Monday, June 08, 1998

Heat Lightning by Leah Hager Cohen

I want to talk to this morning about a book entitled Heat Lightning, by Leah Hager Cohen. It is another of those amazing first novels, though the author of this one is already an established writer of non-fiction. Like so many of the novels I seem drawn to these days, this is a novel about coming of age, about the peculiar tension between adults and children, and about a profound sort of loss that we tend not to take seriously enough.

There are two girls in this story, one eleven and the other thirteen, united not only because they are sisters, but also because their parents died by drowning when the girls were still infants. The story they are told of the drowning is so brief, so devoid of detail, that the girls are left to fill in the story—in comedian Lily Tomlin’s words, the girls are left to make up the truth, and the story they quilt together is theirs alone. They add to it in bits and pieces, changing, improving, reshaping, but once agreed to, their strict adherence to the story in all its details is a continual test of their loyalty and their private world.

In addition to the brief description they have been told, they also have a cookie tin containing twelve faded photos. This tin they only open ceremoniously, reverently, when they are alone together. The older sister’s name is Tilly, the younger referred to always simply as Mole, and the kind woman who raises these girls as if they were her own is named Hy. It is she who gives them the brief description they have, and it is her silence that allows, even forces them, to embellish the story as they choose. When, occasionally, some new detail falls from Hy’s lips, the girls pounce on it, always disappointed not to get more.
Such details fell randomly and infrequently from her lips. Tilly and I were hoarders, jealously storing them, much as we did the particular shells and stones and bits of soft-edged glass we had been inspired to collect from the lake and keep on beds of cotton in old cardboard gift boxes: undisputed treasures whose usefulness, we felt certain, we had only to decipher. Here, Hy was no help. When milked for further details, she would only shrug and clamp her lips; when pressed she would say, ‘I don’t know, you have the cookie tin.
Best friends as well as sisters, the girls roam the lake and the countryside, sharing everything, but especially the carefully crafted story they have told of the death of their own parents.
For years, one of Tilly’s and my favorite games involved arranging these snapshots on her bedroom floor and making up stories and dialogue to animate the images, the way other children might have done with dolls. These twelve pictures afforded us such latitude in constructing an idea of our parents that we learned not to mind the paucity of Hy’s reminiscences; her story we appropriated as well, and privately embellished. Thus the storm, in my mind, comprised hail, gales of wind, thunder, and lightning. The sky was gray-green, the color of the place between yolk and albumen in a hard-boiled egg. The rowboat was red. Our parents wore rain slickers: hers yellow, his navy blue. They washed up on the sand clean and pale, their mouths and eyes closed, their fingers interlaced.
And so this simple and beautifully written novel begins. The first sign of trouble, of impending change and betrayal, is Tilly’s telling of parts of the story to a teenage boy who, along with his scientist parents and three younger siblings, has moved into an abandoned house on Hy’s property known to the girls only as the dead house. Worse than Tilly’s telling of the story to this boy, Walter, is the fact that, without permission, she alters the story in detail as she tells it, changes the sequence that she and Mole have agreed on. Mole hears the change, looking for a sign from her sister that this is conspiratorial, that it is still Mole and Tilly against the world, still their story, only theirs. Perhaps the change in the story is simply a slip, a genuine forgetting on Tilly’s part, but there is also the strange new behavior—an affected lisp that has creeped into Tilly’s speech, a new attention to her body, a new insistence on privacy inside the house. How is Mole to understand these changes, this breech in their union.
For my sister—well, more than just her consonants were in flux that summer. She was by turns irritable and serene, radiant and remote. Within minutes she could alter, even her features, which behaved somehow out of synch with her moods; one moment she’d look stern and lovely, the next cheerful and angular, almost homely. She seemed to shimmer, slightly, as if two selves lay superimposed one over the other: a familiar thin shadow over a paler, emergent form. Now I have access to words I didn’t then: ‘menarche,’ ‘hormones,’ ‘pubescence.’ That summer I thought it was all the Rouens {the family in the dead house}, that their presence was bringing about a change in Tilly, in us, in our lives; that collectively they made a kind of key, unlocking us.
I think we tend to underestimate the profundity of love between children, and consequently to underestimate the betrayals, the intensity of the pain and loss that children can suffer. Not long after Mole hears Tilly begin to change “their” story, to alter it without permission (just as she alters her speech and mannerisms), she comes to understand also that Walter and Tilly no longer want her hanging around with them, no longer treat her as one of them, but, instead, treat her as one of the younger children. For the first time in her life, Mole is alone—not planning out her days with her sister as she has always done, leaving the house together, coming home hungry and sun-burned and tired together, conspiring and playing and loving together. And she is utterly unequipped to handle this new form of loneliness. She feels confused more than abandoned, an unexplainable sadness and sense of loss though she cannot really even blame her sister for it. Tilly and Mole have always noticed the difference between adults and children, have always felt a vague combination of sympathy and contempt for adults whose lives seem shallow and whose conversations seem false and strained.
The grown-ups ... talked the way grown-ups do, managing to render every subject odd and distant. The most ordinary subjects grew bloated and complex in their mouths, phrases and pauses measured in a manner at once formal and abbreviated, like Morse code.
And Tilly had explained carefully to Mole how adults simply tend to “go off”, how sometimes even Hy would “go off”, acting distant and strange. But until this fateful summer, Mole could always count on Tilly, count on the camaraderie of Tilly against the adult world, and now even Tilly is “going off”. It is unthinkable that Tilly has gone over to the other side, that she will become as uninteresting and dull as other adults.
I had the terrible thought that all grown-ups were gone off, partly or wholly, but all of the time. You might think you were having a conversation with them; you might think they understood the things you said, and they you understood them in turn, but in fact it was an illusion. You could remember their exact words, even write them down on recipe cards, but later when you checked, they would say you had misunderstood. They would say they and forgotten. And now Tilly, too.
Poor Mole has no way of understanding the concomitant loneliness and rage that begin to develop in her—no way to explain her desire to break something, to cause harm. She mopes around the house alone, snooping as she has always done without guilt.
Their secrets, Tilly’s and Hy’s, even their—not secrets, but things, trappings, personal effects—I felt were in some way details of my own life, to which I was entitled. As if locked inside their private artifacts lay information about me.
But the snooping now has an edge; she is looking for something, something that will justify her rage, explain her ineffable loneliness. She rejects Hy’s shy attempts to comfort her, and along with the loneliness that she is drowning in, she also begins to experience a new, almost terrifying sense of power and freedom.

I am making this story seem more ominous than it is, more complex and tumultuous. It is really simply the story of two children who are on the cusp of womanhood, but with one just those two important years older. And while the separation in their lives is inevitable, in some ways even good for both of them, it is also incredibly sad—the rendering of a seamless love. What is remarkable about this book to me is the way in which Cohen can so completely and yet simply express the love between the sisters. How she can remember (or construct?) these meticulous details of childhood, can remember so clearly the sense of adults keeping things from children, lying by omission, as if the children will not detect the careful misrepresentation and make more of it than had they simply known the truth. Perhaps it is only my indulging in my own childhood memories, loving the chance to again (for a few hours) have a child-eye view of the world. I think this is a lovely book, one that you will love to read and that you will come away from feeling enlightened, lifted, though you may have trouble saying why.

This is a wonderful book to start your summer reading.

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