Mothers and Daughters

Let’s Discuss — Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

 

Thirteen years ago, Ellen thought marriage meant love. Now she believes marriage means need, and when the need isn’t there, what comes next? On her wedding day, she had looked across the street from the church to the cemetery and imagined all the women who had come before her, who had married and borne children and died. Some day, she thought, that same peace will be mine. But perhaps what she saw was not peace, but silence. Perhaps those women entered the ground because they were tired and had nowhere else to go (21)

You know what the above passage reminds me of? — The Bell Jar. There’s something Plath-like about it. The same oppressive dome weighs on Ellen Grier in Vinegar Hill as it did Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Except in this story it manifests as dated pink plates, pink curtains, pink tablecloth, prescription sleeping pills and a neon green pre-decorated plastic christmas tree. This is what might have happened if Esther had married Buddy Willard. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves–this is not The Bell Jar and this is not Sylvia Plath. No where close (although Ansay is a good writer) This story is about a family’s struggle to survive domestic abuse, with a focus on a mother’s determination to do better for herself and children than what her husband has done for them in small town, midwestern USA.

In chapter six, while Ellen is dealing with the Christmas fiasco, she references what she used to call her future self, an “aqua lady”; a wife and mother of different circumstance who is perfection personified. The aqua lady is a stark contrast to Ellen’s reality. Ellen and her children Amy and Bert are forced to move in with her in-laws after her husband, James, loses his job. Financial hardship is only one hurdle for Ellen. She also has to deal with a complacent husband, who (1) has no desire to move out of his parents’ home, (2) has no desire to become a bigger part of his children’s life, and (3) let’s his mother and father belittle his family. This of course leads to marital strife. Ellen must compensate for everything that goes on and she is spread thin. Too thin. She can no longer be the workhorse for her mother-in-law, father-in-law and husband.

When a commercial interrupts, James watches that too. He loves TV more than anything he can think of. It is small and neat; it is easy to understand. Wives love their husbands. Children love their fathers (87)

I’m trying to sort out my feelings about James…what the hell is his problem? Why doesn’t he love his kids or wife? Why does he put up with his parent’s antics? He’s definitely a type of character that gets under my skin (absent fathers and weak-willed men).  So why is he so tragic? Well…it turns out James, like Ellen, is a victim of domestic abuse.  His father, Fritz, physically abused his wife Mary-Margaret and James. Their entire family dynamic was ruptured by a family secret that still feeds their dysfunction fifteen to twenty years later. And James has allowed his own wife and kids to be exposed to it. James takes out his frustrations on Ellen, but not in the same way his father did to his wife.  James’ violence is muted. It’s in his inactions. But this violence isn’t lost on his children. Oh no, they are very aware. The reader witnesses Amy and Bert begin to lose their innocence; those moments when you realize your parents are imperfect beings and you mutate from their biggest fan to harshest critic. Kids pick up on everything–intrinsically. They can’t help it. They know their parents are not happy. So they are not happy.

This novel does a fine job of oozing despair and desolation. I think I mentioned Ansay is a good writer. It also doesn’t stumble with integrating a role of religion into their home life. But it does struggle with tempering the blame. To me it’s a bit heavy-handed with the anti-God* vibes. The whole “men oppress women–god made men and god is a man–thus god oppresses women, and oppression is bad–thus god is bad” logic is a bit much (ultra dramatic) Compounded with the anti-God angst and domestic depression** is a lack of likeable characters. Mary-Margaret being very unlikeable–what a piece of work she is…but then you read passages like this:

He surprised Mary-Margaret one cold, bright January day as she lifted her skirts in the backhouse. She did not have time to think. He hit her once in the forehead with a brick and pulled her out into the snow. Blood ran into her eyes as she ran blindly, her only thought to move, to keep moving, until the brick found the back of her head. Then she lay still as he emptied himself inside her, and when he finished, he pissed yellow circles around her body. The warmth of his urine melted the snow and stung against her face (165)

…and it puts things into perspective. There is a reason for everyone’s dysfunction.

 

* I can’t decide if I think it’s truly anti-God or just anti-Catholic.

** This brand of melancholy is not for everyone. Look this book up on goodreads and then filter the ratings for “two stars”. There’s some hilarity in the community comments.

Advertisements

Let’s Discuss — Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

The outside press, when they look at this case, will be asking only one thing: what is in the best interest of the child? But we’re Cherokee and we look at things differently. We consider that the child is part of something larger, a tribe. Like a hand belongs to the body. Before we cut it off, we have to ask how the body will take care of itself without that hand (338)

Pigs in Heaven is the sequel to Barbara Kingsolver’s great novel The Bean Trees. I didn’t realize this was the sequel until I was about to start reading. I picked up a book I hadn’t heard of, in good faith because I trust the author. I love Kingsolver’s writing style and the characters she creates. They’re familiar. I talk more about this familiarity in my write-up for Prodigal Summer. Anyways, as I was saying, Pigs in Heaven is the follow-up–so what’s it about?
 
Kingsolver presents readers with a story about family and community and what it truly means to have a “home”. She asks: what are you a part of? what’s a part of you? And which is more important?
 
This story of Taylor and her illegal* adoption of Turtle might leave you conflicted. Is her home with the people who love her, or is it with her people**? I personally thought it should be the former. I couldn’t get over the feeling that the Nation, more specifically, Annawake Fourkiller, wanted Turtle just because they were legally entitled to her. They were not morally or emotionally connected to her. Especially, Annawake. She assumed many things about Taylor’s relationship with Turtle. And while her concerns*** over Turtle’s future of fitting in were valid, I didn’t believe they were genuine. Annawake, didn’t care for Turtle. Annawake cared about the Nation’s reputation…or better yet the symbolism behind taking Turtle from her white family and placing her in a house with people who looked like her (but were still by some definition strangers)
 
But I get it. There’s this pressing need or pressing belief to need to be connected to your history and culture…for many reasons related to reality. Surely, Turtle couldn’t grow up believing she was white. A mirror and peers would tell her otherwise. And it would be sad to never know anything about those who came before you and gave you life. Still…that’s accepting the assumption that Taylor would willingly choose to let Turtle lead a life of ignorance. And based on what we know of Taylor, I have a hard time accepting that. Don’t we give foster parents the benefit of the doubt? Maybe not…

 
Annawake Fourkiller represented what I thought to be a staunch preserver of tribal membership. In contrast, I found Sugar Hornbuckle, Taylor’s mother’s cousin (?) to be much more inviting when it came to discussing community. Sugar Hornbuckle may or may not be 1/16 Cherokee, but she’s still part of the Nation and her children are part of the Nation and her home is in Oklahoma among other members of the Nation. Sugar tells Taylor’s mom, Alice, that she doesn’t need to look or live a certain way to be Cherokee, she just is, if she chooses**** to be… I do find it somewhat ironic even the whitest of people can belong to the Nation if they find a name on a list. Their diluted blood and Anglo-Saxon appearances mean nothing. They are still of the community. Yet Taylor is criticized by Annawake on the basis of her whiteness and subsequent inability to raise Turtle properly. The good news is it all works out in the end…

It’s been maybe five years since I read The Bean Trees, and while some of the details of that book are not fresh in my mind, I still feel something along the lines of joy when I think about it. So expectations were raised with each page turn of Pigs in Heaven. And now I ask myself: did Kingsolver disappoint? was Pigs in Heaven worthwhile?

The answers to both questions are no.

Kingsolver offers readers a myriad of entertaining characters and surprisingly, this turns out to be both a good and a bad thing. The characters are hodge-podge–too mismatch and eccentric to be believable (in my opinion) I mean Jax, Barbie, Gundi (?) the list goes on…They’re all funny and interesting, but not realistic. And their humorous dispositions don’t mesh well with the very serious issue at hand; Turtle being taken away from the only mother she knows.

*begins in The Bean Trees 

**Cherokee–Native Americans

*** i.e. potential feelings of isolation and/or alienation related to appearance that may affect social behavior

****choice is a funny word here because to be a part of the Nation and vote, you have to locate the name of someone who you can prove is related to you by blood in records known as the Dawes Rolls . You’re shit out of luck if you can’t prove it, or if your family member didn’t have records, or for someone reason or another their name isn’t on the list (which is the case for some Black Cherokees and Freedmen)