Monday, March 31, 2008

Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler

Two girls named after birds, Phoebe and Avocet, the hope of their mother being that naming them after birds would allow them to fly over the crap and misery of the world. Avocet, shortened simply to Bird early on, is only six when we meet her; Phoebe is thirteen, but both have already suffered through the wars of a stormy marriage. Connie May Fowler’s third novel, Before Women Had Wings, is set in a small town in Florida in 1965, and it opens with Bird’s father walking into the rickety general store that he and his wife run, putting a gun to his head, telling his wife that “because of her harsh ways and his many sins he was going to blow his brains out.” He doesn’t quite follow through with his threat on that day, but not many months later, after hiring a friend to beat up his wife so that she will be less attractive to other men and more likely to stay at home where she belongs, he finally makes good on his threat, leaving wife and daughters to somehow scratch out a living for themselves.

What is so remarkable about this book is Fowler’s ability to consistently represent the world through the eyes of such a young girl, a girl who somehow perseveres despite poverty and the abuse from her much abused mother. Bird understands that there is, for some lucky little girls, another sort of world—one in which there are honey-tempered mothers who tell their little girls just what good girls they are. “My mama, she wasn’t capable of whispering such sweet words. For her, kind comments were nothing more than fireflies trapped in a jar: they were pretty for the short while they lasted. Then they died and you had to throw them out.” This is a mother who one moment, made sentimental from the whisky burning down her throat, will draw her daughters to her and tell them how much she loves them, how lucky they are to have her, and the next beat them senseless with a hairbrush, a belt, whatever weapon comes to hand.

Phoebe, having suffered the erratic and dangerous mood swings of her mother longer than Bird, has learned to lock away her heart—to present an unsmiling face and to keep her distance, waiting for the day when she will be able to make her escape. But Bird is still seduced by the moments of tenderness, still able to hope that her mother will be metamorphosed in a magic moment. She tries prayer, magic, promises to her only friend, the baby Jesus, all to no avail. The beatings continue; Bird sees the deep sadness and despair in her mother, understands on some level that her mother is doing what she can to save her family, provide for her daughters. While Phoebe’s mistrust seems set in stone, Bird is still hopeful. She listens as her mother explains: “We were poor, poor people, she explained, and worse than that, we were females. We would have to scratch and fight if we were going to succeed.”

I know this must sound unremittingly sad so far, may sound like a book just too sad to read. But there is light and hope that emerges from this novel. The portrait of the mother, although she administers drunken beatings to her daughters that have to be called savage, is in the end a sympathetic one. As Bird struggles to understand her mother and the world around her, she helps the reader to understand as well.

“This is the mystery of love: forgiveness. It was a mystery that flitted all about my mama’s heart, sometimes resting there but mostly not. I believe she purely hated and loved my daddy, and while she would cry in the middle of a dark night and say into the still air, ‘I love you, Billy Jackson. Yes, I forgive you,’ hers was a forgiveness undermined by wrath…..Day by day, the bad things that Daddy had done tattooed themselves on her soul……One afternoon I heard her tell Mr. Ippolito, ‘It’s easy to forgive good people. But if you’re called on to forgive somebody who had a monster inside them, that’s a whole other ball game.”

And Bird, this little girl born into a swirl of anger and resentment, alcohol and fists, has set before her the task of understanding and forgiving her mother, who is one of those with a monster inside them, “Her temper would flare with the slightest wind.” Finally, with the help of a mysterious, wise old black woman named Zora, Bird begins to understand. “But maybe, just maybe, forgiveness exists not to excuse the sinner but to heal those who suffered. This idea seems true and honest to me for this reason: As Mama became less able to forgive my daddy, her anger grew like wildfire and began to burn us all.”

What I have not mentioned and don’t know quite how to convey is Bird’s love for and ability to commune with nature. She carries with her a box of treasures: feathers and tiny half-shells of birds, butterfly wings and dragon-flies. The box, itself, made especially for her treasures by her now dead father. On one of her excursions into nature, after having witnessed a particularly brutal beating of her older sister by her drunk and enraged mother, she discovers Zora, whom others see as a witch to be both feared and avoided. Zora, too, is a person who communes with nature, who prefers the company of non-human animals, having already learned the lessons of hate and violence. There is a touching and utterly believable alliance between the two, and through the friendship that springs up between them, a thread of hope begins to develop in this otherwise bleak and woeful story.

In the hands of a less skillful writer, the relationship between the old black woman and the little ‘white trash’ girl might devolve into simple sentimentality, a writer’s trick of false hope and deliverance. But, at least for this reader, Fowler seems able to weave a lovely and believable story of redemption and salvation.

During a desperate attempt to run away from her mother and the beatings that seem bound eventually to kill her, Bird finds herself at an estuary where there are avocets—the very birds she is named after. “I watched my avocets and heard their call. Weep! Weep! And I wondered how I was ever going to go home. How could I ever walk softly enough to please my mama? What act could I commit that would be so sweet it would wash away her sadness? What information did I need? What prayer wasn’t I praying? How would I turn Mama and me into good women? Who would help?”

I’m not about to reveal the answer to her questions, nor to tell you about what sort of deliverance might arrive. But I will tell you that there is sufficient hope and light in this novel to make it worth reading. Though I had to start this novel twice, the readings separated not by months but by years, the second attempt succeeded, and I can hardly believe now that I walked away from the book on my first attempt.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Four More Great Women Authors: Iris Murdoch, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, And Margaret Atwood

Last March, as my way of honoring this month of celebrating women’s history, I decided to forego the monthly book review in order to focus briefly on four great women writers of the past fifty years. Staggered with a range of choices, I decided to talk about great writers who seem not to be sufficiently recognized by American readers; I chose Nadine Gordimer, Penelope Lively, Edwidge Danticat, and Toni Cade Bambara. This year I want to recall for you Iris Murdoch, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.

As a person who reads in order to try to understand the world we live in, I have no doubt that women have authored the most important moral-social-political fiction of the past fifty years. To come to political consciousness via coming to understand the systematic oppression of women (among others) has almost always led also to a wider coming to consciousness of oppression. So it is not surprising that women writers, rather than writing adventure novels or stories about lonely, existential heroes, center in on social and political issues (not to mention attention to relationships and families).

Iris Murdoch was both a very good philosopher and a very good writer of fiction; that is a combination that is so rare. In the past hundred years as philosophy has been more and more influenced by science and scientific method, philosophers have looked more and more askance at using literature as a vehicle for doing philosophy. Perhaps this skepticism goes clear back to Plato and his warnings about how, in the mouths of poets, words become honeyed and mellifluous, thus diverting from their main task of discovering truth—language used not for truth-seeking, but perverted into mere entertainment. As much as Murdoch admired Plato, she insists that some parts of philosophy, especially ethics, cannot be completely disclosed without the use of metaphor and of art. Discursive essay that proceeds by lineal argument can go along way in laying out ethical theory, but it cannot complete the task at hand, which is literally to make us into morally better beings. Literature, novels, can bring moral truth out of concealment, reveal it to us, in a way that essay cannot. Literature can portray us human beings as we are, selfish by nature, viewing the world through the veil of our own cares and concerns, frightened of and fleeing from death, mistaking lust for love. But, while Murdoch’s characters reveal to the reader all the traits listed above, some of them also display the capability of really attending to others—piercing the veil and really seeing. Murdoch claims that both Continental philosophy (existentialism) and analytic philosophy have over-accentuated the will and the concept of duty—doing right as a kind of near heroic, willful acting on principle after cool reflection. In fact, she insists, morality is a matter of habit, of establishing habits of really looking, really attending to others. When the chips are down (as they always are), we will do what we are in the habit of doing, thus, morality, itself, is primarily nurturing habits of attention. Although Murdoch did not identify herself as a feminist, her ideas are consonant with those of Nell Nodding and other feminist ethicists in stressing care and personal relations as an at least overlooked and under-stressed feature of ethical theory. If you have tried Murdoch before and found her just too depressing or her stories too complicated, try reading her essay “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts.” Although a bit technical, the essay gives a quick statement of her view of the role of fiction in understanding morality, and my belief is that once one understands what Murdoch is up to her novels, they become both easier to read and more revelatory. You might find you want to read more than one.

Alice Munro is a Canadian writer not well known among Americans, but my reader friends who know of her wait anxiously for each new book, wishing she would give us more, that she would write long novels, talk us to sleep every night. She is a superb short-story writer, usually stories about small towns, families, ordinary people. Not long ago, I talked of her most recent collection of stories, Runaway, so today let me mention her 1971 novel, Lives of Girls and Women. It is autobiographical in form (though she insists not in fact), and describes the coming of age of a bright young girl with a very bright and unconventional mother—strong enough to be an atheist with socialist leanings in small-town Canada in the fifties. Most of us have to rebel away from our religious upbringings, the young girl in this story has to go to all churches as a way of standing up to her powerful, bright mother. Of course, already ‘tainted’ by an inquiring mind and a thirst for good reasons if not proof, she is disappointed in her search for God and her desire to deny the reality of death. Rebellion and attention to the world drive her back to the liberal views of her mother, but with a much greater understanding of poverty and classism. Dirt and bad grammar bother her mother to the point of being unable at times to deal with the very people she wants to ‘save.’ She was on the side of Negroes and Jews and Chinese and women, but she could not bear drunkenness, dirty language, haphazard lives, contented ignorance; and so she had to exclude the Flats Road people from the really oppressed and deprived people, the real poor whom she still loved. Munro is funny, wise, and a word-weaver of the highest order.

The last two authors I want to mention are so well known that I suspect I need to say little about them in order to remind you of their work. Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood quite obviously and self-consciously set out to do social criticism, to expose the oppression and injustice they saw in the world. I’m sure most of you have read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Morrison’s Beloved. So I will say just a few words about early novels of each that you may not have read. I think one of Atwood’s most humorous novels is a very early one entitled The Edible Woman in which a young woman is just becoming aware of the sexism in the world around her. While this little book is less shocking than Surfacing, the book that really catapulted her to fame, and less grim and frightening than The Handmaid’s Tale, it certainly showcased Atwood’s talent for social criticism.

The works of Toni Morrison that I want to call to your attention are her chilling little tale, The Bluest Eye, and her masterpiece, Song of Solomon. In The Bluest Eye Morrison shows us what it means for an oppressed class to take on the values of the oppressor. Unremittingly sad and painful to read, it is a book that brings to life Franz Fanon’s description of how oppressed people are inculcated with the very values that crush them. Song of Solomon, while equally cognizant of how economic exploitation exhibits itself in racism, is in the end a powerful, even joyful book about perseverance and courage and the possibilities of a better future.

There are so many books by these authors I might have mentioned, and so many other great women novelists of the past fifty years who deserve to be remembered and read.