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.

No comments:

Post a Comment