I want to talk to you this morning about a little book that will make you laugh and cry, and though it is about children who grow up in fear, made to feel guilty for the excessive and misdirected anger of their parents, in the end, I’m quite certain this little book will simply make you happy to be alive.
The book is entitled This Is Graceanne’s Book, and the author is P.L. Whitney. At this point, I’m not sure whether the author is male or female. I’m sure I could find out easily enough simply by looking up the book or author on the net, but I found myself not quite wanting to know as I was reading the book. It is written through the eyes of a nine year old boy, and as the title indicates, it is about his two sisters, Graceanne and Kentucky. If you were lucky enough to have sisters, you will understand and revel in Charlemagne Farrand’s love and adoration of his older sisters. And if you did not have sisters, you will wish you had.
The book is not overly ambitious in scope; it covers only a little over a year in the lives of the three children; Charlie’s ninth year, Graceanne’s twelfth, and the older sister Kentucky’s sixteenth. It is set in small town Missouri in a flood year, and the children play along the dangerous, muddy river surveying the refuse: dead farm animals, pieces of houses and bridges, and poor Charlie discovers (but tells no one) an Ugly Blue Man. Though it is called Graceanne’s book, it really is Charlie’s book, his recollections of the prodigious intellectual and athletic feats of his two older sisters.
As in so many families, the father, a career military man, is a surly and usually absent figure, so remote from the mother and three children that his ‘presence’ is barely missed when the parents separate and divorce, though economically, they go from a poor family living in military housing to a desperately poor family deprived of that cheap housing and surviving on the meager income of the mother.
Though we hear little about it, it is obvious that the mother has been abused, both physically and mentally by her husband, and that she leaves him for very good reason. But however she has learned it, she, too, is brutally abusive to her middle child, the tough and brilliant Graceanne. Somehow, Graceanne has been convinced that she deserves her harsh treatment, that she is a bad, even evil child, whose very blood is poisonous, so that is only natural that she receives regular and awful coat-hanger whippings on the backs of her legs and long sentences of isolation in what the children call the measel room. Charlie, perhaps because he is the youngest, perhaps because he is a favored male child, perhaps because he simply is not as troublesome, escapes the physical abuse, though his intense love and empathy for his sister makes him feel every blow, every bitter argument.
I know that what I have described so far does not seem that of a warm or uplifting book, but this one is. All the adult characters, even the alcoholic, abusive father and the high-strung and super-stressed mother, are incidental; this is the story of Charlie and his sisters. If you decide to read this book, you might at some point, as I did, wish that you could read the story from the mother’s point of view. She is an obviously bright and able woman who in a very real and very deep sense loves her children. If she were loved, if she were not forced into working too hard for too little, who knows what sort of person and parent she might have been. As it is, she sees Graceanne as her personal curse, and her frustrations with all of her life explode into her outbursts against her daughter.
While Graceanne is, indeed, a poor and abused girl, she is also brilliant, intensely mischievous, and the best soft-ball player in the state, and if Charlie is right, maybe in the world. And while she plays mean tricks on her poor brother, cruelly nicknamed Thumper because of a somewhat deformed foot that requires a corrective brace, the love between these two children unfolds for the reader in a wonderful way. It is easy to believe that the story is being told by a nine year old, and the understatement and simplicity that the nine-year-old-eye-view of the world allows makes for an incredibly beautiful and moving story.
I won’t risk eroding the lovely simplicity of this story by telling you anymore than I have, nor will I try to capture it by reading segments. Instead, let me say that I think we can learn a lot about ourselves by reading it, a lot about race relations in Missouri in the early 60’s, a lot about what it means to be desperately poor. Like Jo Sinclair’s The Changeling (a superb book that you ought to read if you haven’t), we see how one black girl and one white girl can in real ways rock the world.
Let me put in a couple of words for KBOO and what it means to have such a fine public radio station. I don’t know about you in these past few weeks, but I have found myself searching desperately for something other than mainstream television and one-dimensional reporting. I was thankful for the simple gift of Jim Leher on Sept 11, asking a few real and brave questions that evening (and since), and I have clung to the life-line of KBOO for some sort of truth and sanity. Please support this station that so clearly supports us.