Monday, August 11, 2014

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I want to talk to you this morning about a book that describes a friendship between two women: a ninety-one year old woman whose life is mostly in the past, and a seventeen year old girl who is waiting for her ‘real’ life to begin. Their names are Vivian and Molly, and it takes Molly (and the reader) about half of the book to discover just how much they have in common.

This carefully researched novel is Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, and it is based on stories about abandoned children who were literally shipped on trains from the east coast to Midwestern farm states, and at each stop the children were herded into town halls or churches to be cursorily examined by local farmers—the ‘lucky’ ones adopted on the spot, the not so lucky herded back onto the train and sent to the next stop. The orphan trains ran for decades (from 1859 to 1929). 

But while this historical phenomenon is the backdrop and inspiration for the novel, the story itself is about the budding friendship between the girl, Molly, and the old woman, Vivian. Molly is a Penobscot Indian who has bounced from foster home to foster home for almost all of her young life. Now, only months from reaching an age that will release her from the jurisdiction of the state, she has been busted for stealing a book, and the only thing that saves her from Juvie (juvenile detention) is an agreement to enter into a community-service position with Vivienne, who needs help cleaning out her attic. 
Sometime in the second week it becomes clear to Molly that “cleaning out the attic” means taking things out, fretting over them for a few minutes, and putting them back where they were, in a slightly neater stack. Out of the two dozen boxes she and Vivian have been through so far, only a short pile of musty books and some yellowed linen have been deemed too ruined to keep.  
As the cleaning and organizing proceeds, Vivian’s own past as an orphan unfolds; Molly changes her tone of exasperation over the fact that  it seems that nothing is getting accomplished, and begins to see herself as an ally in retracing the history of the woman next to her.
In truth, though she hasn’t admitted it out loud until now, Molly has virtually given up on the idea of disposing of anything. After all, what does it matter? Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner than later. And then professionals will descend on the house, neatly and efficiently separating the valuable from the sentimental, lingering only over items of indeterminate origin or worth. So yes—Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process—in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots. 
This little novel skillfully swings back and forth between Spruce Harbor, Maine in the second decade of the 21st century and New York City 1929 as well as hardscrabble Midwestern towns that are stopping points for the Orphan train. Besides the tense and troubled present for Molly who has about exhausted her options in the foster program, there is a mystery that unfolds as Vivian attempts to discover elements  of her own orphaned childhood. I’m not about to reveal the mystery or it’s outcome, but the emotional similarity in the lives of the two lead characters and their eventual bonding is beautifully wrought. 

The babies and the cute, very young children are the first to be adopted as the orphan train heads west. Boys who are old enough and strong enough for hard farmwork are also often chosen along with girls who can help around the house and farm. The not so attractive and the frail are paraded out at each stop, and then put back on the train. As their adult attendant informs them before their first stop. “They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life.”

Other than signing some papers that promise food, shelter, and education for those old enough, there is no oversight over the lives of the children who are adopted. Vivian learns quickly that the agreement to send the children to school is observed only if it is convenient for the adoptive parents, while beatings and deprivation are far more likely than educational opportunity. For Molly in the foster program and Vivian on the orphan train, hard labor and sexual exploitation are the norm. 

While not being adopted is Vivian’s fear as her train goes from stop to stop, she soon discovers that adoption may be far worse. Molly, too, understands that foster homes may be more dangerous than state care. As she listens to her foster-care worker:
I listen … and nod politely as she talks, but it’s hard to concentrate. I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.
As Molly listens to descriptions Vivian gives of her early life in Ireland, and then of her life in New York before the death of her parents, and finally her many stops in Midwestern towns and life with different families, she comes to see how very similar their lives are. Both learn to pass; both feel broken inside.

Despite the sadness of this novel, it is a lovely story. The unlikely friendship that springs up between Molly and Vivian constitutes a sort of salvation for each of them. As the author says in the Prologue, 
I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened…I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is—a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Now is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer

I want to talk to you today about a book I should have reviewed several years ago when I first heard of it. The book is Now is the Hour,  written by a local author, Tom Spanbauer. Walking with one of my oldest friends and walking partner, I was introduced to Tom and immediately asked him if the name of his novel had anything to do with the song of the same name; it was the very first song I ever learned by heart from listening the radio. As you will see if you read the book, it has a lot to do with the song of the same name. 

Although this is a work of fiction, it reads very much like memoir, and I would be very surprised if it were not quite closely autobiographical. The lead character, Rigby John Klausener, like Spanbauer himself, grew up in Pocatello Idaho. His mother is a staunch Catholic who holds a tight rein on Rigby John, and his farmer father is a stern and tough man whom Rigby John describes as one ornery bastard. “Cold, irritable, impatient. One ornery bastard.” Spanbauer dedicates the book to his mother, and the deep love Rigby John has for his mother is apparent from the first page, and that he almost always disappoints her causes him to suffer greatly. A younger brother, Russell, is born with severe birth defects and lives for only a short time, and when he dies, a light goes out of his mother’s eyes. 
Russell came home screaming, and he screamed for a hundred days, and no one could sleep, and then he died. Mom was never the same. The music stopped, and she locked herself inside her room with Dad, and me and Sis were outside her room, and her eyes were never the same. I couldn’t find her anywhere in them, couldn’t find me, she was so far away. 
The highlights of his young life are the times when his mother, sister and he dress up in fancy clothes and jewelry from a large trunk in the attic, and as Rigby John tells the reader over and over, all three when dressed up were “scintillatingly gorgeous.” But, of course, they couldn’t let his father find out about the dress-up game. 

When the reader first meets Rigby John, he is seventeen and hitchhiking to San Francisco, hopelessly alienated from his family because “My family and the sex-shame-guilt thing. Sex and my family just don’t mix, like Mormons and Coca-Cola.” Bad enough that his mother has caught him literally with his pants down, masturbating, leading to a frenzy of confession and Hail Marys. His love affair with his own penis is enough to condemn him in his mother’s eyes, but that he is also gay is so over the top that he has no choice but to run away.  

I happen to have also read a short time ago Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical coming of age novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain. Both books are wonderfully honest accounts of growing up, and I would have to say that I think Spanbauer’s is the better book, partly because it is such a subtle and insightful exploration of homosexuality and of prejudice against native American people. I also preferred it because I think Spanbauer is so much more understanding of his parents, even his stern onery father than Stegner, whose hatred of and vitriolic rants against his father taint the last sections of an otherwise lucid and interesting story. Spanbauer seems to understand and forgive his parents, despite the grief they cause him as he struggles to discover himself and his sexuality. Even on the road to San Francisco, intensely sad and having to flee, he is able to at least partially understand their reasons for treating him as they have. 

Like so many young people who find themselves in tight, repressive communities with condemnation seeming to come from all sides, often enough leading not only to confusion but self-hatred, Rigby John finds solace in reading—his path into a larger and more open world. 
Mom and Dad wanted me reading only good Catholic stuff. The only good Catholic stuff to read are your daily missal and the Bible and The Lives of the Saints, so anything that was good I had to hide. I had to smuggle Steinbeck and Willa Cather and Hemingway inside my pants. Reading made everything different. I was no longer stuck in a world with my mom and my dad and my sis and Catholics and Mormons on a goddamn farm out on the Tyhee Flats. Before books, my secret places were just places I could hide. Now my places were where I could go to read and find out about people who were like me. Of Mice and Men, My Antonia, Winesburg Ohio, A Moveable Feast.
Like Rigby John (and Spanbauer), I grew up with a self-righteously religious mother (Mormon in my case). As I came to learn, she knew very little about Mormonism or even Mormon texts; she simply knew that it was THE TRUTH, and that any who doubted it was  lost. Spanbauer’s Pocotello was probably even more politically conservative than the Salt Lake I grew up in in the 40s.

Spanbauer captures the diction and customs of the country people he grew up around. He tells us over and over that they are differnt (not different, but differnt). He tells such a good and convincing story, capturing both the humor and the heartache of trying to grow into one’s sexuality, especially when faced with criticism on almost all fronts. The friendship of one girl (as differnt as he is from those around her), and then of two Hispanic farmworkers and later one very colorful gay Native American man saves him from his isolation and encourages him to find a world not so hostile to his beliefs and his body.

I read Spanbauer’s wonderful book, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, many years ago and loved it for many of the same reasons that I love Now is the Hour. He is a truly gifted writer, and one who helps us to see that it is not bad to be differnt. I recommend him to you, especially those of you who found yourselves in a strange and foreign and cramped space as you grew up. His liberation is one that we can all learn from.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballantine

I want to talk to you today about a wild and wonderful little book by a writer whom I had never read, but who is already much loved by a group of writers and readers of his essays, impressed by his scorching honesty and his loving humor. The book is written in the style of a memoir, and is billed as memoir, but the over-story (the impetus for the book) is the disappearance of a small college math instructor, lending the book the flavor of a mystery. The title of the book like the chapter titles is indicative of the free-flowing narrative within, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. The story takes place on those howling plains, specifically in the small town of Chadron, Nebraska. Like many of his characters, Poe has drifted to this small town for no particular reason; he has drifted from town to town, job to job, all of his life. One of his themes seems to be, “Why do drifters drift?” and “What makes them catch and take hold if and when they do?”

 On one of Poe’s drifts he finds himself in Mexico, where he falls for Cristina, who for two years has  slowly been recovering from being run over by a drunk driver. He describes Cristina as  “…a quiet, serious young dentist who lived with her parents.” Despite their age disparity and cultural differences, they are simpatico; they marry and have a son, Thomas, who  they soon discover displays many of the symptoms of autism, prompting much discussion in the book about this name given to a complex overlapping set of behaviors. Poe’s rambles with Thomas provide some of the most touching moments in this book.

I actually see the book not so much as a personal memoir but as a freewheeling discussion of so many topics:  the meaning of “history,” the function of literature (or art in general), the meaning of autism, what it means to be faithful to a partner. 

Once Poe and Cristina settle in Nebraska, and he scratches out a living for them by cooking in restaurants (one of his most reliable odd jobs), Cristina begins to question him about why he wastes his time writing when he could be working more and bringing in more money. It’s a struggle for her to understand what writing means for him, and a struggle for him to understand why only money-making activities count. “Literature was a waste of time, and though I made a few thousand a year at it, she thought I should get a full time job with the Department of Transportation.”

To Ballantine’s credit, he owns up that he knew what he was signing up for when he partnered with Cristina; he understands her values, her history, and has plenty of his own doubts about why he feels compelled to write. He also understands her resentment about not being able to practice dentistry in this country, and at not being able to adequately express herself in this cumbersome second language.

Cheryl Strayed, a great admirer of Ballantine’s essays, consented to write an introduction the book. She says, “You know who Ballantine is in every sentence he writes because in his mastery he makes himself known. He’s bold and perceptive and utterly transparent. He writes like every word is his last. Like the whole place is about to burn up. He’s like a bird that’s not quite but almost extinct: when you see him, you can’t help but look.”

I think this is a wonderful description of the helter-skelter style of the many segments (chapters?) of the book, some only a page or two. His understanding of small town life, of loneliness and transience, of marital struggles all come out in the journal/diary quality of the book. 

The style and course of the book is announced in its first words:
I first came across Chadron, Nebraska, by accident, in 1994. I had borrowed a car, thrown all my meager belongings in the back, and driven west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun. I intended to kill myself. The farther you go west, the higher the suicide rate gets, and I thought perhaps that would give me the momentum I needed. In America we remake ourselves, though it rarely works out.
How do we remake ourselves, and how was the west made? Two questions chasing each other throughout this book. In my intentionally unstructured approach to reading, there nevertheless  arise patterns, perhaps due to a kind of synchronicity. In the past few weeks, I have read a half dozen or so books all having to do with the exploitation of the west and with debunking romantic myths about how the west was settled. First I stumbled onto Annie Proulx’s recent set of stories, Bad Dirt, all set in Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska. I had loved her novel The Shipping News, but had been unable to get into later novels. This time, I read all three of her collections of short stories under the title Wyoming Stories, and also her novel dealing with the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, That Old Ace in the Hole. My partner’s response to my raves about Proulx and my rethinking of western myths was to give me the Ballantine memoir, yet another story about how the west was lost, and I topped all of this off with Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, in which  Stegner’s dad, another drifter in search of his fortune, led his family through a succession of towns and homes and wild, often illegal ventures—always looking for the big kill, the final deal.

What I have carried away from all of this is a new look at rural life and of how conventional morality so often teams up with economic exploitation to subjugate people and strip the land. The horror stories Proulx tells about the Texas and Oklahoma pan handles [simply by researching and understanding and reciting to us the history of how the rush for oil, and now the rush for water, along with  the pollution of corporate farming (gargantuan hog-farms), pesticide poisoned fields and waterways, has altered the land]. And while creating real, believable characters, she tells compelling stories  about so-called ‘simple’ people, she shows the settling of the west for what it was, debunking the noble cowboy and heroic, civic-minded rail-line constructions versions, and replacing them with a much more rapacious and money-hungry account. 

It’s been a wonderful romp through western literature, though it has certainly not inclined me towards life in a small western town, living with the twin threats of self-righteous, conventional morality (really conventional immorality) and economic domination/obliteration.