Mom struggled with the process of detachment, I found myself, not only reliving family memories with her, but also reflecting on my own accumulation of possessions.  Back home at our house, we made a pact to throw away at least one item a week from the basement, the garage, a closet, or other storage area.  This cleansing, this stripping away of that which weighs us down has become a weekly ritual.  As these material traces of the past disappear, I am reminded of the need to revisit the past, especially the dark times that have been hidden away in the closets and drawers of the mind, to clear them out in order to make room for new life.

At another level, the novel speaks, not only to memory, but also to history.  The American South, and the American nation, also have that “one big, blinding thing that’s in the way.”  And that thing is race.  John Jasper is an African American whose friendship with Mike Darling has been forged on the high school football field.  They have transcended, at least on the personal level, the racist divide.  Mike’s father, however, cannot even let John Jasper sit in the front seat of his truck, and when the abuse he inflicts on both boys boils over into racist epithets, an explosion occurs, an explosion that kills Mike and nearly cripples John Jasper, an explosion that destroys the budding attraction between John Jasper and Claudia, as well as the Darling family ties.   The new millennium occurs as Claudia has reconciled with her mother and renewed her relationship with John Jasper, offering hope of healing, not only in their personal lives, but in the future of the South and the nation.

It is said that “elephants never forget”; thus it is fitting that an antique elephant clock dating back to the eighteenth century, one of the most valuable pieces of property in the Darling mansion plays its own role in the novel.  That clock has marked time in Claudia’s bedroom as long as she can remember.  The clock becomes a symbol of memory, as Faith loses hers, and the other characters revisit theirs.  Bobbie salvages the clock before it is sold in the garage sale and sends it to an appraiser in Houston.  As she and Claudia and John Jasper are finally released from the past, they travel together to reclaim that clock, a possession worth keeping for the memories it represents as much, perhaps more, than its material value.

And that is the other side of cleansing and detaching, for as we cleaned out my mother’s house, she and I had to decide what we could let go and what we could keep, not for any material value, but for the meaning and memories worth keeping.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


This short story by Jeanette Winterson was first published in 1988.  It dramatizes contemporary gender wars by retelling one version of the myth of Orion, a mighty hunter, in which Orion meets Artemis, a mythic female hunter, rapes her, and is killed by her with a scorpion. 

Sounds like a feminist revenge fantasy, or at least a representation of an ancient, and ongoing, gender power struggle.  But it’s more than that.

Winterson knows the mythological literature in which heroes are typically male, often hunters or warriors, on a quest for an object or place in the world, or, in the case of religious heroes, for eternal life in another world.  Women in mythology, though they might be goddesses, are typically objects of desire (distractions from the quest), mothers, wives, or helpers to the male heroes.  While the men are out performing feats of strength and courage, women are more often at home tending the hearth.

Winterson explicitly presents the story of Orion and Artemis as “the old clash between history and home. Or to put it another way, the immeasurable, impossible space that seems to divide the hearth from the quest.”

If it’s a simple feminist revenge fantasy, then why is the story entitled after the male “hero,” and why is it Orion who gets immortalized in a constellation, where to this day “he does his best to dominate the skyline”?

If it is simply a representation of the ancient gender binary between quest and hearth, then how is it that Artemis rejects marriage, childbirth, and home-making in order to be a great hunter?  While the original story itself challenges this binary, it also reinforces the polarity as an either-or choice.

By invoking the myth Winterson also reinforces the ancient difference between male and female social roles, but she challenges it by having Artemis, not simply reject the traditional female role, but redefine it in terms of self-knowledge:

“She found that the whole world could be contained within one place because that place was herself… What would it matter if she crossed the world and hunted down every living creature as long as her separate selves eluded her?”

Artemis comes to realize that “Leaving home meant leaving nothing behind.  It came too, all of it, and waited in the dark.”  Quest and hearth are one.  The ultimate quest is the journey to the self.

This wisdom eludes Orion.  For him the quest is all about hyper-masculinity, power, and domination.  Thus his rape of Artemis.

Yes, Artemis kills him in his sleep, and while this act of revenge suggests a struggle between feminist power and masculine power, it is more than that.  After Orion rapes Artemis, he falls asleep, but after Artemis murders Orion, she wakes up:

“Artemis lying beside dead Orion sees her past changed by a single act…She is not who she thought she was.  Every action and decision has led her here.  The moment has been waiting the way the top of the stairs waits for the sleepwalker.  She had fallen and now she is awake.”

When she sees Orion’s body becoming food for lizards, she covers him with rocks to create a high mound, which, when she views it from a distance looks like a monument. 

By rejecting the social norms of her day, Artemis begins to awaken to self-knowledge and to recognize the false binary of quest and hearth.  The gender power struggle overtakes her, but, again, she awakens to new self-knowledge.  Her “burial” of Orion demonstrates respect for his humanity, despite his cruelty to her.  This act of redemption takes her to a new level: “Finally, at the headland, after a bitter climb to where the woods bordered the steep edge, she turned and stared out, seeing the shape of Orion’s mound, just visible now, and her own footsteps walking away.  Then it was fully nigh, and she could see nothing to remind her of the night before except the stars.”

The story offers three larger contexts in which to view the myth and the story that Winterson draws out of it. 

First there is the context of history: the ancient myth transformed into a modern feminist story in 1988.  What future transformations will unfold in history?  “Monuments and cities would fade away like the people who build them.  No resting place or palace could survive the light years that lay ahead. There was no history that would not be rewritten…”

Second is the context of medieval alchemy: “Tertium non data. The third is not given. That is, the transformation from one element into another, from waste matter into best gold is a process that cannot be documented.  It is fully mysterious.”  Artemis’s transformations from gender rebel to self-conscious individual to stargazer could not have been predicted, nor can future transformations to come.

Third is the context of astronomy:  “Every 200,000 years or so the individual stars within each constellation shift position.  That is, they are shifting all the time, but more subtly than any tracker dog of ours can follow.  One day if the earth has not voluntarily opted out of the solar system, we will wake up to a new heaven whose dome will again confound us.  It will still be home but not a place to take for granted.”  For now, Orion still dominates the skyline (though “he glows very faint, if at all, in November.  November being the month of Scorpio.”) But what of that “new heaven” to come?

This past November it seemed a new transformation was on the horizon, but it was not to be.  Orion still dominates the skyline.  But what of that “new heaven” to come?

Monday, October 31, 2016


A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady's fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft. 

When I put my garden to bed last month, I left some of those small, yellow pear tomatoes on the ground.  There were more than I could use or even give away, so I left some behind, unharvested.  Perhaps some passerby would pick them up and take them home; perhaps some animal would take sustenance from them; perhaps, forgotten and left, they would decompose and make my garden plot more fertile for next year.

Robert Frost’s “Unharvested” celebrates that which goes unharvested, that which is forgotten and left, that which we might otherwise regard as failure, a “dead ambition,” a “relinquished desire” (Anonymous). And his comparison of “an apple fall” to the mythic Fall of Humankind suggests the Felix Culpa, or Fortunate Fall, of Christian theology, the idea that human failure was “fortunate” in that it brought us a Redeemer in Jesus Christ, the idea that human suffering is necessary for the achievement of human happiness, that evil can be turned to good and loss to plenitude.

If this interpretation seems to burden a simple and light-hearted poem with a heavy message, bear with me as yet more layers may be uncovered.

Let’s note first that the poem is a variation on a sonnet, fourteen lines of primarily iambic tetrameter (instead of the pentameter of a traditional sonnet), with an oddly asymmetrical rhyme scheme: abacbcdade edff, unlike any “sonnet” you would ever encounter.  Instead of the octet-sestet arrangement of a Petrarchan sonnet or the triple quatrain plus couplet structure of the Shakespearean sonnet, we have a ten-line description followed by a four-line commentary.  Perhaps it’s not a sonnet at all!  Perhaps it’s a playful variation.  Perhaps it’s an abject failure of a sonnet! Perhaps it’s a deliberate design to reinforce that theme of fortunate failure. 

Let’s note also the imagery: “scent of ripeness,” “routine road,” “apple tree,” “summer load,” “trivial foliage,” all suggesting a passerby in a natural, possibly rural, setting.  But then this tree, free of its “load,” breathes “as light as a lady’s fan.”  How does this image of cultured society fit into a nature poem?  Is it a mistake, an oversight, or is it a deliberate anomaly, meant to suggest our human world of imperfection?  

And then this “apple fall” is parenthetically, off-handedly, described as “complete as the apple had given man.”  Now that gets your attention.  We’re not just talking about a bunch of mundane apples on the mundane ground. Now we’re in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  And, in that context, when we read that “The ground was one circle of solid red,” it is difficult not to think of the “red” of passion, of violence, of blood. 

So the apples represent our fallen human nature, our imperfection, our capacity for wrongdoing, our unharvested goodness, our neglect and our failure.  But this human decay, if you will, is celebrated: “May something go always unharvested!”  How boring to be perfect!  “May much stay out of our stated plan....” How boring never to make a mistake!  There is something sweet in the scent of that forgotten “ripeness,” and to smell that “sweetness would be no theft,” that is, to value our failures, to see how suffering can lead to happiness, how loss can be a gift, how evil can be turned into good, is “no theft” from our human capacity for success, virtue, and betterment.

None of this is to say that we rejoice in violence, disease, cruelty, injustice, or pain, but, rather, that we celebrate the opportunities that human life affords us for redemption.

So much for the positive interpretation of Frost’s poem. But are there hidden ambiguities? 

For example, that sweet “scent of ripeness” will soon be a scent of rottenness.  Which is stronger?  Which lasts longer?  And what of that neglectful property owner?  What of the waste of nutritious food in a world where many go hungry?  To what extent is the idea of Felix Culpa a rationalization, an excuse to cover up, paper over, and unjustly exonerate us from our wrongdoings?  However you slice it, when I put my garden to bed last summer, I was just too lazy to clean off my plot and take those unharvested tomatoes to the nearby food shelf.

A tragic world view might suggest our positive interpretation of the poem is just Pollyannaism, that the poem illustrates our human tendency to lie to ourselves and deny the painful truth that indeed there is no redemption.  “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”  We are left with the image of that “circle of solid red,” the blood of billions who have suffered from evil at our human hands.

But surely this is way too heavy a burden for such a light and innocent poem to bear.  Perhaps Frost is just playfully making fun of our human habit of finding self-satisfying explanations for bad behavior. 

Then again, perhaps that seemingly simple poem captures the full complexity of our contradictory human drama. 

Monday, September 19, 2016


I heard Ann Patchett interviewed about her new novel on NPR. Having just blogged about my adopted state of Minnesota in Wintering (see previous post), I was drawn to the possibility of blogging about my home state since Commonwealth takes place partly in Virginia.

As far as the opportunity to enjoy another familiar setting, Commonwealth was a disappointment. The sense of place is as absent in Commonwealth as it is present in Wintering.  In addition, Commonwealth is not as compelling or well written as Wintering. It's a fairly commonplace, popular-style novel without great distinction. However, it has enough redeeming features to make it worth a read. I read it all in one day.

One thing I confirmed for myself is how much I despise reading about drugs and alcohol, especially when kids are involved. I almost stopped reading The Goldfinch (see Oct. 2014) for exactly that reason.

Like Wintering Commonwealth is a web of multiple storylines, flash-forwards, flashbacks, and memories that challenge the reader to keep track of characters, settings, and chronology. Like Wintering it's a family drama, but Commonwealth keeps its focus on just two generations. It begins with Franny Keating’s christening party and ends with Franny, as a wife and mother, remembering a private moment with her younger stepbrother when she was an adolescent.

In between, Franny's parents divorce, her mother moving to Virginia with her new husband, her father staying in California where Franny was born.  Franny and her older sister Caroline live with their mother, spending just two weeks each summer with their Dad, but their step-father's four children spend the whole summer in Virginia with their Dad, allowing for extended time as a blended family of eight.

Neither parent of this blended family is what I would consider very responsible in the child supervision department, and so readers are subjected to extended periods of holding our breath wondering if these mischievous, risk-taking, unsupervised kids are going to survive their multiple misadventures, which involve a gun, drugs, alcohol, and what I would consider generally dangerous behavior, especially for their young ages.

As it turns out a tragedy does eventually occur, and, as if divorce and disruption were not enough to scar these young lives, this tragedy continues to haunt them. Nevertheless, as we watch them grow into adulthood, it is amazing how well they turn out, despite some of their continuing misadventures.

So, we have the coming of age story of six young innocents, one of whom doesn't reach adulthood, living through their parents' messy lives, plus their own failures and missteps, five of them at least coming to terms, each in their own way, with the dark side of life, finally achieving some semblance of responsible maturity, even caring for their flawed, aging parents and step-parents.

More than a group coming of age story, though, Commonwealth makes a positive case, in the end, for the modern family, with all its complicated relationships, adultery, divorce, remarriage, etc., and the human resiliency, not just to survive, but to thrive. That modern family includes, not only the blended family, but also the multicultural family, as Franny marries an East Indian and one stepsister marries an African. The only thing missing is a gay couple.

What makes Commonwealth truly distinctive though is another storyline, in which Franny meets a popular author, falls in love, and, in need of reassurance from this man she has long admired, shares her family's personal story, which the author proceeds to turn into a successful novel. When her younger stepbrother coincidentally reads the novel and recognizes their family, he feels betrayed. Their private lives have become fodder for literary gain. A confrontation ensues and while Franny's relationship with the author does not survive, her relationship with her stepbrother and the rest of her family does, testifying to the strength of family ties that bind, even when they're not based on blood relations.

In her NPR interview Ann Patchett revealed that Commonwealth is based on her own experience growing up in a blended family. Thus the sub-plot of fiction based on personal experience becomes a meta-commentary on the ethics of the autobiographical novel, of exploiting the lives of real people for artistic purposes, and of invading privacy in general. It is curious how self-referential Commonwealth thus becomes, especially since the fictional famous author, for all his arguments on behalf of imagination over documentation, emerges as less sympathetic than the aggrieved family members. 

Without presuming to speculate on the significance of this storyline to Ann Patchett's own experience publishing a novel based on her personal family life, I will simply note how it gives Commonwealth a twist that raises it above the merely pedestrian popular novel.

To conclude, I'll just comment on the title. I was struck, of course by the reference to the "Commonwealth" of Virginia, but in a larger sense the novel captures the shared lives, relationships, and ties that bind; the shared history and shared guilt of extended, blended family; and it reminds us that it is the sharing, not so much what is shared, that constitutes the wealth.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


Speaking of winter (see previous post) this 2016 novel by Peter Geye will make you feel it in your bones, even in August. Unlike Amy Lowell’s indoor winter world of human society, art, and civilization (see previous post), the winter of this novel takes place on what in Minnesota we call the North Shore (of Lake Superior), in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), and in the fictional town of Gunflint, which Minnesotans will quickly recognize as Grand Marais.

Its central episode involves a canoe/camping trip into the BWCA that starts in October and finally ends in January.  In between a father and son battle the winter elements, get lost, struggle to survive, barely do survive a confrontation with their human enemy, and eventually find their way close enough to home to be rescued by passing snowmobilers.

That central episode is like a story within a story in a story that is really about stories as much as it is about a winter wilderness adventure.

The narrator is Berit Lovig, whose late-life lover, Harry, having lost his memory to the ravages of age, disappears one day into the wilderness and is never found.  The year is 1996.  Harry’s son, Gus, brings Berit the bad tidings and begins reminiscing about the family history.  Berit recounts, not only her own memories from the time she came to Gunflint from Duluth in 1936, but also the ones that Gus shares with her, including that wilderness adventure with his father in 1963 when Gus was just eighteen. 

Between the two of them, Berit weaves a tapestry of alternating stories, flashbacks, and memories that follow similar patterns of journeying out, getting lost, experiencing a turning point or moment of truth, then finding one’s way, and eventually arriving home, though, of course, there are those that experience a moment of lies, never do find their way, and are never found, marked only by traces left behind, sometimes in physical form, like the cenotaph erected in honor of Harry, sometimes in someone’s fading memory, sometimes in a story that may or may not bear any resemblance to truth.  Disappearance, it seems, is as much a part of the story as being found.

History and memory, fact and fiction, truth and lies, knowledge and false belief are the themes that tie these stories together.  Harry has lost his memory; Gus is a high school history teacher.  Berit recounts her memories and the local folklore while at the same time turning the building where she had lived and worked with Harry’s estranged mother into a museum of local history.  She discovers some letters written by Gus’s great-grandmother to her parents in Norway but never mailed.  The letters are historical “records,” but they contain the lie that she had married and borne a son, though everyone “knows” that Harry’s father was a “misbegotten” child of rape in a logging camp.   Harry had witnessed a murder, but it is reported as a tragic accident.  Harry’s rival and enemy, Charlie, whose own life was based on lies and deceit, disappears in the wilderness and is never found, but Gus knows where Charlie’s “cenotaph,” a pile of bones, can be found. 

The word “wilderness” means “place of wild beasts,” and Harry and Gus encounter a few in their wilderness adventure, along with bitter cold, blizzards, huge snow drifts, rushing water, fog, and ice.  But men can also be beasts that prey on one another, and they can be found in town as well as in the wilds.  Similarly, the domesticated life in town can be a wilderness of stories, some of which pass as history and in which one can get lost in lies and may or may not ever find one’s way to the truth.  Such is the challenge of both ordinary people and professional historians.

Wintering is also a coming of age story for Gus, as he pits himself against the elements and ends up saving both himself and his father.  For Berit it’s the story of her adopted family, the Eides.  Rebecca, who had abandoned her husband and son early on and remained estranged, had hired Berit, at age 16, from Duluth, to live with her and work in the local “apothecary,” the original lighthouse keeper’s quarters, which Berit later turns into a museum.  Rebecca’s son, Harry, also age 16, witnesses his father, Odd, disappear, never to be found, when the ice floe he’s fishing from breaks loose and floats away..  He takes refuge in the apothecary, which also doubles as the town post office, and meets Berit for the first time.  It means little to him, but she falls in love, and waits, until after Harry’s divorce, when he shows up at Berit’s door with a bouquet of butterworts, her moment of truth, or, as she calls it, fate. Berit never has children, but, clearly, she is like a surrogate mother to Gus.  Thus the novel is a family saga and a story of late life, “winter” romance, as well as a coming of age and a journey into the “heart of darkness” to be found in the wilderness as well as in the human heart and mind.

What is the significance of these stories, some true, some false in the world of the novel, all fictional in the world of the reader?  Can “truth” be false?  Can recorded history include that which is false and leave out so much that it is hardly the “whole truth”?  Can fiction be true?  Can stories, which may be factually false, convey a symbolic or metaphorical truth?  I have argued so repeatedly in this blog.

The stories in Wintering embody age-old universal myths of trial and quest, initiation, the fall from innocence, death and rebirth (being lost and found), journeys outward, journeys to the self, homecoming, romance, good and evil, crime and punishment, love and hate, truth and falsehood, discovery, and disappearance.  We all experience these stories in our own ways and we can thus reenact our own stories as we read these “fictions.”

Historically, Berit’s memories, stories, and artifacts represent the immigrant experience in North America, the leaving of home and family, the journeying out, the encounter with an alien world that can be both sweet and sour, the struggle to survive, the building of a new life, the making of a family legacy, and the creation of a new identity.

Even when these stories are based on lies, they give meaning to our human experience, which is why we love to tell them, to hear them, to read and write them.