Oh boy, it’s a very different look outside from just a few mild days ago - it’s a winter wonderland of fluffy snow and bright sun and chilly chilly temperatures. But I’m cozy inside with my steaming cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread as I think about what I’ve recently read.
Since my last post, I managed to read two books. As it was just before Easter, I picked up my favourite book to reread, The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. Every year at this time, I have the urge to reread this book, as it opens with the main character waking up on Good Friday. A significant portion of the book happens over the Easter weekend, when exchanges occur that drive the rest of the book’s events. I didn’t read it last year, but this year, because I have much more free reading time, I indulged and enjoyed it as much this time as I did on every other reading. As I wrote in an earlier post (February 23 2014), Steinbeck infuses this novel with so much wisdom, so many insightful comments on the "human condition", that I could write an essay about something pertinent he addresses on just about every page. This novel tells the story of the loss of innocence of Ethan Allen Hawley, descendant of a proud New England family whose family once owned half of New Baytown but whose father, through bad advice and bad choices, lost everything, with the result that Ethan is now a clerk in a grocery store his family once owned. This store is now owned by Alfio Marullo, a man who came from Sicily decades earlier, but is still considered a “foreigner”. When one unusual occurrence is followed by another and yet another in rapid succession, Ethan is compelled to change himself, to dare himself to become what he thinks others want him to be, regardless of his innately strong moral fiber and his belief in personal truth and accountability. It is the picture of small-town life, and the exploration of the dynamics that work behind the facades of even the most benign-looking settings and groups. Ethan speaks directly to the reader, and we are drawn into the journey, the exploration, the insidious corruption that steals up on him and sends him spiraling downward, so that there is no specific point at which we can say, “Here is where he went wrong, here is the point at which he betrayed himself and finally achieved the status he thought he wanted, but at what cost?” It is difficult to describe this book, because not much actually happens. It deals more with the deterioration of one man’s soul to fulfill the expectations others have of him. It is a cautionary tale that reminds readers to be careful what we wish for because we just might get it, and that sometimes the treasure we seek is already all around us. For juvenile fiction, we would call this a “coming-of-age” novel, where we would refer to the “loss of innocence” of the main character. I don’t know if there are comparable terms that refer to adult literature, since loss of innocence is generally associated with youth, and surely Ethan has already come of age by the time this story begins. It was like Catcher in the Rye for adults - the reader wants him to hold on to the golden ring and not become corrupted, just as Holden Caulfield wants Phoebe to retain her childhood innocence. I can’t praise this book enough. Clearly, I would give it a 10 out of 10.
And my volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Plainsong by Kent Haruf. This book has been compared to The Winter of Our Discontent, and now that I’ve read it, I can see some similarities. Plainsong is set in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado, and describes the lives of these central characters: Tom Guthrie, the high school History teacher, and his estranged wife, Ella; Ike and Bobby, Tom’s sons, aged nine and ten; Maggie Jones, another teacher at the high school who lives with her elderly father; Victoria Roubideaux, a high school student who is pregnant and determined to keep the baby; and Harold and Raymond McPherson, two elderly bachelor brothers who run a farm just outside of town, and who end up giving Victoria a place to stay when her mother kicks her out. These characters’ lives are intertwined as only the lives of those in a small town can be - everyone knows everything about everyone else. Tom faces challenges at home and at work - his wife is suffering from some unnamed mental health issues, and he must take on the responsibility of raising his sons alone. There are issues with one of his students, a boy who has caused problems throughout his school history, and one whom the principal just wants to graduate and move him along to become someone else’s problem. Unfortunately, Tom refuses to pass him until he makes an effort to hand in some work. When Victoria’s mother discovers her pregnancy and locks her out of the house, she is left to wander the streets until she turns up at the home of one of her teachers, Maggie, asking for some help. She stays at Maggie’s place until Maggie’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s, scares her into leaving. Maggie approaches the brothers and suggests that Victoria live with them, that having her there would help them as much as it would help her. They are, of course, reluctant at first, but then they embrace the idea and welcome her into their home as best they can. When Dwayne, the father of Victoria’s baby, shows up at school one day, she goes off with him to live in Denver, but it doesn’t work out the way she was hoping, so she returns to the farm, where she is once again welcomed. Ike and Bobby are two responsible boys who deliver newspapers to the whole town every day before school. They also collect money each week, where they encounter interesting townsfolk, including Mrs Stearns, an elderly, reclusive woman whom they at first dread visiting, but whom they eventually come to like. Tom’s wife, Ella, moves from the darkened guest room in their house to a rental place in town, and eventually to Denver, where she is staying with her sister. The boys visit her regularly, but there is really not much hope that Tom and she will get back together. Tom then begins dating Maggie. There is really no plot to this novel, and at the end, many storylines are left unresolved, but there is a sequel, Eventide, which may answer some of the questions readers are left with. Three members showed up for the meeting, and one member loved this book right from the first page. She said she connected with the characters right away and she sped through the book, which was unusual for her. She appreciated the stark language the author used to describe the events in the town. One member said she felt irritated by Haruf’s writing style at first, with the lengthy sentences describing the minutiae of daily life, but that it didn’t take long for her, too, to be sucked in by the story. And the other member read it some time ago and didn’t love it, didn’t hate it - she thought it was just ok. The ladies who loved it grew up on farms in small towns, so they could really relate to the characters and the settings - they said many of the scenes reminded them of their own experiences growing up. One member talked about her experiences collecting money for her paper route. I read aloud a favourite scene when the boys are sent by Mrs Stearns to the grocery store to buy ingredients for oatmeal cookies, and they remark that it was more complicated than it seems - two kinds of brown sugar, two kinds of oatmeal in two different sizes, and two colours of eggs in three different sizes - Oh my! How are they to choose? One of the ladies said she could relate, as she would often be sent in to do the grocery shopping for the whole family at a young age, and she remembers how confusing it was. As I was reading the novel, I wondered when it was set; it was published in 1999 but there was no mention of any sort of technology, no internet, no social media, and the idea of collecting newspaper money seemed archaic somehow, yet it also seemed somehow fairly current. After some discussion, we determined that it was probably set sometime in the 1980s, before computers became so prevalent. We discussed how realistic the situation with the two brothers was, that back in the day, it was not uncommon to find households and farms run by aged bachelor brothers, and even some run by spinster sisters in small towns and farming communities. We talked about how things have changed regarding raising children, how kids were given so much more responsibility and freedom in our day, and how so much is done for them nowadays. We thought that if kids are given responsibility and challenges, they grow to be more resilient, and that being too over-protective can be detrimental to a child’s development. One member liked that this was like reading about “normal people”, which echoed my thought that this book is like a little slice of ordinary life. As well as The Winter of Our Discontent, this book also reminded me of Empire Falls by Richard Russo, which I read a couple of months ago. I would give the book a rating of 8, and I’d like to read the sequel to find out what happened to the characters.
That’s all for today. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but make sure to bundle up!!
Bye for now…