Coming of Age in the North Woods

Winter Loon     Susan Bernhard     (2019)

Bernhard.jpg

The loon, a large migratory aquatic bird, can be spotted in the far northern reaches of Minnesota,  Wisconsin, and Michigan (and up into Canada) only in the height of summer. The cry of a loon echoing across a lake is haunting and unforgettable, emblematic of long days in the North Woods. But if you spot a loon in these parts in the winter, the bird is probably injured and is unlikely to survive.

Wes Ballot, the teenage first-person narrator of this novel, is perhaps like a winter loon in rural Minnesota—disoriented, separated from his family, facing grim odds for survival. On the very first page, Wes’s mother falls through the ice of a semi-frozen Minnesota lake and drowns, just out of the reach of Wes’s outstretched arm. If you’re a reader who, like me, has a hard time with fictional death scenes, you may waver in committing to the story, but I’d encourage you to read on, as the path of Wes’s life winds twistingly toward adulthood.

When Wes’s father deserts him, supposedly to find work, Wes is left to live with his insensitive maternal grandparents. A local Native American family is sympathetic toward him, and Wes is smitten with a member of this clan, Jolene, who’s also had a tough life.  “She smiled at me then, a funny, crooked, closed-mouth sideways smile that I would later try to imitate in the mirror. It was like she could see something in me that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to try on that expression so I could know it, too.” (98)

Although Wes has plenty of setbacks, he keeps seeking to learn the facts about his troubled parents, particularly on classic road trips through the American West. “I tried to organize my thoughts, but the miles I’d traveled logged in my veins and I could feel the tire treads rumbling the marrow like I was still driving.” (279)

Some of the people Wes Ballot meets are selfish and cruel. Well, no, a lot of the people he meets are selfish and cruel, and sadly, many teens around the globe find this to be the case. But a few people are generous and kind. Wes doesn’t give up looking for the people who will affirm his worth.

 

Bonus Post: Aging Gracefully

Women Rowing North:  Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age    Mary Pipher     (2019)

Pipher.jpg

Mary Pipher is the perceptive psychologist who burst through cultural expectations in 1994 to bring us Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which examined the effects of societal pressures on young women in America. For this book, Pipher drew on case studies and on her own experiences as a therapist and as the mother of a teenage girl.

Twenty-five years later, Pipher, now aged 71, explores what it is to be an aging woman—specifically, a woman in her sixties or seventies. Women Rowing North is a warm-hearted and encouraging guidebook. Using the overarching image of a boat trip on a river, she divides her narrative into four sections:

  • Challenges of the Journey—addressing the loss of confidence that can come with illness, loneliness, or changes in physical appearance.

  • Travel Skills—with specific advice on “building a good day” and “creating community.”

  • The People on the Boat—expanding the view to the friends, relatives, life partners, and grandchildren of older women.

  • The Northern Lights—focusing on how older women can find their authentic selves as they approach the end of their lives.

Throughout, Pipher illustrates her points with vignettes about actual women whom she interviewed: businesswomen and homemakers, the long-married and the single, the straight and the gay, women of color and white women, middle-class women and women living on the edge of poverty. I found these miniature stories illuminating and reassuring, and I gravitated to them when Pipher occasionally strung together a few too many aphorisms in the rest of the text.

I was also drawn to passages in which Pipher discusses the “sense for deep time and inter-connectedness“ (232) that we often cannot fully experience until we are far advanced in age. Here’s a sample of her reflections: “When we look back, we can see generations of mothers and fathers who managed to take care of their children. We can see our ancestors working in peat fields, drumming around fires, fishing in faraway seas, or traveling by sled through fierce northern winters. We can see the Indian encampments of the Great Plains, the immigration or slave ships, and the grandparents walking west from the big East Coast cities. . . We are adrift on a little boat rocked in the river of time, part of a long line of women who have lived in caves, swum in rivers, and foraged for food.” (205)

I don’t read many self-help books, and I’ve never reviewed one on this blog before, but for Mary Pipher I’ve made an exception. She rows toward the north with peacefulness and power.  

A Riverside Mystery

Once upon a River     Diane Setterfield     (2018)

Setterfield.jpg

The river of the title is the Thames, meandering its way through southern England toward London and the sea. It’s a waterway freighted with history, mystery, and folklore. Diane Setterfield calls upon all these qualities of the Thames in this mystical, magical novel.

On a blustery night at the winter solstice, in an unnamed year in the nineteenth century, some inveterate storytellers are drinking at an inn called The Swan in a town called Radcot (an actual place in West Oxfordshire). Bursting in at the door comes a badly injured man carrying what seems to be a floppy doll. The man turns out to be a photographer whose boat crashed at a weir upstream. The doll turns out to be a young girl, about four years of age, who is at first thought to be dead but then revives at the hands of the local nurse/midwife, who is called to the scene.

The basis of the book is revealed in the first few chapters, but the unraveling of the tale takes 400 more pages. Who is the little girl? She does not speak, so she cannot reveal any information. Does she belong to the photographer? Is she the daughter of a local landowner—a child kidnapped two years previously and never found? Is she the sister of the parson’s housekeeper, a fearful woman with many reasons to be twitchy? Is she the step-granddaughter of a mixed-race farmer who lives nearby?   

The narrative snakes back and forth among these possibilities, much like the flow of the River Thames, with language that evokes folk legend or fairy tale, though grounded in daily life. In keeping with this tone, the characters are drawn with broad strokes. The farmer is a most upright and kindly man; the nurse is highly skilled and compassionate. As foils, the evil characters at the fringes of the novel are truly nasty. For example, the farmer’s stepson is unrepentant as he pursues various unethical and criminal activities in the face of unrelenting kindness from the farmer.    

Novelist Setterfield keeps coming back to those storytelling tipplers at The Swan. Their speculations about the strange little girl, and their embroideries upon the events of that winter solstice night, are like the Facebook posts of their era. As a year of seasons advances, most of the plot and sub-plot components are ultimately resolved, but readers are left with some of the same uncertainties that the storytellers at the inn have.  

It’s a cracking good tale.

An Asian American Family

Everything I Never Told You     Celeste Ng     (2014) 

Ng.jpg

Celeste Ng’s 2018 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, made my list of the best of that year. I checked out Ng’s 2014 offering, Everything I Never Told You, to get more of her deep probing of complex family issues, and I was not disappointed.  

The first words of Everything I Never Told You are “Lydia is dead,” so it’s no spoiler for me to tell you that the death of sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is the central mystery of the novel, which is set primarily in 1977 in a small college town in northwestern Ohio. The narrative line zigs and zags, back and forth in time, tracing the lead-up to the death of Lydia and, in the process, uncovering the backgrounds and personalities of the other members of her immediate family.  

Lydia’s father, James Lee, is a professor of history at the local college. The Chinese American James has struggled against bigotry throughout his life, and the ante is upped when he marries Marilyn, an undergraduate he meets in 1957 when he’s a graduate student at Harvard. Marilyn, with her honey-colored hair and blue eyes, has battled discrimination and bullying as a woman trying to make a career in science. Her plans to become a physician are scuttled when she gets pregnant, marries James, and drops out of Radcliffe. As a bored stay-at-home mother, she finds a focus for her considerable intellect in grooming daughter Lydia for medical school, even though Lydia doesn’t have the interest or ability that Marilyn assumes. Lydia’s older brother, Nath, is pretty much ignored by the family as he quietly applies to and is accepted by Harvard to pursue his passion for aeronautics. And Lydia’s younger sister, Hannah, hiding under tables and around corners, observes much but is dismissed as irrelevant by the rest of the family.

As the title of the novel lays out clearly, the Lee family members don’t open their hearts to each other. James pushes his biracial children toward conformity, wanting them to fit in even though they look different from everyone else in town. (“. . . different has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything.” [251]) Marilyn is mostly able to hide her anguish about her abandoned career, but at a high price. Lydia’s siblings do what they can to support each other, but Nath in particular longs to escape the backwater where he was raised. Novelist Ng takes readers behind the scenes, reconstructing the months leading up to Lydia’s death as well as the months afterwards. The Lees are all stupefied by their grief, but each family member’s reaction to Lydia’s death is unique. The inability of the Lee family to discuss racism and sex discrimination is a microcosm of society’s struggles on these topics. 

When I finished reading Everything I Never Told You, I wanted to hug James and Marilyn and Nath and Hannah and tell them that they are good people who will survive the tragedy of losing Lydia. I wanted to gently encourage them to talk to each other more. I wanted to know how the rest of their lives played out. Obviously, these fictional characters came fully alive for me, testifying to the skill of Celeste Ng. Her intimate family story is sad and poignant and yet glimmering with hope.

Epistolary Relationships

Meet Me at the Museum     Anne Youngson     (2018)

Youngson 2.jpg

Way back when—well, in 1970—I loved Helene Hanff’s nonfiction 84, Charing Cross Road, a selection of the letters between the American Hanff and the staff at an antiquarian bookstore in London over two decades. The correspondence touched on many literary debates and recreated an era in Britain that included post-war food shortages and the coronation of Elizabeth II. The epistolary format was perfect.

Anne Youngson’s fictional Meet Me at the Museum also works well in an epistolary format, and indeed needs some such mechanism to connect its two principal characters. Tina Hopgood is the British wife of a farmer in East Anglia; she married young and has three adult children. Anders Larsen, a museum curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, is a widower with two adult children. Tina starts the correspondence with an inquiry about the Tollund Man, a naturally mummified corpse from the Iron Age that was unearthed in 1950 and that is actually preserved in the Silkeborg Museum. Since the archaeologist who discovered the Tollund Man is long deceased, the fictional curator Anders responds to Tina.

The exchange of letters and emails that ensues starts with a mutual fascination with Iron Age life and with the Tollund Man in particular. But within a few months, Tina and Anders are sharing pieces of their personal stories, reflecting on the parts of their lives that are behind them as they head toward old age. Both correspondents are unhappy—Tina because of her loveless marriage and demanding daily tasks, Anders because of the recent death of his beloved but difficult wife.  

Although there’s a cultural and educational gulf between the two, Tina is clearly intelligent and wise. She reads contemporary poetry and puts thought into each letter that she sends. Anders writes to Tina in English, in which he is a fluent but not a native speaker, so he also must consider his words carefully, sometimes asking Tina if he’s phrased a sentence correctly. Tina and Anders are frank with each other in fearing that their lives are spiraling toward sad and lonely endings. Tina writes: 

“We have been talking to each other about where life went, and if the way we each spent it was the way we meant to have spent it or would have chosen to spend it if we had known when we made our choices what the other choices were, but we have not wasted our lives. I insist on that.” (165)  

Toward the end of the novel, Anders writes: 

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us. Paths chosen that define us. Enough time left to change.” (249)  

The pace of much of this novel is languid. Its themes of longing and family ties and seeking a moral and useful life are reminiscent of the writings of Alexander McCall Smith (reviewed previously on this blog). Then some surprising events in the lives of both Tina and Anders bring their relationship onto a different plane.  

Meet Me at the Museum is an appealing tale, enlivened by the backstory of the Tollund Man. Hey, write a letter. You never know what might happen.  

Lonely French Siblings

How to Behave in a Crowd     Camille Bordas     (2017)

Bordas.jpg

Isidore Mazal starts narrating this novel as a beleaguered eleven year old, and he tells us about the next couple of years of his life. He lives in France with five siblings; four of the siblings are in their twenties, working on advanced degrees, and they never come into sharp character focus. We do get a good picture of his sister Simone, who is only eighteen months older than Isidore but far ahead of him in school. Simone, like the rest of the family, calls her brother “Dory” despite his requests to be called “Izzy.”  She insists that he take notes for the biography of her that she assumes he will write once she’s famous. She comes right out and tells him, “I take it for granted that you’re gonna love me no matter what. I don’t do anything for it.” (101)

The five older children in the unusual Mazal family are academic prodigies, while Isidore is merely smart. He does fine in his grade level at school, but he’s also smart in ways that his family members don’t appreciate. He’s very observant of the situations around him. This is especially apparent during his many unsuccessful attempts to run away from home; his family scarcely notices that he’s left the house. When, early in the book, his father dies suddenly of a heart attack while on a business trip, Isidore catalogs the grief patterns of his mother and siblings. He tells us, “Because we never talked about the father—the fact that he was dead, the fact that he’d once been alive—saying the word dad itself felt out of place, or like I might’ve used it wrong.” (120) That’s a lot of alienation for a kid in adolescence.

You may notice in this quote about his parent that Isidore shies away from the term “dad,” using instead “the father.” This Francophone locution, found throughout the book, points up not just the estrangement that Isidore feels from his distant—and then deceased—father but also the mix of French and American language and cultural references  in the novel. I wasn’t bothered by it, but some other reviewers found it jarring. It may help to know that Bordas was born in France and has written two previous novels in French, but now lives in Chicago. She creates a generic France, perhaps from her memories.

Isidore’s observations, and his repeated attempts to offer his family an emotional compass for life, are poignant. Someone needs to help those friendless siblings, those pitiful sloggers in academia. In addition, Isidore does his best to cheer up Denise, a girl at his school who suffers from severe depression. His compassion is remarkable, given the cheerless atmosphere of his home. Simone explains to Isidore: “There’s a big drawback to being smarter than the rest, and I’ll tell you what it is, because I assume it will be in part responsible for the kind of person I’ll become: loneliness.” (50) Truly, most of the Mazal family does not know how to behave in a crowd.

I have a few reservations about this novel. Some of the witty repartee goes on too long, as do didactic components that don’t fit the flow of the narrative. For example, Isidore’s middle-school German class carries on a long discussion of Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the Verfremdungseffekt. (Don’t ask! Yawn, skip a page or two!) But novelist Bordas sparks up the story with side plots such as Simone’s unwanted pen pal and the town’s celebration of the oldest woman in the world. Overall, How to Behave in a Crowd is a pleasant little novel with an appealing hero.