The lead character’s name is Easter, and she begins to tell us about her life when she is thirty-nine, in 1977; thus, this is a novel about us-here-now. We know immediately that she is an artist of moderate fame, that she is the mother of three children, twice divorced, that she became pregnant with her first child when she was fourteen, the result of a not-quite-rape at the hands of man as brutal as her father. All of this she tells an interviewer (and us) in such matter of fact tones that we are to understand that she saw none of it as out of the ordinary. Easter sees the world in terms of color, especially the reds and pinks and magentas of blood and sex: the chicken running around the yard with its head chopped of, her mother crying and bloodied on the kitchen floor after a routine beating from her drunken husband. And were it not for her exceptional visual and artistic talents, we would never have heard from her at all. She would probably never have escaped the rural southern home and dirt poverty from which she came. But while it was her art that eventually led to her being important enough to interview, important enough to have us listen to her story, it was her prettiness and her girlish slim figure that got away from the farm and into the big city. Noticed at church by a visitor from the city who simply could not pass up such a pretty young thing, despite the baby on her hip, he claimed her as his own, a move her mother and sister saw as incredible good luck, to be saved by such a comparatively wealthy man.
But what her mother sees as salvation, her clean little house in the suburbs, a husband who is a college man, his daddy owning a car dealership, for some reason seems not quite enough to Easter, though she feels a deep sense of shame even to admit it to herself. And a new layer of guilt, this thinking that what she has is somehow not enough, is added to the layer of guilt towards her now disabled mother whom she has abandoned. Easter does her best simply to be the wonderful little housewife she thinks she should be, copying the menus out of the magazines, cooking something new every meal, and letting her always hungry man crawl over her at night.
So I tried to remember to smile even when I didn’t feel like it. I knew that while it was okay for Bobby to dump his bad feelings on me, it was not okay for me to tell him mine—as the magazines instructed me that it was my duty to protect his fragile male ego, and any indication that I was less than happy would make him feel like less of a man. Even though Bobby seemed interested—obsessively interested—in my body, my appearance, he didn’t listen for very long if I talked. And when he did listen—impatiently, for just a minute or two—he would quickly come up with a solution to what he considered my small problems; after all, he provided everything I really needed, didn’t he?This story of a young woman, ashamed by her own desires to become herself, to act on the kernel of unease inside her, would be an interesting one even had Easter simply moved away, gotten a job and a life of her own. But this is a woman who was, in her words, “intrigued by people who transformed themselves,” and it is her incredible transformation that fascinated (and frightened) me as a reader. Although it takes two more children and several more years of sexual servitude for Easter to make her break and begin her transformation, she lives just across the river from the French Quarter, and she knows almost from the moment her husband takes her there to view the wild, strange people that that is home.
It seems during much of the middle sections of this book that the author is trying to remind her readers that while both sex and drugs can become addictions, they can also be liberatory, and to some extent, both are liberatory for Easter. As I read these sections, I was reminded of Jane Lazarre’s wonderful and brave book, On Loving Men. Lazarre, although a staunch feminist and political leftist, dared to talk about her early introductions to men and to sex, and dared to speak of the liberatory aspects of sex, dared to talk of her love of men. Her honesty and bravery enthralled me, and I was similarly impressed (at least at first) with Daniell’s honesty. In fact, much of the middle and end of this longish book is a wrenching tale of the horrors of addiction, the travesty of the methadone addiction that has been visited upon so many people struggling to get off of heroine. Easter has to watch her much loved son become as mean and cold as her father had been, coming to fear him even more than she had her abusive father. She watches a beautiful and talented daughter go through a long series of men, spiraling deeper and deeper into drug addiction, depression, and suicide attempts.
What I admire about Daniell is that she does not let herself rest with any of the easy answers. Escaping the sexual tyranny of Bobby and acting on her own deep sexual desires with men and women in the French Quarter is both liberating and addicting, both a movement towards self-actualization and a descent into a kind of perverse hell. And if the conflicted sense of liberation and damnation of self is not enough, she also watches as her daughter plays with sexual power only to become a slave to a lifestyle of men and drugs.
I have said nothing so far about the incredible insights Easter has about politics and poverty, about all the (I think) insightful comments she makes about the famous artists and people in power whom she encounters in New York City as well as the French Quarter. Nor have I talked about what she has to say about art, about color, about the way in which at least some artists are compelled to do art as expression of their inner anguish is fascinating to me, as are her asides about the ways in which male artists are pampered and protected by their women, while women artists are vilified for the same inner compulsion that is praised in men. Picasso and Rodin and Pollack go through women like water, are not even expected to pay attention to their children, but a women artist must be a wife and mother first or they will be seen as selfish, unnatural, unwomanly.
Finally, I must say that it would be hard to believe that his novel is not in a deep sense autobiographical. Daniell says in the forward, “Though addiction and madness saturate my family history—my father was an alcoholic, my mother died a suicide—what follows is a work of fiction.” Yes, and perhaps it is mostly that, but it is fiction that carries with it the authority of one who knows the lives she describes, has lived the horrors and the ecstasies and has emerged to tell of the cave.