Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Scent of Rain and Lightning

Previous posts noted how Charles Dickens successfully combined popular appeal with literary value (see Apr. 17, 2011, and Dec. 17, 2012). I doubt that Nancy Pickard will ever achieve the status of Dickens, but her 2010 novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, is a good example of how popular fiction can provide aesthetic appeal as well as entertainment, address timeless themes, and offer social commentary.

Part family saga, part detective story, part revenge tragedy, part coming of age, part love story (a la Romeo and Juliet), part adultery narrative, part moral lesson, the novel combines all these genres in a compelling way and enhances the whole with interesting structural twists and a spectacular rendering of landscape on the Kansas plains.

The Linders are the socially prominent family of Rose, Kansas, and environs.  Their cattle ranch is prosperous, their reach is wide, and their three sons stand in line to sustain the family name, wealth, and power.  Their daughter establishes a successful history museum in an abandoned bank building and marries a lawyer, who lends his expertise to the family system.

One morning in 1986, after a furious thunderstorm, during which the family becomes separated, the Linders’ eldest son is found shot to death in his home, in Rose, and his wife’s bloodied sundress is found in an empty vehicle off a road out of town.  She is nowhere to be found.  Their three-year-old daughter is safe with her grandmother at the ranch, where she had spent the stormy night.  Suspicion immediately falls on Billy Crosby, who carries a grudge against the family, though there are some folks who claim he was too drunk that night to commit any crime.

Nevertheless, the LInders seek revenge against Billy, who had vandalized their ranch and killed one of their cows, and their influence, plus the inexperience and incompetence of the local sheriff, results in a successful prosecution and sentencing of Billy to many more than 23 years in in prison, but 23 years later his son, a lawyer, has his sentence commuted because of investigative and prosecutorial errors.

Upon his return to Rose more violence ensues as his wife is shot to death and Billy seeks revenge against the Linders.  Billy is sent back to prison, but life in Rose does not return to normal.  New evidence regarding the 23-year-old crime comes to light and the true culprit is revealed, once again destroying the stability of the Linder family.

Parallel to the detective story and revenge tragedy is an initiation plot.  Jody Linder, who lost her parents at the age of three, has grown up, gone to college and returned to teach high school in Rose.  Her coming of age has unfolded in the wake of early trauma.  As the opening line of the novel states, “Until she was twenty-six, Jody Linder felt suspicious of happiness.”

How will she come to terms with the violence done to her family in 1986; the release of the man she always held responsible for the loss of her parents; her discovery of the role of her family in the injustice done to Billy; the violence that erupts after Billy’s return; and the shocking revelation of the truth of what happened to her parents?  Will she emerge from all the trauma, pain, deception, and suffering as a mature woman able to trust in happiness?  Or, will she forever remain suspicious and bitter, unable to escape the legacy of her past and her family?

The love story here intersects with Jody’s initiation into the dark side of life, for the person for whom she has harbored a long-standing attraction is none other than the son of Billy Crosby.  They had avoided each other as children, but were always drawn to each other by a common bond.  Who else could understand the childhood trauma they had both experienced?  Yet, as in Romeo and Juliet, their families are enemies.  After Billy’s murder of a Linder ranch hand, following his return from prison, and his second attempt to vandalize the Linder ranch by starting a grass fire, Jody despairs of ever seeing Collin again.

Just a few months later, however, after Billy’s innocence in the loss of Jody’s parents has become known, she is able to confide to her family that she and Collin have been secretly seeing each other.  At the end of the novel it appears that a family reconciliation is possible without the sacrifice of the young lovers, as is the case in Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Indeed, as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (see previous post of Feb. 2012), it seems the two young people have it within them to redeem their parents.

But why would Jody’s parents need redemption?

At this point the love story intersects with the adultery plot, for Jody’s mother, on that fateful night, thinking her husband was on business in Colorado, had sent her daughter to spend the night with grandmother Linder and arranged an adulterous tryst at her home.  When Jody’s father comes home unexpectedly, violence erupts.  Her father is killed and her mother disappears. As with most adultery narratives, the cheating wife is punished, and we do eventually find out the fate of Jody’s mother.  Her partner in deception is also found out and punished.

By the time all is revealed Jody has learned that her mother was immature, shallow, flirtatious, and even guilty of petty theft from her in-laws.  Having been raised by her grandparents, Jody turns out more like her more honorable father.

Thus, as Collin, having been raised by his more honorable mother, redeems his father, Jody redeems her mother.

The adultery plot obviously delivers a moral lesson, but that’s not the only one.  There is a message about the wages of deception, class bias, abuse of power, and revenge. 

As revenge tragedies typically demonstrate, one act of revenge leads to another, unleashing a cycle of violence.  In this case, revenge also short circuits the legal system, obscuring the truth, reinforcing deception, and postponing the achievement of justice.

The cycle of revenge can only be redirected by an act of forgiveness.  And in this case that comes from the younger generation, when Collin forgives the Linders for helping to falsely imprison his father, and when Jody (and we trust her whole family) forgives Collin for being Billy Crosby’s son.  Perhaps more importantly, Jody forgives her family for the injustice they perpetrated against Billy Crosby, an act which leads to the burden of hate and fear she feels toward the Crosbys and of ignorance about the fate of her mother and the truth behind her father’s death.

 It is forgiveness and love that ultimately breaks the cycle of revenge, violence, and deception.  Similarly, the romance between Jody and Collin overcomes the class conflict that leads to abuse of power on one side, resentment on the other, and social prejudice on both sides.

In addition to the moral lessons embedded in it, the detective story ultimately explores the complex relationship between order and disorder.  The seeds of the crime are usually found beneath the surface of apparent order, and out of the disorder of the crime emerges the order of truth and justice.  Psychologically, the detective story allows us to process our own fear of the consequences of hidden disorder and reassures us that order can ultimately be restored.  In The Scent of Rain and Lightning it takes 23 years for these complexities to play out.

But the novel is more than a morality tale, a psychological thriller, an initiation narrative, a love story, and a revenge tragedy redeemed by love and forgiveness, though it is all those things.  It is also an ingeniously structured narrative with two flashbacks to 1986 embedded in the 2009 drama of Jody confronting her past, discovering the truth, and finding her future.  The night of the powerful storm, the adulterous tryst, the death of Jody's father, and the disappearance her mother occurs at the textual center of the novel.  But the Kansas landscape with its unpredictable weather provides a symbolic backdrop to the entire narrative.  And the powerful image of Testament Rocks rising from the plains serves as a reminder of the timeless human story, of which that of the Linders and Crosbys is but one more iteration.

My one criticism would be that some parts, especially those dramatizing Jody's emotional reactions, seem overwritten, but that is no worse than what you might find in a Dickens' novel.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Christmas Carol

I’ve seen it so many times on stage, screen, and TV, but I just read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  for the first time.  I was immediately struck by its combination of gothic tale, light comedy, and conversion narrative.

Originally published in 1843 A Christmas Carol is subtitled “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas,” thus introducing a contrast between the darkness of the gothic tradition and the coming of the light celebrated at Christmas and at the Winter Solstice.  If the Scrooge of the first part of the story represents the darkest time of year and the world before Christ, then the Scrooge of the last part represents the return of the sun and the birth of the Christian savior.

The humor is introduced early as Marley is pronounced “as dead as a doornail” and a full paragraph is devoted to light-hearted discussion of the somewhat irreverent simile.  Comic caricature combines with melodrama as the rest of the story unfolds, following the well-known patterns of gothic tale and conversion narrative.

The gothic plot typically begins in rational reality, proceeds to an encounter with the irrational, and concludes with either destruction or escape.  Thus does the materialistic, greedy, hard-hearted Scrooge, after encountering the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future, confront his doomed life of avarice, bitterness, and loneliness.  In this version of the gothic tale, the hero can choose his fate, and Scrooge chooses to reject his doom in favor of a redeemed life of generosity, open-heartedness, community, and love.

The secular ghost story thus converges with the religious story of conversion and redemption.  The traditional Christian narrative typically begins with a sinner, proceeds to a conversion experience, including confession and atonement, and concludes with salvation.  Although A Christmas Carol is more secular than religious, it parallels the traditional Christian story, which underlies Scrooge’s conversion to the Christmas spirit.

While observing the conventions of both traditions, Dickens lightens the melodrama with humorous exaggeration and jocularity, making it impossible to take either ghosts or religion too seriously.  The essence of the Christmas “spirit” in A Christmas Carol is human, not supernatural: human compassion, love, celebration, and merry-making.

A sub-plot is the story of the Cratchitt family, struggling in poverty but bound together in love.  Their story also loosely follows a familiar pattern, the success story, which begins in hard-working, virtuous poverty, proceeds to opportunity, and concludes with success.  In this case the opportunity is the windfall of Scrooge’s conversion, which leads to a raise in salary for Bob Cratchitt and life-saving care for Tiny Tim.

Part of the popularity of Dickens’ classic is its use of familiar, popular narratives; part of it is the sentimentalism; part of it is the humor; and part of it is the secularism.  As familiar and popular as is the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, it is the secular message that transcends any particular religion and speaks to the non-religious as well as the religious, for all can appreciate the human story of redemption.

There is a political message, as well.  As Republicans currently seek to protect the wealthy at the expense of the poor and speak cynically of freeloaders at the public trough when it is their own policies that have reduced opportunity and lowered wages, it is hard not to see Scrooge as a hard-hearted Republican hoarder of wealth greatly in need, not only of honoring Christmas in his heart and keeping it all year, but also of a political form of redemption. May it be so.  And may it be a Merry Christmas!