The runaway: Great Pause #7

What I read

My Nancy Pearl action figure on my writing desk.

This little lady right here, Nancy Pearl, my sister-from-another-mister–at least when it comes to all things fiction– recommended The Widow Nash … and all her other NPR listeners, truth be told. Like any of the other books I’ve read at her prompting, the story did not disappoint. (I’ve left a list of other titles she’s reviewed and I’ve read below.)

The Widow Nash settles in Livingston, Montana at the turn of the century. She lives for a time at the Elite Hotel where she mourns her husband, Edgar Nash, a man who fought in the Cuban war, but died of a lingering illness. Widow Nash becomes part of a cast of small-town characters who are either seeking their fortunes or running from their past–or both.

Widow Nash is indeed running, but her fortune has been lost. (Or has it?)

In reality, she is Leda Cordelia Dulcinea Remfrey. Dulcy. Her father, the wealthy mine-owner and inventor Walton Remfrey has just committed suicide in Seattle. And like a snake in the grass, Dulcy’s former fiance Victor insinuates himself into her life again. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Victor is just as violent as he was when she broke off their engagement after he raped her. Dulcy had cared for and chaperoned Walton since she was fifteen, following him all over the world from the mines he owned to the spas and clinics where he sought treatment for syphilis, and she is tired. Tired of a life which is limited by the demands of the men in her life and the repressive upper class.

So on the way to New York from Seattle, she fakes her death and eventually settles in Livingston. Here she meets hotel owner Eugenia Knox who runs the Elite with whatever panache she can muster in such a hardscrabble western town. Another widow, Margaret Mallow becomes Dulcy’s fast friend. The alcoholic police chief Gerry Fenoways whose sadistic streak is well-known. Samuel Peake, a newspaperman. And Lewis Braudel, the journalist who has his suspicions about her story, in part because Dulcy stole her fictitious husband’s back story from a novel Braudel had written.

Dulcy suspects that Victor’s thugs are never far behind, despite the fact that her family declares her dead after only a year. And her fears are well-founded. Will Dulcy be discovered? Will Victor drag her back to a life she no longer wants? There’s also that matter of her father’s lost fortune from the sale of a diamond mine–will his journals offer her any clues to its whereabouts?

The novel is washed in sepia tones–a touch dark, sometimes grim–but one that is totally compelling.

[Watch Nancy Pearl’s interview with author Jamie Harrison here–I think you will fall in love with her articulate, but unassuming and relatable, perspective.]

What I lived

If there is any fantasy that turns itself over and over in my head–especially during tough times–it is this one: I leave everything behind and reinvent myself some place far away. A simple apartment. Quiet. Solitude. No emotional entanglement (because no relationships, of course). I have thrown off the whatever I think is holding me down at the moment.

Of course, it’s only a pipe dream. Some fantastic plan I’ve concocted to step out of situations in which I feel trapped. Years ago what held me in place was my children; these days it’s my grandchildren. Because I could never leave those dear little hearts.

Bag End

During this Great Pause that fantasy has returned in full force. I’ve become obsessed with the Rubber Tramp movement, folks who leave “sticks and bricks” to live full time in their car, van, or RV. Entire YouTube channels are devoted to their adventures, but my favorites are Bob Wells’ CheapRVliving and Carolyn Higgins’ Carolyn’s RV Life. The vloggers are daring. Independent. Inventive. Free. Their videos are anthologies of how-to, travelogue, and personal philosophy. I can’t get enough of them–especially Carolyn, who also talks about the challenges women face on the road. For the past week I’ve been backtracking through her playlist in order to watch (almost) every one of her nearly five-hundred vlogs.

I see myself pulling out of the driveway, Bag End bobbing behind me, this Great Pause and social distancing and COVID-19 worries left behind in the dust. On the road I’ve got the whole world ahead and my tiny house behind. I boondock, maybe staying put for a week or two in one place before moving on. No shut-down for me …

At least in my fantasies.


Other Nancy Pearl recommendations reviewed on This is my symphony:
Etta and Otto and Russell and James 
Unbecoming
Miss Hargreaves 
August Snow
The Half Brother

Home sweet home

What I read

You can’t go wrong with an Ann Patchet novel. Think about it. Patron Saint of Liars. Bel Canto. The Magician’s Assistant. State of Wonder. I need say no more … except, The Dutch House.

Patchett’s latest novel tells the story of the Conroy family. Patriarch, Cyril, makes good in real estate after serving in World War II and buys his wife Elna the Dutch house, a beautifully crafted (although ostentatious) home built in 1922 with marble floored foyer, a ballroom, rich wall coverings, delft-tiled mantels, and life-sized portraits of the original owners, Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, still hung in place. The young couple moves in with their four-year-old daughter Maeve and begins the aspirational life that so many sought after the war.

From the beginning, Elna hated the house, spending her time instead on serving the poor in her local parish, leaving Maeve and eventually her son Danny to their nanny, Fluffy. In many ways Elna is a mother in name only–and she finally leaves the family when Danny is four to work with Mother Theresa in India. (Or at least that was the plan.) But Maeve and Danny have each other and their beloved nanny, as well as the housekeeper Sandy and cook Jocelyn. Cyril is distant and detached in that Greatest Generation kind of way, but the reconstituted family works.

And then Andrea Smith arrives. That wicked step-mother who fills the pages of so many tales. She even brings two step-sisters, but Norma and Bright are anything but mean. It’s Andrea’s arrival that pivots the story.

Danny and Maeve are sent to private boarding schools. Mrs. Smith (as the siblings still call her) marks her territory: favorite meals are taken out of rotation, family traditions spurned, and Maeve kicked out of a fairy-tale bedroom for her younger step-sisters. The two are persona non grata in their own home.

But it is the house that holds them in its embrace. Even when Danny is sent packing after Cyril’s death at age fifteen, even after the staff is let go, even after Maeve has made a life of her own and Danny marries, they return again and again to the house. The house, was, said Danny, “the … hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.” Sitting in Maeve’s car across the street after night falls, they wait while the lights switch on one by one and watch, trying to make sense of what once was and who they had become.

What I lived

I am myself an expert on houses. By the time I was thirteen I had lived in ten of them. Warren Road. JoyAnn Court. West Main Street. Ivan Drive. Brimfield. Summit. Edgewood. Sunrise Drive. Newcastle. Maxwell.

And each house held some sort of magic. The three flights up at West Main Street and my little ‘bedroom’ in the closet under the eaves. The sledding hill on Ivan Drive and the wide open basement, just right for learning to ride a two-wheeler with training wheels. The gravel road on Brimfield and listening to my dad laugh himself silly at the Smothers Brothers every Sunday night after I was tucked in bed. Summit, with its brown-painted wood floors that left chips of paint on the soles of your feet in humid weather and gauzy white curtains that floated on the breeze most summer nights. The woods behind Edgewood where we built forts, then played house for hours, and Sunrise Drive where Eric Sisson, my first crush, rode his pony over to give me a ride down the street. Newcastle, where my little brother got lost in the fields across the street on my watch, and where I made a pan of fudge to surprise my mom after work–only to have it upend in the freezer (where, for some reason known only to a budding 12-year-old cook I had set it to cool), milk chocolate drips puddling in the bottom of the cooler drawers in the ‘frig. And Maxwell. My final childhood home, fraught with family discord and drama, but a beauty unto itself, all timbered-stucco and brick. My bedroom with a window seat. (A window seat! Just like the girls in books …) Best friend down the street and bike rides around the lake.

Each and every house settled deeply in my bones, and I mourned each and every leaving. But I realize now that those houses have become heroes in my story.

Which is to say that a novel like The Dutch House reaches out, pulls me in, and settles me comfortable-like in its lap pages to watch the story unfold, just as I’ve watched my own.

Dreams die hard

What I read

Elizabeth McCracken’s novel Bowlaway is just about everything I want in a novel. The story is quirky, the characters unconventional, and the writing–oh, the writing! Think John Irving meets early Anne Tyler, then sprinkle it all with a dusting of magical realism.

It’s Massachusetts. Early twentieth century. And Bertha Truitt is found stretched out in a cemetery one frosty morning with nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold in her possession. But wait! Bertha blinks, much to the surprise of her rescuers. One of the men who found her, Dr. Leviticus Sprague takes her pulse (she’s not dead!), and a policeman bustles her off to the hospital to recover.

And recover she does.

Bertha marries that Dr. Sprague. She builds a bowling alley–she, the inventor of bowling. (Or so she says.) Bertha makes her other rescuer, Joe Wear, her Man Friday. A force to be reckoned with, Bertha allows women to bowl in her establishment without a curtain protecting “men from the spectacles of feminine sport”. Bertha also rides a bicycle around town and is a suffragette. And her husband, Dr. Sprague? He’s a black man, a transplant from the maritime provinces of Canada. To say Bertha was ahead of her time is putting it mildly.

And so the story unravels over more than fifty years. There is an octagonal house, a birth in its cupola, drowning in molasses, and death by spontaneous combustion. A swamp creature. Of course there is heartache, betrayal. All the shortcomings–and perfection!–of what it means to be human.

But the characters. My goodness. Jeptha, a hydrocephalic pinsetter. Minna, a drummer and jazz singer. LuEtta, bowler extraordinaire. Margaret, the maid who becomes lady-of-the-manor. Nahum, the long-lost son returned. (Or is he?) Archie, the gambling ne’er-do-well.

It is the life blood of the Bowlaway, though, that keeps the story pulsing. The establishment nourishes the hopes–or cuts off the dreams–of every character. There is no escaping its influence.

One of the blurbs on the back cover called Bowlaway “an oddball masterpiece.” And, indeed, it is.

What I lived

How very unexpected find myself inside the story of a family business–and how it both feeds the soul and sucks it dry–when one that was dear to my own heart–a yoga studio–was closing its doors.

From the first time I stepped foot in the studio a dozen years ago, my heart opened at the smell of nag champa, the flap of yoga mats slapping the floor, the flicker of candlelight in the evening. It was a place to connect and stretch my Self … and when we had the chance to make it our own, I hitched my wagon to its star and dreamed away.

But as in many family endeavors, we humans tend to get in the way. There is conflict and disagreement and misplaced alliances of all sorts. (Even, God forbid, estrangement.)

I wish I could have closed the door with something other than regret. I wish I had said some sort of proper goodbye–but it happened oh-so-quickly, and we left ‘proper’ behind many years ago.

It will have to be enough to sit with the understanding that the star fell, and my wagon with it.

I guess I’ll search for stardust elsewhere.

To read–or not to read

What I read

Imagine you dance three waltzes with a man twice your age at your step-sister’s wedding–and the next morning he asks for your hand in marriage. Imagine you marry him twenty-four hours later. Imagine spending two nights as his wife before he leaves to lead his regiment in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Imagine not seeing that husband again for two years.

You’ve just met Placidia Hockaday. (And because she is the second Mrs. H, Placidia is now step-mother to one-year-old baby Charles.) A whirlwind of a romance, to be sure, but it’s war time, after all. Major Gryff Hockaday lost his first wife to typhoid and felt he must “gamble his heart on winning something worth coming home to.” It’s my guess the scenario happened more times than we might think.

But what we also know from the beginning of The Second Mrs. Hockaday is that Placidia is in jail, charged with the murder of an infant son born while Major Hockaday was away, and the novel turns on the circumstances of that pregnancy and the baby’s death–a Sophie’s choice if there ever was one. Author Susan Rivers unravels Mrs. Hockaday’s story in a series of letters to her cousin Millie, inquest testimony, and diary entries discovered by Mrs. Hockaday’s son Achilles after the death of his parents.

I’ll be careful here because to say much more would be a certain spoiler. Let’s just say that Achilles Hockaday and his aunt Mildred face their own devastating choice. It was Major Hockaday’s wish that the diaries be destroyed so that no one would know the couple’s secret. Will Achilles honor that wish? Or will he read his mother’s diary and–perhaps–have his world destroyed by what he learns? When is it best to leave well enough alone?

It’s a powerful tale, Reader.

What I lived

I was as captivated by the story of Achilles’ Hockaday’s dilemma as I was his mother’s. To read or not to read, that is the question. What makes that dilemma even more intriguing is that fact that after I die my children (and grandchildren, for I’ve gifted my personal writing to one of them when they come of age) will read–or not–my journals and stories.

We parents spend years sifting through our children’s lives. We listen to their dreams and fears when they are young. Stand by them when they stumble. Pray that they turn to us when life gets difficult, hoping we can offer even a bit of direction. But what do those children know of their parents? Probably something of our childhood and family, our pastimes and jobs. But I’m guessing very little about our inner demons or what of life has made us heartsick. We parents are masters of the stiff upper lip, believing, perhaps, it is not the natural order of things to reveal the dark night of our soul to our children.

But my family will have the same opportunity as Achilles. They’ll become privy to what was sublime in my life. And what was hellish. If they read my writing, I hope they come to understand me in a deeper way.

And maybe–as did Achilles–allow the writing to soften their hearts.

Tale and Testament

What I read

Before I read Margaret Atwood’s recently published sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought maybe a second reading of the first was in order–especially since it had been thirty-some years since I’d read it. (I haven’t watched the television series because, well, you know … books.) I remembered how I felt after reading Handmaid’s Tale more than I remembered the plot. Of course, the visual of Offred’s dress and the handmaid’s role in Gilead stuck, as did main character’s near escape early in the novel. But I knew the intervening decades had softened my reaction to the novel and that a dive back into Offred’s dystopian world was in order before reading The Testaments.

The book has held up well, my friend, which is a pretty devastating thing to write. Our current political and social climate seem to put women at-risk for a Gilead-like scenario even more than thirty-five years ago.

The Testaments, is more back story than sequel. (We don’t explicitly find out what happened to Offred as one might expect in a sequel–but the savvy reader is sure to get enough hints to satisfy.) Even more accurately, perhaps, it’s a story that spins off Offred’s. The novel is told through the recovered testimonies of 369A and Aunt Lydia. Through 369A’s record, we learn about the daily lives of girls and women in Gilead–their marriages, education, and relationships with each other. And we also get the perspective of the Aunts and their role and unique position of power, especially the much-hated Aunt Lydia from Handmaid’s Tale. Both accounts also allow the reader to get a glimpse of how the underground Mayday organization operated.

Atwood’s handling of the sequel is masterful. In learning those back stories, we understand, rather than condemn. Even more chilling, readers might see themselves in the characters’ motives, choices, and reactions.

And while you might choose to deny it, Atwood seems to imply that the Aunts might be us.

What I lived

My then-husband bought me The Handmaid’s Tale –I don’t think he had any idea what it was about–for some celebratory day or another. Christmas. Or maybe my birthday. In 1985 had just started reading Ms. magazine on the sly. I was a stay-at-home mom without a college education who didn’t have a credit card to her name or any independent income. We were Evangelical Christians and, for me, life was starting to chaff.

A couple years later the shit hit the fan and life was never the same.

I’d like to think that I’d have enough inner resources now to resist any Gilead wool pulled over my eyes. I’m resilient. Educated. Independent. But the past several years make me doubt myself. The Old White Men in charge are pernicious in their policies for and attitudes about women. If you can say, ‘Grab them by the pussy’ and ‘Brett Kavanaugh’ in the same breath, how can you think otherwise?

And there are my own personal shortcomings. That longing to partner with The One. The dream of a fairy tale ending and happily-ever-after. A nasty little word called codependency. My self-zipped lips.

But then I remember–there is always hope. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.