Sometimes the Twain DO Meet

Huck

Penciled on a yellowing piece of paper, safe beneath the glass enclosure of its cabinet, here is the original title page: Adventures of Huck Finn, it says. Then:

 

Tom Sawyer’s Comrade.

 

 

By Mark Twain. New York.

 
 

 

Charles L. Webster & Co.

 

 

1885.

I feel…I don’t know how I feel. A little woozy, maybe; a little like a ghost has his hand on my shoulder, just as I have my hands on the glass, peering in. This is the original title page, hand-lettered by Twain himself, writing as if he were Huck.

Irony: I have traveled 300 miles to see this when, for the first forty-odd years of my life, I lived about fifty miles away. It’s been here–well, half of it has–all that time.

************

I am in the Twain Room of the Buffalo, New York, Central Library with my friend Wendy. She is, fortunately, just as much a book geek as I am; we are both enthralled.

Twain lived in Buffalo for a while; he was the editor of a newspaper, and the owner of a proud mansion on swanky Delaware Avenue. The mansion was a gift from his beloved Livy’s father.

Later, Twain and his family moved to Fredonia, New York, where I grew up, and where my family, years before I was born, had also moved from Buffalo. We were people of words, too, readers and writers, although not, of course, on anywhere near the same scale as Samuel Clemens. But the Buffalo to Fredonia exodus, the love of words, and the sometimes twisted paths of lives, all made me feel a kind of kinship to the bitterly funny, tragedy-laden, irascible, Mark Twain.

**********

My mother gave me a copy of Tom Sawyer when I was in third grade, I think; it was a cheap children’s version with a glossy cover embossed with a picture of a gawky, redheaded boy painting a fence and slyly eying a companion. I devoured the book, cringing when the boys walked into their own funeral, claustrophobic and terrified when Tom and Becky got lost in the cave. Tom seemed to come out all right, every time, but the book left me with a feeling of sadness and loss.

I watched film versions which portrayed Tom as mischievous and happy-go-lucky, and I did not like them at all. They rang false. It seemed to me the central truth of Tom’s life was loneliness; he had a sadness hole that no one could fill.

**********

My brother Sean became a Twain scholar in college; he uncovered an unpublished story and he wrote insightful articles.

Somewhere between my high school and college years, I discovered a local writer named Jean Webster whose epistolary novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, had been a smash hit when it was published in 1912. Daddy-Long-Legs was one of the first books to be filmed–it was made into three different movies, I think, over time. And it was one of the first to evoke spin-off toys.

And Jean Webster was Mark Twain’s niece, daughter of none other than Charles Webster. Twain had once relied on Webster, and then, his fortune dissolved in bad business deals, the author reviled the younger man.

Webster seemed to spin off into mental or emotional issues. After a trip to Europe, where he had an audience with the Pope, Webster appeared on the streets of Fredonia every day in a papal knight’s outfit. He kept a natural history museum in his big house on Central Avenue. It was there, it’s said, that he hung himself, too, when Jean was 15.

She went on to attend the Fredonia Normal School–forerunner of SUNY Fredonia, where I earned my degrees–and earned a degree in china painting. Later, Jean Webster attended Smith College and got an academic degree and began a life as a writer.

I was fascinated by Jean Webster and her family and by her famous uncle. I felt a little proprietary toward them both, as if, somehow, they needed, if not my protection, then maybe my ability to explain a little part of them. I read as many of Jean Webster’s books as I could find. When I took a Twain course in graduate school, one of our texts was an article by my brother Sean. That cemented, somehow, that feeling of connection.

******************

And then I lost the thread, life swirling into marriage and parenting, teaching, and planning, finally, for the move to Ohio and Mark’s entry, as a 40-something, into law school. We were busy, busy, busy, running in front of time as if it were Indiana’s Jones implacable boulder. Then a year or two ago, Mark and I saw an amazing show, Hal Holbrook, who was 92, I think, at the time. Holbrook spent the evening being Mark Twain, white-suited, white-haired, puffing on a long cigar, and letting the author’s words trip smoothly, authentically, from his tongue. When he read from Huckleberry Finn, he WAS that lost lad.

On the way home, I said to Mark, “When I retire, I’m driving back to Buffalo to see that manuscript.”

*************

And so here I am, standing feet–inches–away, reading the explanations. Twain left the original manuscript of Huckleberry Finn to the Buffalo Library, but on his death, only half of the huge, handwritten mass surfaced. And that was that until 1990, when Part Two was discovered, intact, in a steamer trunk in California. There were legal twists and turns, but the whole manuscript has been united. Portions are rotated out to be put on display in the Twain Room where I stand enthralled.

*************

There’s a telescoping kind of effect–the wrinkling of time, the nearness of genius. A daring vision plainly laid out in pencil on yellowing paper. The first step, the beginning, of what would become legend.

I look at all the rest of the exhibit–the stories of the movies made, the plays based on his work, Twain articles from newspapers all over the world, stories about the author at all stages of his life, but I am impatient with them. It’s like I have to be polite to them, so I can do what I really want to do: go back and stare at the homely pages from a handwritten manuscript, a work of passionate genius, the proof that brilliance can spring up anywhere.

Even here. Even right next to me.

**********

Time now, to clear the reading decks, and tackle a monumental task: reading Twain’s entire autobiography.

Mark Twain Bio

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On the court and between the pages

Alexandra Stoddard

There was a time when I, a racket-swinging free bird, knew all the names of the players in the major tennis tournaments. I experimented with Chris Evert’s two-handed backhand swing (it did not work for me), and groaned over John McEnroe’s angry antics.

Tennis, after all, was a gentleman’s game–even while I decried the sexism of that phrase.

And where did the concept gentleman’s game enter into the frantic fray between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, events meant more for show than for exhibiting skill? My friends and I debated, hotly, whether that whole extravaganza of showmanship helped or hurt the public perception of tennis.

I watched Wimbledon and the US Open avidly. I knew who was favored, and who might stage an exciting coup.

Then life swooped in, and the racket got hung in the shed, and obsession slipped into duty. So it was a wake-up moment to see, yesterday, the Lit Hub daily posting about the beginning of the US Open and ten tennis-related titles.

I got online to see who was playing. Eubanks? Sousa? Sela? I was shocked that none of the contenders’ name rang any familiarity bells, and I vowed to learn about the tennis world, 2017.

I opened the Lit Hub article and read about ten pieces of literature that revolve around tennis, noting two possible reads that sounded good–David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (something I surely should have read, somewhere along the line), and Andre Agassi’s memoir.

And I thought about two women writers I read when I was younger who drew me in because of their tennis roots.

*******

Crooked Little from goodreads

The first, of course, was Anne Lamott, whose Crooked Little Heart is a novel about Rosie Ferguson, a lovable, capable tennis player who cheats, sometimes, to win. Like Rosie, Lamott was ranked among the top ten 8-16 year old players in the country (sfgate.com). Like Rosie, she sometimes cheated–calling, say, a shot that was clearly IN, out–to win.

And then she found a coach-teacher, according to faithandleadership.com, who emphasized the fun of the game over the competition. “It was about having a whole new mindfulness–a new value of play,” the website quotes Lamott. “It was about having more fun with the people you were playing with instead of trying to beat them.”

Lamott quit the tennis circuit at age 16 and turned increasingly to drugs and alcohol–even though, while using, she built herself a productive writing career. Sobercourage.com tells us she hit rock bottom on July 7, 1986; that was the day she picked up the phone and called the mentor who helped her brother get sober. She started on the recovery path, helped immeasurably by finding a church family that nourished and supported her healthiness.

 

Crooked Little Heart, which I ordered from a paperback book club when it came out back in 1998 or so, opened the door to Lamott’s other work. I used Bird by Bird in my writing classes. I was engaged and challenged by Traveling Mercies and her other spiritual non-fiction.

*************

I can’t remember how I first came upon Alexandra Stoddard’s work–whether I stumbled over one of her books in the library, happened on it at a book sale, ordered it from that long-ago paperback club. Stoddard is an interior designer with a blue-blooded, east coast history. Her table linens probably cost more than my living room couch. When I was raising young kids and working and cooking quickie casseroles with hamburger and cream of mushroom soup, I would read her elegant essays about dignified living and groan in mock despair.

And yet. Something about her writing connected deeply. And Stoddard, too, was a tennis player as a girl, although a quick internet search doesn’t yield me much detail. A New York Times article from 2002 tells me that she had been a tennis player; she married her doubles partner, and they had two children, Alexandra and Brooke. And when she stopped playing tennis, the article says, the couple stopped being married. Later she married Peter Brown.

And I still love her books–Stoddard has written 30 or so–about living graciously, decorating with flair and panache, creating a home that reflects the people and the spirit nurtured there.

*************

Tennis, in my experience, is a very creative, individual game. You can be brash and bold; you can be quiet and clever. You can crowd the net or swing strong from behind the furthest back nether regions of the court… You can craft your own authentic style and win the game.  It’s not a stretch to think that many writers are tennis players, or that tennis is a wonderful literary metaphor.

So I’ll find Foster Wallace; I’ll read Agassi’s memoir. And today, I will flip to the sports page or get online, and I’ll start learning about the tennis greats of 2017. Maybe I’ll find a match to watch on TV. Although pickle ball may be more my forte as I boldly embark on retired life in my 60’s, it feels like a time to come full circle, to embrace the gifts that tennis bestows–on the court, on the screen, and between the pages.

*****

 

Crooked Little Heart image taken from goodreads.com

Gail Godwin and a Perfect Reading Summer

Grief Cottage (womanaround town.com)
(Image from womanaroundtown.com)

Once, when I was in college and working at a bookstore, I had a perfect reading summer. It must have been around 1978; we were encouraged, by our boss, to take books home and read them gently. Then we could knowledgeably and authentically recommend or discourage. That was the year I read, among other things, Marilyn French’s Women’s Room and Mary Gordon’s Final Payments. And that was the year I discovered the work of Gail Godwin. (If you were a young woman reading voraciously in those years, you may recognize the doors those books opened and the foreign vistas that became inhabitable through that reading.)

I think the first Godwin work that I read was Glass People, which was a sad story about a very compelling character named Francesca Holt; I found another compelling main character, although a very different one, in The Odd Woman. I read Violet Clay, and then I started watching for Godwin releases, so I was excited to get A Mother and Two Daughters  in 1982. I loved that book.

Then, life getting busy, with papers to grade, and a baby whose needs were immediate and unique, and a return to grad school, I lost the Godwin thread. There wasn’t much leisure reading, and what there was tended to be by Barry Brazelton or Penelope Leach. But I would gather the thread up again at the library, in later years, when I saw a Godwin–Father Melancholy’s Daughter, for instance,–on the New Books Shelf.

Last week, I was surprised to find a new Godwin novel, Grief Cottage.

The reviews say the question Grief Cottage addresses is this: can the needs of the living and the needs of the dead converge? I’m not sure if he actually saw the ghost he believed in at Grief Cottage, but Marcus surely was a heart-wrenching young character.  Orphaned when his single mom dies in a car crash, the 11-year old goes to live with his eccentric, sometimes cranky, great aunt on a South Carolina Island. Terrified of being sent away, he becomes almost a housekeeper–cleaning floors, changing sheets, and uncorking wine bottles (until his aunt’s drinking becomes so pronounced he asks a trusted friend for help). All summer, Marcus looks forward to the hatching of the sea turtles…and he misses it: a guest has fouled the bathroom; the boy feels compelled to clean it up.

The novel confused me in spots–the rage that Marcus displayed toward Wheezer seemed totally out of character, and I thought, in the book’s beginning, there were clear hints that the boy was gay. But Marcus grows up and becomes a psychiatrist, happily marries a woman, reconciles with the childhood friend he’d beaten so badly. It made me wonder if Marcus, as a narrator, was completely reliable. Perhaps Wheezer’s injuries weren’t nearly as bad as he imagined. Perhaps the ‘rapture’ he felt after seeing the boy-ghost was not directly related to the ghost teen’s tough and comely appearance. And surely, as a bereft and guilt-ridden 11-year old, Marcus’s viewpoint was clouded.

I enjoyed Grief Cottage; I drank it in, a great summer read, much as I drank in Godwin’s first books, and the reading is sending me to the library shelves today to look for Godwin books…for the fiction I missed, and for the non-fiction that somehow never crossed my radar screen. I know my reading is tinted by the wonder of that long-ago summer when discovering new authors and new vistas was an amazing gift, but Gail Godwin’s voice and her characters remain, for me, true and compelling. I look forward to more.

Gods and Places

Shack, Gods, Braiding

Do people get to choose the way God looks?  Is the face of God different for each of us, dependent on our need, our understanding, our certain sensibilities?

How much does the ethos of the God of our upbringing inform our approach to the world?

I’m pacing on this pondering path because of three books–books that I was nudged toward this summer: American Gods, The Shack, and Braiding Sweetgrass.

Sometimes books are entertaining, sometimes informing, sometimes inspiring. There are the occasional books that disappoint. And sometimes the themes and images run from one book into the reading of another, very different one. Then I think it’s time to explore that phenomenon. Why these books? Why now? What could I learn from this confluence?

*************

American Gods was a little bit of a departure from the beaten path for me. I’d enjoyed the Graveyard Book. On a whim, I borrowed Gaiman’s Norse Myths from the library–Something different, I thought–and I enjoyed that, too. I compared the images I’d absorbed of Norse gods–mostly from reading my brother’s copies of Thor comic books, back in the 1960’s and ’70’s–to Gaiman’s depiction. There were some overlaps, and there were many differences.

Gaiman’s depictions of the gods made them almost human (although, of course, they were gods), and their motives understandable, if not always admirable. It was fun to read, and my son Jim, excited that I liked one of ‘his’ authors, kept urging me to read American Gods. A TV show was coming up, he said, based on Gods. “You know you hate to watch a show before you’ve read the book,” he urged. So when a Barnes and Nobles gift card came my way, I used it to order the book.

American Gods is Shadow’s story. He is a prisoner, convicted of a pretty serious, although perpetually hazy, crime,–a crime which is never fully explained. But we get the feeling that he’s innocent on some level–that he did what he did as a reaction to something worse that was done to him. That maybe, he did it to protect someone dear. At any rate, he does his time and then, he is released one day early. That is because his wife has died in a car accident.  Shadow goes home to bury her, crushed and grieving.

And on his journey, he meets a man. (How many reviews could start with those words?)  But the man Shadow meets is also a god, and he offers Shadow a job. One thing leads to another, and Shadow, despite misgivings, accept the offered role.

Shadow meets many people, all of them gods in other cultures, all of them brought to the United States by some sort of immigration. All of them forgotten, reduced to human form and human occupations, and all of them readying for a confrontation with the gods Americans have adopted in their steads–gods like Media, Internet, and Retail Therapy.

The forgotten gods are not all good, or all-knowing, or even, usually, compassionate. Gaiman writes in Norse gods, Celtic gods, gods from Africa and South America. The Egyptian gods of death, Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis, work as mild-mannered undertakers. Native American gods ride a merry-go-round with Eastern European counterparts. They long for the old days, all the gods do, and some of them plan to get their power back.

Why Shadow?  Why does Mr. Wednesday choose a grieving, recent ex-con without very many beliefs at all to be his bodyguard and wing man? The story unfolds.

Everyone, Gaiman seems to suggest, has themselves a god or two. Or at least, we did when we were young, and those early gods went a long way to shaping our being.

***************

My friend and colleague Shay loaned me The Shack, by William Paul Young. She was excited about the book; she was excited about the film–available via streaming, she told me. The Shack, I thought, was just the kind of book I do not usually read: a religious fable, a heavy push toward one kind of belief. But I value Shay and the book seemed short enough to whip through, so I said my thanks, and took the dog-eared paperback home.

And I read.

Mackenzie Allen Phillips—Mack–is the main character, and the premise is interesting. Mack was a childhood victim of his father’s horrific violence. In confiding in a trusted mentor, Mack opened himself to a particularly vicious bout of paternal vengeance, He was 13, and he left home afterwards. But first he put rat poison in all of his alcoholic Father’s stashed bottles. The narrative never out and out tells us so, but we believe that Mack killed his father.

And then Mack kicks around, traveling, learning, working hard, getting to the point where he even enrolls in a seminary course. He meets Nan; they marry and have four children.

And then, on a camping trip, the youngest–Missy–is abducted and murdered. Her bloody dress is found in a shack but the murderer is never apprehended, nor is Missy’s body found. Mack enters what he calls The Great Sadness.

Several years later, he gets a message: Meet me in the shack this weekend, it tells him. It is signed ‘Papa.’

Papa is his wife’s name for God.

Again the misgivings. Again, our protagonist takes the unlikely path. Again, he meets his gods.

Mack’s gods are the Holy Trinity. God the Father appears to him as a jolly Black woman who loves to cook. Jesus is a homely, compassionate woodworker. Sarayu is the Holy Spirit, not quite corporal, elusive, maddening, and very, very funny.

I was surprised to find a different kind of message here–not a push toward one belief or religious sect. Mack had to challenge the beliefs he grew up with. The reader is challenged at the end of the book: did the weekend at the shack really happen?  And if it was all a dream or a hallucination, does that matter?

*************

I had a pantheon of gods jumbled and competing in my overworked brain.  I finished The Shack and thought I’d reach for something different, so I opened the book my friend Terri recently sent me: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

The book opens with Kimmerer’s retelling of the story of Skywoman falling through a hole in the heavens and landing in the vast sea that was then earth. She is saved through the compassion of the animals who help her: the Turtle, who allows her to climb on his back, the muskrat, who sacrifices his life to bring Skywoman a handful of mud from the depths.

Muskrat’s mud allows Skywoman to begin a new world. She places the mud on Turtle’s back; she walks around it, chanting, and the mud grows, deepens, dries, and Skywoman is able to plant the seeds she had with her when she fell. Skywoman, the animals who helped her–they create the earth as we know it. It is a place to be shared.

Kimmerer is an environmental scientist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The native American gods–she calls their stories the First Instructions–are very real and present to her, and their stories define her belief that earth is a gift to be shared, not just with other peoples, but with all creation.

The Adam and Eve story that informs Christianity and Judaism, Kimmerer notes, has a different emphasis. It teaches that man has dominion over the earth, and that the earth was made for his enjoyment alone. How differently Eve related to the earth than Skywoman did!

“Look at the legacy of poor Eve’s exile from Eden,” Kimmerer writes; “the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It’s not just the land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to the land.”

***************

Three very different views of gods; three very different reasons for writing: to entertain, to inspire, to inform. And to challenge. Each view is unexpected–Gaiman’s gods with their rough edges and human foibles; Young’s Papa as a robust Black woman; Kimmerer’s Skywoman, trailing long black hair as she tumbles through the heaven-hole. And the teachings are unexpected, too. Gods can die. Religion can be a barrier and a burden. Humankind is not necessarily the superior race, left by God to be in charge of His creation.

What else, my English teacher’s mind demands, connects these three disparate books?

And I realize it is the connection of place and worship and finding god.

The gods in Gaiman’s novel are unloved because they have been taken from their place of origin. In a new culture, the immigrants who brought them forgot them. They are dying off in an uncaring land.

In Young’s book, Mack must return to the place of his greatest pain in order to find God, who transforms the place of suffering into somewhere understanding, healing, and faith can grow.

Kimmerer writes about the forced migrations of the native peoples in the United States, and of the relation of people as a whole to this earth they inhabit. She writes that relationship to the earth must change–people must relinquish their ownership and share the planet with all who depend upon it.

**************

So I think about place and faith, and I wonder if there’s an effect when people move. What if your parents, and their parents before them, were wanderers? What if you yourself have shifted and moved not once, but several times?

I think of this in the context of a recent visit to home roots–to the sad, abandoned house where my parents first met. There was a pull there, an energy, a little sense of sacred. Was that sacred or was that memory? What happens to faith when it’s uprooted?

*************

I don’t have any answers–I’m not entirely sure of the questions, in fact. But the exploration and conjunction of three very different works with faith and the gods at their cores ignites the questing places in my mind. I’ll have many things to think about as summer begins to wane.

Two Ways to Look at Home

SJ

“‘The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and no one can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were'” (Franklin, 389).

******************

I first read “The Lottery” in Mr. Durkin’s junior English class, many years ago. I remember the real electric jangle that shot down my spine when I realized what was going on. That story, which started out in such a relaxed and friendly  humdrum way, so matter-of-fact and recognizable, devolved into the most grotesque kind of horror–the kind that has friends and neighbors, almost bored, demolishing a human life.

What must it be like, I wondered with a shiver, to live inside THAT writer’s head? It was a purely rhetorical question: I didn’t want to know.

Years later, out of college, I was indulging in one of my favorite pastimes: looking for unsung treasures on the shelves of the public library. I found a book called Life Among the Savages, about a family that moves from The City to the wilds of New England. It was a funny book, self-deprecating and wry. I thought I’d look for more by the writer.

“Isn’t it funny,” I remarked to the librarian, when I returned Life Among the Savages,   “that THIS writer has the same name as the woman who wrote ‘The Lottery’?”

“It’s not funny at all,” said the librarian, a little pityingly, peering at me over her half glasses. “She’s the same person.”

WHAT? I was stunned. How could the same person write so winningly about her children’s antics—and about neighbors nonchalantly stoning one of their own to death? Cozy things on the one hand, and horror things on the other. I could not reconcile it.

I just read Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. In that biography, Ruth Franklin answers the question for me. All of Jackson’s writing, Franklin says, centers around the theme of ‘home.’

Her preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there was entirely of a piece with her cultural moment, the decade of the 1950’s, when the simmering brew of women’s dissatisfaction came close to boiling over, triggering the second wave of the feminist movement (Franklin, 409).

Jackson was an awkward girl who could never please her attractive mother. She was always too fat or too florid, too odd or too frumpily dressed. And, in her high school years, her parents moved the family from their comfortable California home all the way across the continent; they settled in Rochester, New York, where the snow was as unexpectedly cold as some of Shirley’s new classmates. Jackson felt like a misfit, the odd one out, the one one who was forcibly separated from her home.

Jackson, who, it seems, was clear-eyed about wanting to write from a very young age, attended Syracuse University, where she met Stanley Hyman. Hyman was a critic and a writer, and her intellectual equal–a man who supported her writing. Ironically, Jackson’s writing also supported him: throughout their married lives, her writing would always be the higher paid. He would supplement his wife’s earnings by teaching at Bennington. He would undermine his wife’s confidence with his serial adultery.

So Jackson was a woman, a mother, and a betrayed wife.  Her hilarious, rollicking stories of bringing up wayward kids in the country were gloss poured over true pain. Her eerie, terrifying novels were all the stories of young women, flawed or trapped, searching for a place to call home.

Jackson herself acknowledged that, in the novels, the houses themselves were characters. One of her ghost stories is even called “Home,” and the place where the protagonist settles does not seem like a very safe place for her to be.

*************

Franklin’s biography is really well-written; it is paced and fluid and reads like a novel, and my sympathy for Jackson was completely and thoroughly engaged.

And I have been thinking about the concept of home, lately, even before I stumbled on the biography at my favorite library and knew I had to take it home and read it. Home should be refuge and safety; every child, I feel strongly, deserves to grow up in a real, nurturing home. And, emerging from childhood, we need ‘home’ more than ever–the place where we are loved and safe, where we can lick our wounds and cower till they heal.

I believe that we, as society, have lost sight of the importance of home, although I do not believe that the model of wife-at-home and hubby-at-work is always the ideal. I believe that we each need to decide what ‘home’ means to us, and, as we mature, we need to provide that for ourselves…as well as for those we solemnly pledge to nurture.

Shirley Jackson tried to do this, I think–tried to make the big old house she rented for her husband and kids a warm, inviting place–a place where friends gathered and spirits flowed, where she always made sure the butter on her children’s toast was spread carefully right to the edges. In her fiction, she pushed the envelope, exploring the cost of being lost and away from home, or of being deluded into embracing the wrong home.  And that includes, writes Franklin, the home we create within our minds, as well as the physical one.

A Little Gothic Therapy

Arcadia Falls

The day begins with a message that a dear one’s cancer has spread so far and so deep that only days remain. She is far away, and we will not get there in time to say goodbye.

This cancer death comes on the heels of two others.

I feel a weight, like a heavy, flat, wooden beam, settle on my shoulders. All day long, things light on that beam, adding to its weight.

The project I’ve been working so hard on is suddenly, without explanation, terminated. A trusted colleague throws me under the proverbial bus. There’s an unexpected delay; there’s a heart-breaking disappointment. A rejection slip falls through the mail slot. Thunk, thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

At the three-way stop, the car who should be after me roars out in front of me. Then the driver, who has children in the car, reels around to gleefully give me the finger through her back window.

THUNK.

It is June, but the temperature is falling fast; I shiver. And then rain lashes against my windshield. I watch the rude lady’s van disappear, with her tender, impressionable children inside, into the gray. Gloomy thoughts and fears of loss clunk and roll heavily in my head. People get sick, I think, and people are cruel, and people betray you. People are downright, evilly, rude.

By the time I get home for the day I am sorely bent over, chin near the floor, weighted down. My throat aches from not crying. I do not want to have a pleasant conversation, a fine meal, or good and caring company.

I want a Gothic novel.

**********

I choose Arcadia Falls, by Carol Goodman, and I enter Meg’s (the protagonist’s) world. She, too, is bereft; her young husband died last year of a sudden, inexplicable heart attack. Added to wounding loss is betrayal; Jude lost all the family savings to a hedge fund. Meg, who has not worked, who has put her pursuit of her doctorate on hold now, flails around to find work that will support her and her sullen, aching daughter, Sally.

What she finds is a teaching job at a private school for the arts. It is tucked away in upstate New York, in deep woods, down paths that are hard to follow. Those dark and devious pathways feel just like the geography of my mind right now, and I pull the afghan around me, glad that darkness is meeting darkness here. Pain lego-s up with pain. I sink deeper into the cozy chair and deeper in to Meg’s world.

That world is especially satisfying because Meg is a lover of words, a woman who gave up dreams of art as a young woman; she is a folklorist. She loves words and story just like I do, so I gladly take this dark and frightening journey with a kindred spirit.

Meg blunders and makes mistakes; she initially pushes her daughter even further away, even deeper into her own grief.  The personnel at the school are a mixed lot: some seem open and friendly. Others are persecuted and long suffering. A few are bitterly, dangerously secretive.

And a student dies in mysterious circumstances and the darkness just gets darker, more opaque, cold-frightening in its mystery.

And Goodman weaves in a folk-take, the tale that lured Meg to this God-forsaken outpost, and its archetypal characters—the pure and the devious, the saviors and the damned–seem very real and believable. And the story plays out against the past–the choices of the founders affect the lives of those in the now.

I plunge into the book, not knowing whom to trust, wanting to shake Meg when she’s thoughtless or just plain wrong, feeling her hurt and isolation. I understand the joy she finds in teaching, and the guilt she feels in her attraction to the rugged sheriff. (Well, of COURSE, there’s a rugged sheriff.) I fret over Sally and whether the girl stays safe.  I shy away from even the most open of the characters, knowing a murderer sleeps in their midst. I go with Meg out into the dark, into the whipping, cutting snow, and when we finally come home,–two more dead bodies later,–the mystery is solved. The past weaves into the folktale weaves into the story of Meg and Sally, a great secret is revealed, and safety is, at last obtained.

I read like a hungry traveler for whom the book is food. And it really does sustain me.

Plunging into Meg’s darkness helps me find a way up out of mine; I climb with her out of mystery, dire financial straits, panic, loss, betrayal, and isolation. Meg mis-steps, but she recovers; she is, finally, truly pure of heart. Pure of heart wins love of child—and love of rugged sheriff, too.

Meg’s slog through the darkness and emergence into the light mirrors my own mental travels, my own wounded state. By the end of the book, even knowing that some things just suck and that there’s nothing we can do to stop them or to help our dear ones in their path, I am feeling emotionally better.

********

Why are gothic novels so satisfying? NPR.org (“A Dark and Stormy Night: Why We Love the Gothic,” by Genevieve Valentine), says these works, which may be quaint and rustic in setting, actually hit modern fears head-on. “…they’re preoccupied with contemporary problems; the essential horror of the irreconcilable world,” writes Valentine. “There’s comfort,” she tells us, “in over-the-top catharsis of the dependable dark…we love knowing what to expect.”

And that is exactly it. I knew the darkness was going to be outrageous at this private school in the woods where people keep crashing down the oddly unfenced slope, into the chasm, down to their deaths. And I expected, too, the ascent into safety, the reconciliation, the reward for the true of heart.

*********

No book can fix all of our ills, heal our friends, teach manners to the needy, or sew up the gashes of betrayal. But a Gothic novel can carry me deep, make me acknowledge the horror, and bring me back home.

It does not fix or heal me, but this story makes me ready to carry on.

***********

Image taken from amazon.com

Not By Choice, But By Genetic Chance: A Dread Disease

 

Beautiful Boy

 

It was a stunning community event. Sam Quinones, the author of Dreamland, which focuses, largely, on the devastation the opioid epidemic had on Portsmouth, Ohio, a community not so far from here, was speaking at the city’s auditorium. He had spent a day talking–talking to doctors and parents and residential care workers, to case workers and students, to everyone and anyone connected with the seeping stain that black tar heroin is painting in southern and central Ohio.

Now he addressed a crowd that almost filled the auditorium, which seats, without irony, 1,776. His talk was moving and compelling, and a panel of people whose lives were directly and irrevocably tied to opioids followed him. Theirs were the stories that hushed the crowd, that brought tears and anguished questions.

There was a mother who knows her son is safe now: he’s in prison. There was a pastor who has made fighting addiction and poverty his twin missions. There was a man who runs residential homes for recovering addicts. And there were four addicts in recovery who stood and told their stories:

Didn’t ever intend to get hooked, but couldn’t help it. Had to have it. Bad company. Started stealing–from stores and  public places, then from friends, and then finally, from family. Relationships cracked and shattered; the kids, taken away. The legal system. Jail time. Rehab and relapse. Trying again and again.

The loss of trust. It was a theme each of them spoke to. Some, further away from the addiction’s hold, were loudly encouraging. “It’s hard! But it can be done! Don’t give up hope!”

Others, still fragile, talked about the future:

“I love my parents. I hope they can trust me again one day.” 

“In a year, I’ll still be clean, and I hope to get my children back.

Their messages were like prayers written on scraps of prayer and flung into the wind: let this be true. Let this be true.

******************
In the aftermath of this event, in a community where the problem races, I went looking for things to read and found David Sheff’s beautiful boy (2008, Houghton Mifflin.)

Sheff writes about his son, Nicolas, a child of his first marriage. Nic is a bright, creative spirit. Nic, without his father’s knowledge, gets drunk for the first time at age 11–on a family vacation, during a wholesome outdoorsy family time, with a friend they’d brought along so the boy wouldn’t be bored. Nic slides into other experimentation, and winds up firmly and defiantly addicted to methamphetamine and heroin.

Sheff details what a child’s addiction does to a family, and what it does to a parent. He dissects all of his failings–his immaturity during his first marriage; the times he brought strange women home when Nic was a tiny child–women the boy would never see again. The fighting.

Sheff remarried, to a a woman who cared deeply about Nic; the new family produced a boy and a girl, little people whom Nic, the book tells us, adores. He told his little siblings stories–they had a whole imaginary world that they explored together. He took them to playgrounds; he was a protector and a confidante.

And he stole eight dollars from his little brother’s piggy bank when he was desperate to score.

Sheff’s is a story of anguish and desperate hope: the rehab program that promises a way out. The call that his boy has checked out, disappeared, given up. Nic’s resurfacing, in a dingy apartment, with a girlfriend who uses, too. Sheff writes about going to see his son who can barely rouse himself to answer the door. He writes about standing in the doorway of the apartment and not entering. The floor, he writes, was covered in some kind of brown liquid.

Another rehab, a surge of hope, a year of sobriety. A relapse, and despair. The cycle repeats often enough that Sheff’s family gives up, and Sheff finds himself on the brink of that tough love pronouncement: You’re on your own. I just can’t do this anymore.

But he and Nic’s mother decide to try one more intervention. They get Nic into a different program in a different place. This one seems to work. The book ends with Nic’s recovery.

I look Nic up to see if he is still okay, and I find that he himself has written two books about his addiction, and that he and his dad are on the lecture circuit, talking about the addiction, what it does to people, what it does to families. It’s a relief to see he’s doing well.

David and Nic Sheff

****************
Because a man I know, a social worker who works with recovering addicts says that relapse is part of this illness. And addiction IS an illness, he stresses. Maybe, yes, the addict did make that first choice–chose to smoke it or pop it or shoot it into a vein–for whatever reason: loneliness, desperation, acceptance, daring. But after that, says this man, biology kicks in. This was not the person to experiment: this person had an addict’s genes.

Like mental illness–with which it often cohabits–addiction is a disease with unsavory and odd behaviors attached, and so, instead of sympathy and help, society often offers judgement and condemnation. It’s hard not to react bitterly when someone you trust steals from you. Or threatens–and sometimes follows through–to hurt you.

I think of all the programs Sheff tried to get his boy into, and of his reluctant acquiescence to therapy for himself and his wife.  I think of the people on the stage, passionately sharing, after Quinones spoke. And I think this is an illness, a problem, an epidemic, that people cannot handle themselves. Addicts cannot tough it out to personal recovery, and families cannot hide their woe.

It’s takes a village: that’s Quinones’ message. If I had to boil Sheff’s message down, I would say it is this: Don’t give up hope, But get help, get help, get help.