Monday, June 09, 1997

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

This is a sad time for leftists in Portland; one of our brightest lights, Joannie Bohorfoush, has died. I had intended to talk to you this morning about two novels exploring religious fundamentalism, The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds, and The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. I know Joannie would have approved since she, herself, grew up in a fundamentalist environment and understood very well the dangers of religious authoritarianism. However, I think I will save those two books for another time and talk today about a wonderful little book written by Joan Chase, entitled During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. It is not a new book; in fact, it was written in 1983 and I have used it since then in several classes, but as I was thinking of Joannie and her sisters, all bright and passionate and articulate women, I was reminded of this book, thinking about how it might have been to grow up in a household of strong, lucid girls.

Rather than critical commentary, I prefer this morning simply to read you a few passages from this fine book as I think of Joannie and of all that I owe, all that we owe, to strong and compassionate feminists. The book is about four young girls, cousins, and the five women who are their mothers and aunts, all of whom live (at one time or another) on a farm owned and presided over by their grandmother, the Queen of Persia. It is a small but wonderful matriarchy surrounded by the larger patriarchy of society. Until his death, there is also an estranged and bitter old grandfather, “who did not talk to women or to girls. Unless he was fighting with Gram—then he yelled,” and the father of two of the girls, Dan, who even the grandmother concedes “is all right for a man.”

The story is written with the voice and through the eyes of the four girls, but as if they are one—so much so that we never know which girl is narrating, nor do we quite know who is a mother and who an aunt. Let me have them speak for themselves:

There were the four of us then, two his own daughters, two his nieces, all of us born within two years of each other. Uncle Dan treated the four of us the very same and sometimes we thought we were the same—same blood, same rights of inheritance. Some part of each year, mostly summers, all four of us lived with Uncle Dan, or rather with Gram, for he lived with her too. Gram was the queen bee—that was what Uncle Dan called her. That, or the Queen of Persia, the Empress herself. Or just Queenie for short. Our pony was Queenie too. Uncle Dan said they had a lot in common, and although he didn’t say exactly what, we knew Queenie was nearly impossible to catch, had thrown every one of us, racing for the barn. We knew she had what was called a high head.
The four girls live together, sleep together, fight and play and learn together. “One thing was forbidden. Any fighting among ourselves was punished consistently and severely—no listening to ‘She did this,’ or that. We were to protect each other, they seemed to say, for who else would? So we bit and scratched each other at night in bed under the covers, hiding the marks from our mothers.”

And even when the oldest of the four, Celia, blossoms into young womanhood while the other three remain scruffy and dirty, they watch her with an interest and possessiveness that borders on voyeurism. Celia is theirs, her beauty and allure are theirs; it goes without question that they will spy on her (on themselves?) when she is with a boy.

We needed no words. We moved to the grass to quiet our walking. Through the gap in the honeysuckle we sneaked and climbed over the railing and stood to one side of the window, where we could see at an angle past the half-drawn drapes. At first we could scarcely make them out where they were on the floor, bound in one shape. We licked our ice cream and carefully, silently dissolved the cones, tasting nothing as it melted away down inside us. Tasting instead Corley’s mouth on ours, its burning wild lathering sweetness. In the shaft of light we saw them pressed together, rolling in each other’s arms, Celia’s flowery skirt pulled up around her thighs. His hand moving there. Then she pushed him away, very tenderly, went to sit back on the couch while Corley turned his back and combed his hair. He turned and started toward her, tucking his shirt in. We stared at the unsearchable smile that lifted from Celia’s face like a veil and revealed another self, as she began to unbutton her blouse, undressing herself until she sat there in the half-dark, bare to the waist, bare to the moon which had come up over the trees behind us. She drew Corley to her, his face after he’d turned around never losing its calm, kissed him forever, it seemed, as long as she wanted to. Then she guided his mouth to press into first one and then the other cone-crested breast, her own face lake-calm under the moon. Then she dressed again. Our hearts plunged and thudded. At that moment we were freed from Aunt Libby. We didn’t care what it was called or the price to be paid; someday we would have it.

‘Marry a man who loves you more than you love him’—that summed it up. And we thought of Uncle Dan down at the market, coming out of the food locker with a slab of meat over his shoulder, his eyes fathomless, glimmering under the bare bulb, inside him a heart raw with love for Aunt Libby.
Aunt Libby, the mother of two of the girls, is their almost constant companion and teacher, telling them more than they want to know about the world of men, their fickleness, their narrowness of interest, their unreliability.
For Aunt LIbby it was a matter of outrage and contest. She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babes—stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble. Nor would Aunt LIbby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed mostly to liquor—which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.
And while Libby often tells them more than they want to hear, warning them off of trouble before they can even find out how delicious it is, the reader can feel them listening and learning. Libby, as powerful as her mother, the Queen of Persia, will not let the girls fall prey to the capricious foolishness of men.
’Love,’ she spit out. ‘Sex is what it was and is and will be.’ The way she said ‘sex,’ we knew it was something wonderfully powerful, rising with a naturalness like the deep cold suck of water at the barnyard spring on a hot day. Love, on the other hand, she told us, was something you had to learn. ‘Love takes time. You learn it over a long time of being with a good man.’ It sounded like hard work and cold potatoes.

‘Don’t let it fool you—sweet looks and sweet talk.’ What were we to do, desiring desire more and more as she paraded it before us in all its allurements; even her warnings were tempting.
I don’t know that I have chosen passages that display the wonderful wit and charm of this little novel, the ineffable joy of growing up a girl among girls in a family of powerful women. Each time I read this book, I am enchanted again. And though we learn of the difficult past of the grandmother, the abuse and heartache suffered at the hands of the stern grandfather, what shines out mostly is, as in Alice Munro’s book The Lives of Girls and Women. Let me end with a final quote, the voice of the four girls as they spy on the lives of five women who are their mothers and aunts:
We kept absolutely silent so they wouldn’t ask us to take sides or send us out, for what we knew about the family was disclosed to us by our being there to see it happen. We had to remain as inarticulate as the mantling walls, silent and watchful—outside the action. The five sisters had guarded their secrets from us, as though we were strangers, as if their loyalty was only to each other and their mother; if further divided, it would dissolve.

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