Tag Archives: Fiction

“Go South to the River.”

 

 

 

sing unburied singTwo time winning ward

Can we write about characters who are broken? Can we write about mothers who cannot seem to feed or care for their children? How does such a narrative hold the reader’s attention? After being in The Best Food Ever Book Club for the past three decades, I have heard many dissenting opinions about characters who fill the pages of our selections. There have been passionate arguments about the merits of books, and some have been quick to weigh in on the likeability of those whose thoughts will fill our heads as we read. The protagonist must capture our hearts; if everyone around them leaves little to admire, we will pull for the hero to break free. This is how I would describe JoJo, the thirteen-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood in Jesamyn Ward’s, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

As the author won the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones and has now gone on to win another, she brings a hefty amount of literary chops to the challenge. In her recent novel, she describes the difficulties before JoJo which seem nearly insurmountable. If anyone reading this is of the age-old belief that we are all born with the same chance in this great country, I would advise reading Jesmyn Ward. Isn’t it the greatest trick, or achievement, to actually change a reader’s philosophy, or understanding of life, by describing a family in the midst of their world and struggles? Will this allow the reader to see how much smooth sailing they may have had in life compared to someone born deep in the swamps of Mississippi whose ancestors were slaves? Through every page of this book, the reader is forced to accept that some families do not need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps because there have not been any boots for generations. How will this end? That is what kept me up at night caught in the grips of this magical tale.

The road-trip story has had a place in my heart since reading Jack Kerouac in my teens. If everyone seems to be rolling along, just barely coping, as soon as they get in the car and attempt to go on a journey, our anxiety begins to increase. In the case of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the destination is a prison. JoJo’s white father is about to be released. His white grandfather will not have anything to do with him, but they plan a visit nevertheless. This knowledge increased his fragile identity, and I wished he was able to stay home with his black grandfather who cared for him.

With all of the families’ frailties, his dysfunctional mother, Leonie stands out above all others. JoJo’s baby sister clings to him by instinct, and it is our hero who looks out for her. Sometimes, as when in the hands of a skilled author, we yearn for the protagonist to turn out to be a fine upstanding man, but feel the deck is stacked against him. What are the odds? What will have to change in his life for this to happen? Of all the suspenseful situations an author can put her characters in, nothing keeps this reader clutching a book more than a baby who needs to be fed. There is no better way to describe a marginalized society than through the eyes of a hungry child.

This book lingered in my mind for weeks. Bits and pieces would come back to me while on walks, or working, or making dinner. It was the mood that would return. There is such a dreamy quality to this work. Ghosts inhabit the characters, as surely as they must remain in those swamps down south. There can never be enough stories of what happened after the slaves were free. Never. When an author can describe the merest remnants of African culture, passed down by the merest of threads, the story begins to inhabit my imagination and dreams.

From Page 174:

“The inside of the store is so cool and the outside air so hot and wet that the windows are fogged up. I can’t see Leonie’s car from inside, only the smeared gray on the glass. The man at the counter got a big brown bushy beard, every hair going every which way on his face, but the rest of him is thin and yellow, even his hair which he’s combed over his head to hide the baldness underneath. It works, too, because his scalp is as yellow as the rest of him, so it’s hard for me to tell where his skin ends and his hair sprouts.”

This is the voice of JoJo relating his impression of the roadside stop.

Ward is at her lyrical best when she writes in the voice of a ghost.

From Page 191:

“Today when Jojo came to Parchman, I woke to the whispering of the white snake, which had dug a nest down into the earth with me so he could speak to me in my ear. So he would curl about my head in the dark and whisper, If you would rise, I can take you across the waters of this world to another. This place binds you. Keep the scale, even if you cannot fly. Go south, to River, to the face of the waters. He will show you. Go south.”

Every family has a story, and every one of them is worth telling. The greatness of the endeavor would have to lie in the chosen word, and in the author’s skill. Jesmyn Ward has achieved all of this by winning the National Book Award for the second time.

The Opposite of Nothing is Something

Thien

The very best writing reads like music. It has rhythm. It has style. Madeline Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a symphony. The author weaves a tale of her native China, the tragic and tumultuous history with the stories of interlaced characters pulled through generations. We see history not only as it unfolds, but in the impact, it has on its people. The book is an extraordinary achievement winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize and being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2016. While the competition for both prizes was intense, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a standout.

Thien‘s style is intricate and beautiful. She is deft at moving through settings, characters and time. It is a book that can be described, as Annie Lamont put it, written ‘word by word.‘ From the very start, I found myself inwardly gasping at the beauty of her writing.

The book opens with a profound and engaging beginning. “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.” Page 3.

From this start, we follow Thien’s journey to understand the events that led to this pass. She is living in Vancouver, in an apartment shared with her mother when we first encounter this thoughtful, cerebral girl. Before long a third person arrives without a coat and carrying a light suitcase. She is a family friend whose history is connected to theirs. What links them together is the fact that both of the fathers were musicians forbidden to practice their craft in the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. If music sustained her father, Marie finds a home in mathematics.

From Page 191:

“In the spring of 2000, after my mother passed away, I gave myself entirely to my studies. The logic of mathematics-its methods of induction and deduction, its power to describe abstract shapes that have no counterpart in the real world- sustained me. I moved out of the apartment that my mother had been renting ever since she and Ba first came to Canada, and in which I had grown up. Desperate to leave it behind, I cobbled together every penny I had and bought a dilapidated apartment on Alexander Street. The windows looked straight out into the port of Vancouver and, at night, the endless arrivals and departures of multi-coloured shipping containers, what they held, what they divulged, comforted me.
I kept my parents’ papers in the bedroom closet and a Cantor taped to the wall: ‘The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.’”

This picture finds an easy grace in my imagination. The link between Shanghai and the western ports of North America, where we now receive goods too staggering in size to even contemplate from a nation that was once brought to its knees is both beautiful and sad. That is the tone of the work; it hit the right note for winter reading. Every once in a great while, we pick up a book that deserves to be read twice. Some sentences are so profound that the reader needs to stop and puzzle through them. Sometimes it means putting the book down and returning to awaiting tasks with the thoughts presented rattling around begging for more time.

From Page 419:

“I know that throughout my life I have struggled to forgive my father. Now, as I get older, I wish most of all that he had been able to find a way to forgive himself. In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept, and also, finally, to let it go. That’s what I would tell my father. To have faith that, one day, someone else will keep the record.”

Ideally, a great novel gives us a new understanding, either of times and events or, in the best possible scenario, of the pages of our own story. Madeline Thien’s work carries the power to do this. Could it be possible that I feel as if I am a better person for having read  Do Not Say We Have Nothing? I hope so. For God knows, there is much work to be done.

winning thien    Madeleine Thien

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Anne’s Beauty Loving Eyes

 

Anne of Green Gables

When curled up with a good book, do you remember being transported to the moors of northern England, to the red roads of Georgia, or to dear little Prince Edward Island? The importance of place in a novel, or story, can sometimes be tantamount to the telling of the tale. Take Scarlet out of the old south and what do you have? Take Heathcliff out of the moors and who is he?

 

A sense of place puts the reader in the story, puts the character up against something- whether it is a harsh environment they are grappling with, or a cultural imperative which leaves them feeling as though the deck is stacked against them. What are the underlying layers of the place your character’s inhabit? What are the threats? Did the place start as a swamp, or a thriving port? Did they have to beat back the forest, or are the bushes full of snakes? Who came there first? Was it miners, or homesteaders? Who was indigenous? What was the climate?

 

Do you remember those green felt boards kindergarten teachers used to use as props? Remember how they would stick felt things on to the green board to teach us how to count ducks, or whatever. The setting of a novel is kind of like the green felt and the characters are then the ducks.

These are details that can make or break a story.

By taking a look at the great ones, we can gain many tips, as we set out to describe the places where our characters live and the role that place plays in the story.

 

It occurred to me that I actually love place driven stories. While a place can never be the whole story, it can be a huge part of shaping the action of a story. There is nothing that defines a writer more completely than the concept of really honing in on the character of his home town, or region, and then becoming synonymous with that place. Consider Margret Mitchell with Atlanta, James Joyce with Dublin, the Brontes with the moors and Pat Conroy with South Carolina and then my perennial and personal favorite and the best selling book of all time, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island.

 

Other writers may not be from a region, but can go there and define it nevertheless. Take James Mitchner with Hawaii and the middle east, Leon Uris with Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Passage to India’s, E. M Forester and then of course, Shakespeare himself. The place will shape the lives of the characters as they adapt to changes through time.

 

Here are some pages from the opening chapters of Anne of Green Gables:

 

 

“They had driven over the crest of a hill. Below them was a pond, looking almost like a river so long and winding was it. A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, were an amber hued belt of sand-hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues- the most spiritual shadings of of crocus and rose and ethereal green, with other elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found. Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows. Here and there a wild plum leaned out from the bank like a white-clad girl tip-toeing to her own reflection. From the marsh at the head of the pond came the clear, mournfully- sweet chorus of frogs. There was a little gray house peering around a white apple orchard on a slope beyond and, although it was not yet quite dark, a light was shining from one of its windows.

“That’s Barry’s pond, “ said Mathew.

“Oh, I don’t like that name, either. I shall call it- let me see- the Lake of Shining Waters. Yes, that’s the right name for it. I know because it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?”

When they had driven up the further hill and around a corner Mathew said, “We’re pretty near home now. That’s Green Gables over-”

“Oh don’t tell me,” she interrupted breathlessly, catching at his partially raised arm and shutting her eyes that she might not see his gesture. “Let me guess. I’m sure I’ll guess right.”

She opened her eyes and looked about her. They were on the crest of a hill. The sun has set some time since, the the landscape was still clear in the mellow after-light. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it the stainless southwest sky, a great crystal white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” she said pointing.

 ****

 

It was broad daylight when Anne awoke and sat up in bed, staring confusedly at the window through which a flood of cheery sunshine was pouring and outside of which something white and feather waved across the glimpses of blue sky.

For a moment she could not remember where she was. First came a delightful thrill, as if something very pleasant: then a horrible remembrance. This was Green Gables and they didn’t want her because she wasn’t a boy!

But it was morning and, yest it was a cherry tree in full bloom outside of her window With a bound she was out of bed and across the floor. She pushed up the sash- it went up stiffly and creakily, as if it hadn’t been opened for a long time, which was the case; and it stuck so tight that nothing was needed to hold it up.

Anne dropped on her knees and gazed out into the June morning her eyes glistening with delight. Oh, wasn’t it beautiful? Wasn’t it a lovely place? Suppose she wasn’t really going to stay here! She would imagine she was. There was scope for the imagination here.

A huge cherry-tree grew outside, so close that its boughs tapped against the house, and it was so thick- set with blossoms that hardly a leaf was to be seen. On both sides of the house was a big orchard, one of apple-trees and one of cherry-trees, also showered with blossoms; and their grass was all sprinkled over with dandelions. In the garden below were lilac-trees purple with flowers, and their dizzily sweet fragrance drifted up to the window on the morning wind.

Below the garden a green field lush with clover sloped down to the hollow where the brook ran and were scores of white birches grew, springing airily out of and undergrowth suggestive of delightful possibilities in ferns and mosses and woodsy things generally. Beyond it was a a hill, green and feathery with spruce and fir; there was a gap in it where the gray gable end of the little house she had seen from the other side of the Lake of Shining Waters was visible.

Off to the left were the big barns and beyond them, away down, over the green, low sloping fields, was a sparkling blue glimpse of sea.

Anne’s beauty -loving eyes lingered on it all, taking everything greedily in; she has looked on so many unlovely places in her life, poor child; but this was as lovely as anything she had ever dreamed.

She knelt there, lost to everything, but the loveliness around her, until she was startled by the hand on her shoulder. Marilla had come in unheard by the small dreamer.

“It’s time you were dressed,” she said curtly.”

 

So the stage is set. We are caught up in the drama of Anne’s situation, and we want her to be able to stay at Green Gables because we know how much she has fallen in love with the place. This rapture has drawn thousands upon thousands of tourists to Prince Edward Island ever since the book was published. The powerful description not only puts us in this place, but makes us want to go and see it for ourselves. I doubt there is a writer, living or deceased, who has ever captured the beauty of a place better than L.M. Montgomery.

 

Breaking news: We have just learned that Anne of Green Gables is slated for the silver screen.