Tag Archives: literary-fiction

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

book cover

If her years as a reporter had taught her anything, it was these two things: One, the world was filled with people who were adrift, rudderless, and untethered. And two, the innocent always paid for the sins of the guilty.

…their traditions mean more to them than their humanity.

While reading Thrity Umrigar’s latest, novel, Honor, her ninth for adults, my thoughts kept drifting to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, not the totality of the story so much as the classic opening sentence.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In the case of Honor there are not exactly two cities. Mumbai certainly counts, but Birwad is a remote, rural village. It was the best of times for the reporter, India-born, but American since age fourteen, an international correspondent for a major New-York-based newspaper. It was the worst of times for the local woman, a young widow, living a terrible life in Birwad. Her brothers had murdered her husband, the light of her life, in plain sight, happily including their own sister in the conflagration. It was the spring of hope for a crusading lawyer, Anjali, desperate to find a woman willing to press charges against abusers like these, very grateful to have finally found one. She is hoping to establish a precedent, maybe even gain some justice. It was the winter of despair. But even if Gorvind and Arvind can be convicted and sent to prison, Meena would still be stuck living with her mother-in-law, who hates her, blaming her for the death of her son. It was an epoch of belief. The brothers had torched their own sister because she, a Hindu, had dared marry a Muslim, which the brothers believed was an abomination. They also hated her because she worked, while they did not, again somehow shameful, even though she gave them her entire salary. It was an era of incredulity. Really, this medieval bullshit is still going on in the 21st century?

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Thrity Umrigar

Smita Agarwal had not wanted to go back to Mumbai, but the veteran reporter cut short her vacation in the Maldives when she got a call from Shannon Carpenter (broken hip, in hospital), a friend, and the South Asia Correspondent for her newspaper. Smita expects to be hanging with her pal for a while as she prepares for surgery, then recovers. But Shannon redirects her to taking on reporting duties for a grim story. The trial of brothers Gorvind and Arvind is due for a verdict soon. An associate of Shannon’s is sent along to help with translation, and coping with local cultural issues. Mohan is not a reporter, but someone is needed to help smooth things for Smita, who will need a translator. She has not been back to India for decades, and very much needs the help.

What Smita finds in this remote place is incredibly disturbing, a primitive society riven by a particularly deep and violent religious division and a legal system that is a caricature of bias and corruption, although sadly far too real. Smita interviews Meena, her mother-in-law, the brothers, the village leader who had encouraged them to commit the crime, and the lawyer who is handling the case against them. There is no ambiguity about guilt here. The only legal question is whether there will be any sort of justice in such a backwater.

Honor is a tale of two tales. It is not only in Birwad that bias crimes are committed. Alternating with the tale of Meena is Smita’s attempt to address the reason her family moved to the states from Mumbai when she was a teen. She revisits her old neighborhood and speaks, or tries to speak with people she knew back then. Her story is revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel. Later she tells Mohan the full tale of her family’s experience. It is clear that it is not only remote, rural India that has a problem with mindless us-versus-them bigotry.

The parallel stories incorporate contrasting elements. The novel looks at old versus new, faith versus materialism, rationality versus extremist religiosity, corruption versus honesty, modernity versus tradition, right versus wrong, kindness versus cruelty, understanding versus blind rejection, patriarchal abuse versus gender equity. There is the contrast between the cosmopolitan Smita and the rural Meena, the comfortable Mohan and the struggling villagers.

Smita wrestles with her feelings about India, mostly repulsed by it because of the treatment her family had received, the ongoing religious warfare, and a million small miseries the nation inflicts on everyone. But she also recognizes some of the kinder sides to life there, particularly as epitomized by Mohan. She is also confronted with a woman in Meena who had actually done a radical thing, standing up for love in the face of extreme bias, and then standing up for justice in a cruelly unjust place. She had opened herself to huge peril by attending to her heart. Whereas Smita lives a solo existence, sustaining barriers that prevent her from ever committing to anyone emotionally. Even though Smita’s reporting for a western newspaper is expected to benefit the fight against religious bigotry, this is not a trope of westerner coming to the rescue of a desperate third-worlder. Here, the illiterate local has much to teach the sophisticate.

The novel had dual inspirations. First was the reporting of New York Times reporter Ellen Barry, who documented some of the worst outrages of Indian injustice during her years working there. There are a couple of links in EXTRA STUFF to Barry’s NY Times work, and one article of hers in particular that was an obvious source for this novel. The second inspiration was Umrigar’s family’s history.

In 1993, my middle-aged father stood on our balcony and watched helplessly as the apartment building across the street burned. It had been set on fire by a mob of angry Hindus who had heard that a Muslim family lived on the ground floor.
By this time, I was living in faraway America, safe from the paroxysm of insanity and violence that gripped Bombay—the erstwhile most tolerant and cosmopolitan of Indian cities—during that terrible period. But I can still hear the bewilderment in my father’s voice as he later recounted the incident during our weekly phone chat. I immediately worried about my family’s well-being, but he brushed aside my fretting. We were Parsis, a small, prosperous, and educated religious minority in India; the joke was that there were so few of us, nobody saw us as any kind of threat.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

So, the two places may be dramatically different, but the underlying problems are remarkably similar. In addition to continuing her writing about India, in which she focuses on class and gender issues, there was another stream that flowed into her work this time.

I wrote ‘Honor’ during the Trump years,” she says. “I was writing about India, but I was also writing about my own adopted country. This othering of others is not a phenomena you can assign to any one country. The trend winds are blowing across the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States. I am sometimes appalled and bewildered and dismayed by the parallels.” – from the LA Times interview

It is certainly no stretch to see in people who erected a gallows for a vice president who would not do what their leader wanted the very group madness Umrigar shows us in India. The Indian version gives us a village leader stoking the violence, encouraging the brothers to commit an atrocity. Here we have Trump, Tucker Carlson, Fox News and a host of fascist demagogues screaming lies about “the other.”

A major focus in Honor is on how the word has been misused to support unconscionable policies and actions.

The word honor has been abused and shorn of its meaning in traditional, male-dominated societies, where it is simply a cover for the domination of women by their fathers, brothers, and sons. The sexual politics of the so-called honor killings are impossible to avoid. Women are raped, killed, and sacrificed to preserve male pride and reputations.


In this novel, I wanted to reclaim the word and give it back to the people to whom it belongs—people like Meena, a Hindu woman, and her Muslim husband, Abdul, who allow their love to blind them to the bigotries and religious fervor that surround them, who transcend their own upbringing to imagine a new and better world. – from the Bookbrowse interview

Honor is a tale of two loves. We get from Meena’s POV her history with Abdul, and how that love survives his murder in her love for their daughter. Smita has never really had that kind of relationship, but finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, as she sees him in action, helping her maneuver a culture she does not really understand, sees what a good, kind man he is, and begins to wonder if there is some way to sustain their connection after her work on this story is complete. She also struggles with her feelings about India, which have been hostile, but as warm memories from her youth return, as she learns from Mohan of the many good things about her birth country, she warms to it, and regains some of the affection she once had for her homeland.

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.


“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” – Tale of Two Cities – via Project Gutenberg

Shift the boy in Dickens’ tale to Meena’s daughter, Abru, in this one and it also fits right in. Honor is a gut punch that will being you to tears of grief and rage. Hopefully it will make you aware of the currents of group hatred that flow in far too many places, probably one uncomfortably close to home. But it will also offer you cause for hope, cause to see beyond the storm clouds of conflict to the clearing skies of hope. Honor is not a far, far better book than Umrigar has ever written. Really? With her dazzling oeuvre, what could be? But it is certainly among her strongest works. And that is saying a lot.

Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Umrigar sustains a positive outlook. In the LA Times interview, she references Tony Kushner.

He says something to the effect of: Hope is not a choice. Hope is a moral obligation. I try and live by those words. I may sometimes not feel hopeful about my own personal circumstances, which is absurd because I’ve had every opportunity and privilege in the world. But I always feel hopeful about humanity.”

Review posted – March 25, 2022

Publication date – January 4, 2022

This review has been, or soon will be cross-posted on my site, Coot’s Reviews. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews
—–Bookbrowse – An interview with Thrity Umrigar – there are two parts to this, first, an essay by Umrigar re Honor then an interview from 2006. Both are excellent
—–LA Times – A book of horror and hope in India, inspired by extremists closer to home BY BETHANNE PATRICK

My reviews of prior books by Thrity Umrigar
—–2018 – The Secrets Between Us
—–2016 – Everybody’s Son
—–2011 – The World We Found
—–2009 – The Weight of Heaven
—–2008 – The Space Between Us

Items of Interest from the author
—–Book Club Kit
—–excerpt – Chapter Five
—–Workman Library – Thrity Umrigar discusses her upcoming novel, HONOR (Jan 2022) – video – 3:22

Songs/Music
There is a play list in the Book Club Kit

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – articles by Ellen Barry
—–Read this one of Barry’s in particular – How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India
—–Wiki on Honor Killing
—–Gutenberg – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – the entire text

Reminds Me Of
—–The Heart of Darkness

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Filed under Fiction, India, Literary Fiction, Public policy, Religion

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

book cover

He pictured the 24-7 tree herself: a monster, grown even wider now than the twenty-four feet, seven inches that originally earned her the name, three hundred seventy feet high, the tallest of the scruff of old-growth redwoods left along the top of 24-7 Ridge. He’d circled that tree every morning for the last thirty-five years, figuring the best way to fall her, but it had always been just a story he’d told himself, like his father before him, and his granddad before that. Someday, Rich remembered his father saying. As a boy, it had seemed possible, though generations of Gundersens had died with the word on their breath.

“The real timber’s gone,” Lark said. “What’s left, ten percent, including the parks? Two thousand years to grow a forest, a hundred years to fall it. No plague like man.”

It’s 1977 in Klamath, California. Redwood country. Rich Gunderson has rolled the dice. He staked all the money he and his wife, Colleen, have been saving to buy a once-in-a-lifetime piece of property, the 24-7, over seven hundred acres of old growth forest, ripe for logging. But he needs the Sanderson Timber Co., which he has been working for all his life, to build a road close enough to it that he can get the logs out. It seems likely to happen, given that Sanderson is currently logging adjacent parcels. But when a skull is found, all work is halted until it can be determined whether the logging will be allowed to continue. A halt could mean the difference between making back his investment and having land of his own, a place on which he and his family can live, with a nice bit of cash beside, and losing everything.

The pilot had followed the coastline, turning inland at Diving Board Rock. It was Rich’s first and only ¬bird’s-eye view of his life: the small green house with its white shutters set back on the bluff at the foot of Bald Hill, the cedar-¬shingle tank shed. The plane’s ¬engine noise buzzed inside his chest, a hundred McCulloch chainsaws revving at once. They’d flown over 24-7 Ridge, the big tree herself lit by an errant ray of sun, glowing orange, bright as a torch, and, for an instant, Rich had caught a glimmer of the inholding’s potential—an island of private land in a sea of company forest. They’d flown over the dark waves of big pumpkins in Damnation Grove—redwoods older than the United States of America, saplings when Christ was born. Then came the patchwork of clear-cuts, like mange on a dog, timber felled and bucked and debarked, trucked to the mill, sawed into lumber, sent off to the kilns to be dried. The pilot had flipped a switch and spray had drifted out behind them in a long pennant—taste of chlorine, whiff of diesel—Rich’s heart soaring.

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Ash Davidson – Image from the Grand Canyon Trust

He and Colleen have suffered some serious losses already. They have a five-year-old son, Chub, who is about to start Kindergarten. But they had hoped for a larger brood. Colleen, only thirty-four, has just suffered her eighth miscarriage. Rich does not want for them to go through that again, so is keeping his distance, frustrating Colleen, who is eager to keep trying.

He does not keep his distance from this land, however. Carrying on the tradition of his father and grandfather before him, Rich is a high climber, a particularly perilous specialty in an already dangerous line of work. He is very fortunate to have lasted longer than his forebears, surviving into his fifties. Bunyonesque at over six feet six inches, Rich is a gentle giant, determined to take care of his family. But how he can go about doing that is becoming complicated. He remembers his father taking him up to the 24-7, and pointing out the biggest, (There she is. Twenty-four feet, seven inches across. Someday, you and me are going to fall that tree.) a lifetime ago, when his father had just turned thirty.

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A high rigger – using just his rope and spiked boots, he must climb the tree sawing off tree limbs as he goes – image and descriptive text from the Washington Historical Society

Colleen works as a midwife. Hers are not the only reproductive anomalies in the area. Miscarriages are rampant, as are birth defects. One woman she had been helping gave birth to a baby that was anencephalic. In the Library Journal interview, Davidson talks about her inspiration for the book.

My family lived in Klamath, California, where the book is set. My parents weren’t loggers—my mom taught school, my dad did carpentry work. But they did rely on a nearby creek for drinking water, similar to Rich and Colleen’s setup in the book, and became so concerned about herbicide contamination in that creek that they stopped drinking from our tap. Still today, not one of us does. I was three when we left Klamath, but I grew up hearing stories about our life there. I’d always wondered: what were those herbicides? – from the Shelf Awareness interview

Daniel Bywater was raised locally. An erstwhile classmate and an old flame of Colleen’s, he is back in the area, doing a postdoc in fisheries biology, testing the water to see what might be causing the significant reduction in fish life. It is pretty clear that the cause is the toxic chemicals that Sanderson sprays relentlessly in the area, making sure the logging roads do not get overgrown, and access to the to-be-logged trees is uninhibited. With the prompt of Daniel, Colleen begins to see that the environment in which she lives may be a factor in her difficulties carrying a baby to term. The Gundersons get their water directly from Damnation Creek.

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Redwoods – image from homestratosphere.com

The conflict is set. Sanderson, eager to fend off any attempts to prevent them from clear-cutting the lands they control, versus those concerned with the health and safety of the people living and working in the area, and the carnage being wreaked on the local eco-system. The company is not above using bribery, blackballing, physical intimidation, and worse to control the allowable debate.

People are struggling. Deer Creek has dried up. It is probably wise to head indoors when the far-too-frequent company chopper passes overhead spraying something that smells of chlorine. Folks live in single-wides or rent houses they used to own, now property of the government on a 25 year lease, after they were eminent-domained for parkland. Pay has been shifted from production based to a daily rate. Not an idyllic existence

It would be an easy thing to present the company as pure evil (well, it pretty much is here, so scratch that), and the locals who support cutting-uber-alles as ignorant rubes. Some are, and there are those who are willfully ignorant, and willing to go to dark extremes to protect their personal fortunes, but Davidson has offered instead a very close look at the crux of the conflict. Can you really expect people who, for generations, have known only one way of living, to welcome outsiders telling them that they can no longer continue to work the jobs they have worked for decades, to live the way they have been forever? Even if that way of life is harming them (it is), that harm may not be felt immediately. No one except the company owners and upper managers are living well. It is a hard-scrabble existence, even for the fully employed. The loss of that small income would be harsh and sudden. And there is no certainty that other means of getting by will magically appear. For good or ill, people’s livelihoods are tied to the survival of the timber company. To damage that is to imperil them all. In showing the perspective of the people residing in the affected area, Davidson treats the issues she raises in a serious, nuanced, and respectful manner.

”Ask any of these guys. You won’t find a guy that loves the woods more than a logger. You scratch a logger, you better believe you’ll find an ‘enviro-mentalist’ underneath. But the difference between us and these people is we live here. We hunt. We fish. We camp out. They’ll go back where they came from, but we’ll wake up right here tomorrow. This is home. Timber puts food on our tables, clothes on our kids’ backs. You know, a redwood tree is a hard thing to kill. You cut it down, it sends up a shoot. Even fire doesn’t kill it. Those big pumpkins up in the grove, they’re old. Ready to keel over and rot. You might as well set a pile of money on fire and make us watch.”

It is clear that, even though he is in the business of removing trees from the landscape, that Rich does have a feel for, a love of the land. He often brings his son out into the woods to show him the woods, the topography, the beauty of their home. Rich wants to make sure he passes on what he can while he can. A charming element of this is when Rich teaches his son to use his hand as a map of their area. I could not help but think of Rich as a Fess-Parker-as-Davy-Crockett-or-Daniel-Boone sort, substantial, serious. But also kind and educable, interested in doing right by his family. This creates an internal conflict for him. Protect his family by seeing to it that the land he bought gets logged, and thus ensure their financial future, or consider that maybe Colleen is right to be concerned about the perils to them all of Sanderson’s spraying.

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Image from Santa Cruz Land Trust

It is not spraying alone that is problematic. Hillsides, denuded of the plant life that held firmly onto the ground, lose their ability to absorb the considerable rain that falls in the area, and their ability to remain in place. It has got to be tough to remain connected to the land if the very land itself is washing away.

Colleen suffers additional misery to that of enduring multiple miscarriages from the fact that her sister, Enid, seems to get pregnant at the drop of a condom. Enid uncrosses her legs for two minutes and a baby pops out.

There is imagery aplenty to help things along. The huge lighthouse of a redwood has already been mentioned as a symbol of both permanence and possibility. Rich endures a bad tooth for much of the novel, maybe a conscience, or growing awareness that needs tending to. A dog which has had its vocal cords cut by a heartless owner surely stands in for silencing alarms of impending danger in the wider world. Showing the multigenerational element of the community reminded me of judging the age of a tree by the number of rings, but I am pretty sure that is just my projection.

I think sometimes we assume that working in an industry like logging is a choice easily substituted with another choice, but there is real grief in letting go of a good job that has defined you. Damnation Spring is set forty years ago, but we see parallels in industry today. There are plenty of reasons why a coal miner in West Virginia can’t just pick up and move west to work on a solar farm. When your whole life is in a place, the idea of uprooting it is so overwhelming, it’s understandable that dying in the life you know might be preferable to starting over. – from the Library Journal interview

There are also a larger perspectives one can see here. We can see in the microcosm of a small community what a larger society might look like when there is only one dominant political and economic power source, and it acts in its own interest regardless of the harm it does to all around it, and having no respect for the truth. This is what happens when there is power without accountability. Davidson shows how behavior ripples outward, from industry to community to family to individuals. The feckless, short-term profit-motive of Sanderson Timber forces the community to come to grips (or not) with the ecological and personally biological impacts of its work, which manifests in public (and secretive) behavior, pushing families into hard choices, and impacting individual lives. There is also the larger echo of events over four decades back (and more) impacting the world today. How much carbon in the atmosphere, for example, is not being sequestered because of clear-cutting? How many species of animal and plant life are being exterminated because of short term profit motives? And there is the immediate contemporary echo of so much of the planet still being plundered instead of managed, harvested, and renewed.

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A 2006 mudslide in Northern California – image from DCBS News

The story is told from the alternating perspectives, Rich, Colleen and Chub.

Damnation Spring started out as a first-person novel in Rich’s voice. But I kept running into walls–things he couldn’t know or wouldn’t notice. Even after I added Colleen, they were both so quiet. I needed Chub. He’s curious. He’s lower to the ground. He’s five at the beginning of the book. I’d worked as a nanny, so I had some experience with children that age. They’re observant, but not judgmental, and still fully alive to the magic of the world, from birds’ nests to Bigfoot. – from the Shelf Awareness interview

This works well to offer a rounded take on the action of the story.

Davidson spent the first three years of her life in Klamath, not of a logging family. Mom was a teacher, dad a carpenter. But they used a nearby creek for drinking water, like Rich and Colleen in the novel. Her parents became concerned about chemicals in the water, so stopped using it. Davidson heard about this later on, but retained curiosity about the experience. The story grew from that to wondering about how families and a whole community might respond when their homes, their communities became unsafe to live in.

Gripes
Throughout the course of the book we are given relentless examples of the horrors being inflicted on people, fauna, and flora, in addition to the huge reproductive issues. Beehives are obliterated, diseased deer stumble through the woods, nosebleeds are ubiquitous. This can get overbearing, as if we are being beaten over the head with it all, over and over and over. Yes, yes. Everything is being poisoned. Do we really need twenty more examples? Got it.

The story-telling is effective. We see the characters and how their relationships with each other work. It is dense with detail, but maybe too much detail, enough so that it makes it, sometimes, tough to see the forest for the trees, and sometimes a slog to read.

There is a response Rich has late in the book to something Colleen does that had me thinking of the real-life Daniel Boone. I understand the possibility of his response, but found it a bit of a stretch to accept in the 20th century, in the culture which is portrayed. He might have reached the destination to which he arrives, but it would have been with considerably more weeping and gnashing of teeth. In this case, maybe, a bit more detail would have been warranted.

Overall, though, Damnation Spring is a powerful example of eco-lit, a humanity-based look at crimes against nature, featuring strongly-drawn characters that you can care about, dastardly doings enough to keep the action moving, some payload on the dynamics within a stressed logging community, and more on the impact of chemical spraying and clear-cutting. The book is printed on recycled paper, but you might feel more comfortable giving the trees a break and reading this one as an e-book.

You can bury us, but you can’t keep us from digging our way out.

Review first posted – July 30, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hard cover – August 3, 2021
———-Trade paperback – May 3, 2022

I received an ARE of Damnation Spring from Scribner, of Simon & Schuster, in return for some seedlings and fertile soil. Thanks to ZC at S&S for providing, Cai at GR for cluing me in to this book, and NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Shelf Awareness – Ash Davidson: Living and Dying on Timber bny Samantha Zaboski
—–Library Journal – Debut Author Ash Davidson Discusses Her Epic, Immersive Novel Damnation Spring – this was sponsored by Simon & Schuster

Books this one made me think of
—–Annie Proulx – Barkskins – a historical novel, a saga, showing the logging of North America since the 17th century
—–Richard Preston – The Wild Trees – non-fic about tree-climbers, with a lot of interesting intel on the earth’s wooden giants

Song/Music
—–Johnny Cash – My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You from “November 6 – Colleen” chapter

Items of Interest
—–Coast Redwood Ecology and Management
—–Nashville Review – August 1, 2016 – Higher Ground
—–Book Club Guide

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Center of Everything by Jamie Harrison

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Good mothers were rarities, the center of everything.

Sometimes the beauty of the written word can make you stop, pause, sigh deeply, and appreciate the moment. I am fortunate to have been able to read and report on many top tier works of fiction. It remains a singular joy to come across written passages that bring me near to tears with their sheer power and beauty. Here is the beginning of the novel, the beginning of what brought on my overwrought response:

When Polly was a child, and thought like a child, the world was a fluid place. People came and went and never looked the same from month to month, or year to year. They shifted bodies and voices—a family friend shaved a beard, a great-aunt shriveled into illness, a doctor grew taller—and it would take time to find them, to recognize them. Polly studied faces, she wondered, she undid the disguise. But sometimes people she loved disappeared entirely, curling off like smoke. Her father, Merle, told her that her mind was like a forest, and the trees inside were her people, each leaf or needle a memory. Her mother, Jane, said that memories were the way a person tried to turn a life into a story, and Papa, Polly’s great-grandfather, said that there was a story about everything. He would tell them something long and strange to explain the existence of tigers or caves or trees, but then he’d say, Well, the Greeks said the same thing, or the Finns; the Athabascans, the Etruscans, the Utes, Days were an Aztec snake swallowing its tail, water came from a Celtic goddess’s eyes, thunder was a deadly fart from a Bantu in the sky.

See what I mean? The issues noted in the passage presage the stories and memory issues to come. The way a child thinks? Check. People looking different from one time to another? Check. Needing time to recognize faces beneath disguises? Check. People disappearing? Sadly, check. Memory as a way of turning lived experience into story? Check. Cultures, and people coming up with tales to explain observed events? Check.

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Jamie Harrison – image from her site

We meet Polly Schuster (nee Berrigan) as an adult, 42, having recently suffered a serious injury, hit by a car while bike-riding. She has a considerable scar on her skull from the needed repairs. The damage to her brain has left her something other than what she had been up until then. She has become forgetful, can drift off sometimes while with other people, but mostly she now has issues with memory. With her great-aunt Maude coming to town to celebrate her 90th birthday, there is a flurry of preparations (stories told, photographs and artifacts of earlier times unearthed) that summon memories for Polly. But can she rely on those recollections? What we have here is an unwillingly unreliable narrator.

The novel is told in (mostly) two times, the present (2002) in Montana, and 1968, when Polly was eight years old and her family lived on Long Island, with dramatic events in 1968 leading up to what she calls “The End of the World” and “The Beginning of the World,” in that order. The 2002 world is ordered by Maude’s arrival, but also by an alarming event.

Water here is less the usual symbol of rebirth than of death. Two boating incidents a lifetime apart. Were they accidents, or something else? This being Montana, a river runs through the story. Ariel, a young woman the Schusters had hired as a sitter for their two children, has gone missing, kayaking on the Yellowstone River too early in the season, (The Yellowstone runs rough this time of year. Someone dying on the river was not unusual. It was easier when it was a tourist, but far too often it was a local, like Ariel.) she has vanished. Her riverine companion, Graham, a person of questionable character and veracity, survived. He is widely suspected of having a hand in Ariel’s fate, whatever that turns out to be. Was she the victim of simple misfortune, or something worse? Where is she? What about the man Polly had found dead on the beach back in 1968? What was the deal with that? There are other incidents involving water, including a woman who drowns, trapped underwater after an accident, a plane crashing into a lake, another body found on a beach, and a woman attempts suicide by walking into the sea.

Polly’s great-grandmother Dee told her once that there were three kinds of dreams—not the passing filaments, the sorted trash from the day, but the ones that came back, over and over—about three kinds of things: wishes or desires, loss or being lost, and fear. All her life, Polly thought these categories felt true, and lately, they came to her in combination.

What are memories, but the distilled media and emotional resonance of events we have experienced? Yet, our abilities as children to understand what those events are, or mean is far from complete, our ability to form coherent, accurate recollections remains incomplete. Thus, magical thinking. Three-year-old Polly believed that when people died they went somewhere else, disguised. So, when Jane and Merle moved to NYC she thought they were looking for her late grandfather and aunt. Four-year-old Helen, Polly’s daughter in 2002, looks under rocks for the missing Ariel, fearing she may have melted. Seven and eight-year-old Polly tries to make some sense of the bodies found on Long Island beaches in successive summers. Then tries to remember, from adulthood, with a damaged brain, what it was that had actually happened.

There are plenty of identifiable links to the author’s life. Here are a few. Living in Montana is the most obvious. But other residences noted in the novel reflect Harrison’s experience as well. Her parents lived in Long Island when she was small, as did Polly’s. Both Harrison and her husband, and Polly and Ned moved from New York to Montana. When Harrison moved, she and her husband lived with well-known painter and writer, Russell Chatham, thus, perhaps a bit of inspiration for the painter character, Rita. Although, I expect her exposure to Chatham was a lot less dramatic than Polly’s is to Rita. Born in the same year as Polly, Harrison grew up in an accomplished, artistic family. Her father, Jim Harrison, was the author of Legends of the Fall, among other works. A-list writers were part of her growing up experience. Papa reflects this, renowned for his study of story and culture, a Joseph Campbell sort. Livingston, MT, where Harrison lives, is, notoriously, home, at least part-time, to a host of Hollywood A-listers. Notorious because the wealthy Californians did an excellent job of bidding up the price of local land and housing, to the point that many locals who might want to stick around have been priced out. The western invaders are represented, at least somewhat, by Drake Aasgard, an actor of note, who employs Polly to screen scripts for him.

Those good mothers, noted in the quote at the top, and the title of the book, are far from ubiquitous, and so, are special when they turn up. But it seemed to me that the title could, as easily, be referring to family, or even memory, as the center of everything. My only gripe about the book is that the mysteries seemed at times to drift maybe a bit too far back from the amazing description of the concrete lives of the central characters. Tap, tap, tap. This is all very interesting, but I want to know what happened to…

There are mysteries to be solved, sans PI. Polly drifts out of reality at times, struggling to discern what is, or was real. The story is told both from adult Polly’s perspective and from her as a child. This is pulled off quite well, believable in both cases.

Polly continues to struggle throughout. Some mysteries are resolved. Some questions remain, but the greatest strength of the novel, in addition to her celestial command of language, is Harrison’s vivid, detailed portrayal of an extended family, a community of the related and connected. Polly may be the lead, but this is an ensemble cast, with many interesting characters, who gain our attention in different ways. The rich detail Harrison offers gives very real texture to the characters’ lives. Both time settings are given close looks and we can see what the characters see, feel what they feel. There are characters aplenty striding through, many of whom would merit their own full-length tales. Papa and Dee’s household in the 60s was warm, raucous, and exciting. These people will certainly grab and hold your interest. There is magic aplenty in this book, and not in a fantasy way, although Polly does have some experiences that could easily have gone there.

The Center of Everything is a triumph, evocative writing, wonderful characters, smart consideration of how story functions in the world, as well as in literature, a 3D-immersive portrayal of a family, and a few mysteries as well. This novel should be at the center of your reading plans this winter, if you can remember.

Childhood is a green knot, hiding places and suspended time. It is the speed she can run through grass, the heat of the air, the fear of pissing her pants on the school bus, the difficulty of returning someone’s gaze, a bright object in the sand, the way a good moment can slide to bad.

Review posted – January 29, 2021

Publication date – January 12, 2021

I received a copy of this book from Counterpoint in exchange for an honest review. At least I think that was the deal. I can’t quite seem to recall.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, GR and FB pages

Interviews
—–Lithub – Jamie Harrison on Finding Her Way to the Writer’s Life in the American West by Thomas McGuane (an old family friend)
—–David Abrams Books – My First Time: Jamie Harrison – for The Widow Nash, but some materials here are relevant

Items of Interest
—–Lapham’s Quarterly – Once Upon Time – the four oldest Fairy Tales
description
An image of it – Jamie says, in a facebook posting of this, “This is fun; I played around with these shifts in my new book.” One of the characters studies how stories change over eons, culture to culture.
—–Wiki on Jim Harrison, Jaime’s father, renowned poet, and author of Legends of the Fall – he was a professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island in 1965-66

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Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

book cover

…now I knew there were so many ways to get hung from a cross—a mother’s love for you morphing into something incomprehensible. A dress ghosted in another generation’s dreams. A history of fire and ash and loss. Legacy.

Melody is sixteen, having her coming out party in her home, her grandparents home, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. We are introduced to her father, her grandparents, her bff, her world. She has chosen for her entrance music something that draws a line between her generation and those that came before, Prince’s Darling Nikki. The guests are thankful that the lyrics have been omitted. [you can see them at the end of EXTRA STUFF]. But it is the connections across generational lines that are at the core of Jacqueline Woodson’s latest novel. How the past persists through time, molding, if not totally defining us, informing our options, our choices, our possibilities, the impact of legacy.

description
Jacqueline Woodson – image from the New York Times

Red at the Bone is a short book with a long view. (I have had people say, “I’ve read that in a day” and I’m like, “Yo, it took me four years to write that. Go back and read it again.” – from the Shondaland interview) It is not just about race and legacy, but about class, about parenting, about coming of age, about the making and unmaking of families.

Look closely. It’s the spring of 2001 and I am finally sixteen. How many hundreds of ancestors knew a moment like this? Before the narrative of their lives changed once again forever, there was Bach and Ellington, Monk and Ma Rainey, Hooker and Holiday. Before the world as they knew it ended, they stepped out in heels with straightening-comb burns on their ears, gartered stockings, and lipstick for the first time.

Iris found motherhood too soon, was fifteen when she became pregnant with Melody. Buh-bye Catholic school. Buh-bye coming out party. And when her parents were unwilling to endure their neighbors’ scorn, buh-bye neighborhood. It’s tough to be a proper, upstanding family, respected by all, when the sin is so public, and the forgiveness element of their Catholic community is so overwhelmed by the urge to finger-point and shame.

Class informs who we choose and the roads we take through our lives. Although paths may cross, as we head in diverging directions we can wave to each other for a while, but eventually, mostly, we lose sight of those who have traveled too far on that other bye-way. The baby-daddy, Aubrey, steps up, but, really, Iris does not think he is a long-term commitment she wants to make. She has been raised middle-class, and Aubrey’s background, ambitions, and interests do not measure up.

When she looked into her future, she saw college and some fancy job somewhere where she dressed cute and drank good wine at a restaurant after work. There were always candles in her future—candlelit tables and bathtubs and bedrooms. She didn’t see Aubrey there.

Her decision impacts her daughter, who grows up largely motherless, a mirror to her father, who had grown up fatherless, although without the resources his daughter has from her mother’s parents.

One impact of history is how the Tulsa Massacre, specifically, cascades down through the generations, driving family members to achieve, and to zealously protect what they have gained, ever knowledgeable that everything might be taken from them at any time. (Melody is named for her great-grandmother, who suffered in the Tulsa Massacre.)

Every day since she was a baby, I’ve told Iris the story. How they came with intention. How the only thing they wanted was to see us gone. Our money gone. Our shops and schools and libraries—everything—just good and gone. And even though it happened twenty years before I was even a thought, I carry it. I carry the goneness. Iris carries the goneness. And watching her walk down those stairs, I know now that my grandbaby carries the goneness too.

The goneness finds a contemporary echo when a family member is killed in the 9/11 attack, a space that cannot be filled. Goneness appears in other forms, when Iris leaves her Catholic school, and, later, heads off to college.

Music permeates the novel, from Melody’s name (and the person who had inspired it) to the atmosphere of various locales, from Po’Boy’s recollections to Aubrey’s parentage, from Melody’s coming out song to Iris’s college playlist. Who among us does not have music associated with the events of our life?

Most good novels offer a bit of reflection on the narrative process. The person-as-a-story here reminded me of Ocean Vuong writing about our life experience as language in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

…as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen. I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.

There are many moments in this book that reach deep. In a favorite of these, Aubrey remembers the pedestrian things he liked in his peripatetic single-parent childhood, a Whitman-esque litany of physical experience, capped with an image of fleeting, unsurpassed beauty, and desperate longing that well mirrors his love for Iris, and is absolutely heart-wrenching.

The stories within the novel are told from several alternating perspectives, Melody, Aubrey and Iris getting the most time, and Iris’s parents, Sabe and Po’Boy, getting some screen time as well. We see Iris and Aubrey as teens and adults, and are given a look at Aubrey’s childhood as well. Sabe and Po’Boy provide a contemporary perspective, but a connection back to their young adulthood too.

Woodson’s caution to the fast-reader to go back and try again is advice well worth heeding. Red at the Bone is a tapestry, with larger images, created with threads that are woven in and out, and drawn together to form a glorious whole. You will see on second, third, or further readings flickers here that reflect events from there, see the threads that had gone unnoticed on prior readings. It is a magnificent book, remarkably compact, but so, so rich. Surely one of the best books of 2019.

Review posted – December 27, 2019

Publication date – September 17, 2019

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Tumblr pages

My review of Woodson’s prior novel, Another Brooklyn

Interviews – Video/audio
—–The Daily Show – Trevor Noah
—————Print
—–Longreads – “We’re All Still Cooking…Still Raw at the Core”: An Interview with Jacqueline Woodson – by Adam Morgan
—–NPR – Weekend Edition – History And Race In America In ‘Red At The Bone’ – by Scott Simon
—–Shondaland – Jacqueline Woodson Will Not Be Put in a Box – by Britni Danielle

Items of Interest
—–NPR – Jacqueline Woodson: What Is The Hidden Power Of Slow Reading?
—–Wiki – The Tulsa Race Massacre
—–Rollingstone – The Tulsa Massacre Warns Us Not to Trust History to Judge Trump on Impeachment – by Jamil Smith
—–The Party – by Paul Lawrence Dunbar – read by Karen Wilson
—–Sojourner Truth’s seminal speech – Ain’t I a Woman?

Songs – both from the book and her stated playlist from the Longreads interview
—–Prince – Darling Nikki
—–Eva Cassidy – Songbird
—–EmmyLou Harris – Don’t Leave Nobody But the Baby
—–J. Cole – Young, Dumb, and Broke
—–Etta James – I’d Rather Go Blind
—–Erroll Garner – Fly Me to the Moon
—–Erroll Garner – Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time
—–The Chi Lites – Have You Seen Her?
—–Boy George – That’s the Way
—–5th Dimenion – Stoned Soul Picnic
—–Phoebe Snow – Poetry Man

Darling Nikki
Prince
I knew a girl named Nikki I guess you could say she was a sex fiend,
I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,
She said how’d you like to waste some time and I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
She took me to her castle and I just couldn’t believe my eyes,
She had so many devices everything that money could buy,
She said “sign your name on the dotted line.” The lights went out and Nikki started to grind.
Nikki
The castle started spinning or maybe it wa my brain.
I can’t tell you what she did to me but my body will never be the same.
Awe, her lovin will kick your behind, she’ll show you no mercy
But she’ll sure ‘nough, sure ‘nough show you how to grind
Come on Nikki
I woke up the next morning, Nikki wasn’t there.
I looked all…
Sometimes the world’s a storm.
One day soon the storm will pass
And all will be bright and peaceful.
Fearlessly bathe in the,
Purple rain
Source: LyricFind

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City, Reviews