On sorrow

Song of the Pearl by Ruth Nichols

Shortly after finishing Ruth Nichols’ first novel, A Walk Out of the World, I found the author’s Wikipedia page. Impressed by the sadness of the story presented by its anonymous contributors, I decided to take a closer look; and ordered another novel, published by Atheneum in 1976, seven years after her first. According to its dust jacket, this was originally classed by Atheneum as fiction for young adult readers.

cover image of a blonde woman in a robe superimposed over a river, with a large pearl in her hands and at her feet, with mountains rising on either side
Atheneum, 1976

The first chapter is nine pages long. Within these nine pages Margaret, the story’s protagonist, experiences rape, incest, chronic illness, and an early death at age sixteen, which she apparently welcomes. This explains so much about the way Nichols’ first book opens, and also confirms my suspicions about its title. A Walk Out of the World opens with a description of two siblings:

They were slender, silent children who never played with anyone but each other.

They lived in an apartment house in the middle of the city. It was the sort of building that is not a home and does not become one no matter how long you may live there . . .

They were not unhappy; they were not anything in particular. Sometimes they wondered why . . . Judith often tried to express the things that they both felt. “I want to run,” she said. “But it’s as if we’re shut up in a little box and can’t breathe.”

In the opening chapter of Song of the Pearl, Margaret is also unable to breathe. Her lifelong struggle with asthma culminates in suffocation, on the last page of the chapter.

If I had to summarize Song of the Pearl using one word only, I would describe it as a novel about sorrow. Nichols presents a fairly straightforward grief journey, masquerading as Margaret’s trip through a bardo, or intermediary afterlife; with each new phase of grief distinguished from the last by a new landscape rich in symbolic contouring.

At the time of the book’s publication in 1976, Nichols was, according to information included on the flyleaf, finishing a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at McMaster University. One year later, she received the degree; and subsequently worked as a lecturer at Carleton.

The specific afterlife journey Nichols presents does not conform to any one religious tradition; but, rather, borrows from many. Margaret has experienced, and gradually remembers, lives which preceded the one just ended. Reincarnation plays a significant role here; and yet the framework is neither explicitly Buddhist, nor Hindu. In a note at the end of the novel, Nichols explains that its title, Song of the Pearl, derives from a Gnostic hymn dating from “the first centuries of our era.” The ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna—evoked as the evening star in chapter three—appears in human form at the very end of the story. And a landscape encountered at the start of the sixth chapter conjures both Demeter, classical goddess of grain, and her more sinister daughter Persephone:

On a mellow day at summer’s end, Margaret came to the castle . . .

Its earthworks overgrown with wild grain, its walls tangled with blackberry bushes, the ruin stood in a bee-buzzing silence. Goldenrod, yellow daisies, the pale wild grass: what was there here to make her heart beat faster?

She did not know. She walked forward, and the silence was so deep around her that she felt she had parted a curtain of golden gauze. The air shimmered with power.

Birds and insects were the only visible stirrings of life . . . Margaret smiled wryly and hesitated in the stillness.

Then she saw the gaping doorway.

It opened onto blackness and exhaled the dampness of cold stone. Past its threshold, steps led downward. Margaret stepped into the shadow of the doorway. The silence sang like a strung bow.

Nichols is at her best in moments like these. This novel is, fundamentally, about taking time out from living to grieve: to alternatively construct and dismantle—in an ongoing and cyclic way—a sense of self, or core identity. And Margaret’s crisis is, at root, a crisis of identity. Personae are built up, shattered, and reconfigured . . . in a process with, I would imagine, significant resonance for young adult readers involved in similar patterns of exploration. How lovely, and how masterful, to quietly—and without even speaking their names—summon the power of mythical guides to mediate this activity.

As a consequence of drawing on so many disparate traditions, Nichols runs into trouble with resolution at the end of the novel. A nod toward the doctrine of karma—the idea that Margaret has somehow earned her own misfortune, through missteps taken in previous lives, and in effect chosen to be raped—leaves me both skeptical, and disheartened. A statement that “the plots of all her stories reflect to some extent the problems and solutions she has found along the way,” included in the author’s biography, hints at an autobiographical foundation for this as well as other novels. Back in 1976, Nichols might have needed an explanation for her own suffering. She might have found reassurance in the idea that past actions weave things into the future; as well as some measure of retroactive control. The challenge, here, lies in extending this line of reasoning beyond oneself without undermining compassion for others.

Inside/Out, take two

Back in March, I posted on Inside/Out by Elizabeth Schultz. Less than twenty-four hours later I deleted my post, due to concerns about copyright. Concerns now resolved, I feel comfortable reinstating my original content.

Inside/Out by Elizabeth Schultz

A few weeks ago, a slender chapbook arrived, unannounced, in the mail from Kansas. Inside, I found a carefully crafted cycle of twenty-one poems by Elizabeth Schultz, a resident of my home town, describing observations made from her kitchen window over the course of one calendar year. My mother—who sent the chapbook to me, and who seems to know Schultz personally—attached a sticky note detailing this information to the book’s front cover. And, its cover image does evoke the experience of gazing out at a landscape through the panes of a window:

cover image of a deciduous tree in the middle of a field of mown grass

If the gift of this chapbook was calculated to make me feel even more homesick than I ordinarily do, my mother’s strategy has worked. The poems in here are as lovely as the region they describe; and reading them reminds me of the sad truth that, as an adult, I have never actually lived in Kansas through a full cycle of seasons. Childhood memories are a bit like the short trips home I take nowadays: decontextualized bursts of imagery and sensation which I do treasure . . . while, at the same time, envying those who manage to stay long enough to feel the cumulative effects of day-to-day changes to the environment.

The poem cycle starts with the commencement of spring in the heart of the speaker as—fatigued by winter—she longs for the thaw to begin. “Language indoors,” Schultz writes, “is anthropocentric,/and I am eager for boisterous/birds and wind.” This complaint turns out to be laden with irony, as so much that she observes, throughout the ensuing year, will be tinted by her own anthropocentric lens. Bird populations, in particular, will reflect human behavior patterns and even political ideologies. Here, for example, in “Kings and Commons,” smaller birds react to the arrival of a hawk:

. . . He stands silent and

solitary, magisterial,

commanding the yard,

golden leaves cascading

around his shoulders,

silver chest dazzling. . . .

The small birds are

not, as usual, darting

about . . . Intuitively

identifying a despot,

these commoners

have long since fled.

In one of my favorite poems in the cycle, “Imperialist,” Schultz anthropomorphizes dandelions, characterizing their “culture” as imperial . . . while at the same time presenting herself—or, at any rate, the poem’s speaker—as a repressive agent. This is simple and complex, at the same time.

Across my yard, I stalk dandelions

with my barbed tool. Savagely,

I yank them up by their roots. . . .


I attack, accumulate a pile

of slender-necked corpses,

their stems bleeding milk.


Their surrender is not passive:

earth clings to their limp roots.

They stain my hands. And I know


that behind my merciless back,

with each soft pounce,

the culture of dandelions

goes on imperializing the land.

Taken as a whole, this cycle of twenty-one poems feels both substantive and complete. Near the end—as autumn gradually capitulates to winter—both a spirit of melancholy, and another violent crime, make their appearances. The cycle ends with two short and haunting poems, “Too Bright” and “Probing the Dark,” which leave me with a feeling of having passed through something significant, something weighty, and emerged at the other end: stripped bare, and changed, as a consequence of my journey.

I am lucky to own a copy of this chapbook, as it seems to have been self-published and is not, so far as I can tell, for sale anywhere. I do see another title by Schultz, Her Voice—published by Woodley Press, back in 2008—available through the usual channels. The last poem in Inside/Out is dated 2013, so Her Voice must represent earlier writing. Hmmmn . . . interesting.

Nostalgia gone awry

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

One of the things I was most excited about, back when I thought I would be able to have children, was the opportunity to share stories with them. I wanted to pass on the literature I had loved so much as a child; I wanted my own experiences with John Bellairs, E. Nesbit, and Mary Norton to grow and change and yet, somehow, to persist in this world.

As a teacher, parents would often ask me for book recommendations. I quickly discovered that I was not able to pass my own childhood favorites on to the children I taught; because times had changed, and the words on the pages had not. The classics I had loved as a child—and, in truth, loved still—were, I realized, filled with stereotypes, as well as with religious overtones. As a parent, I could have shared these classics with my children anyway, and monitored closely as they navigated the waters of different times, and different places. But as a teacher, I didn’t have that freedom. As a teacher, the books I recommended had to be perfect: free from judgments, stereotypes, misconceptions and outdated norms; empowering to all genders; compassionate, and inclusive.

cover image of a boy carrying a lantern with two hound dogs, at night in the forest
Bantam Books, 1997

Although I’m no longer teaching, and no longer searching for perfect books, the issue returned to me with a vengeance about one month ago, when I picked up a used copy of Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, and read it for the first time. Originally published by Doubleday in 1961, this book is so wrong for children, by today’s standards. Even as an adult, I find it disturbing. I don’t think I would pass this on to any child; not even to my own.

And, yet, the book is not without merit. It’s heartfelt, lean, and beautifully crafted. The worldview is innocent, and remains so throughout . . . despite pervasive and graphic violence. Was the world such a different place, back in 1961? The landscape Rawls painted would clearly have been a landscape of the past, even then. Set on Cherokee land in the Ozark mountains during an unspecified period of settlement, the novel does seem to reflect a nostalgic view prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s: when folk heroes such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were celebrated on national television. And, the connection to these figures is direct, since action in the novel centers around a passionate quest for the raw material with which their coonskin caps were constructed.

It is possible that a child brought up in a hunting culture would—even today—come better prepared than I did to cope with Rawls’ emotional topography.

Despite the violence, and despite its datedness, there is something powerful tucked between the pages of this novel. It has become a classic for a reason. The ground here is, I feel, fertile for revision: I would love to read the other side of this story. There is just so much potential, so much that begs to be turned over and viewed from an alternative angle. For example, the way the narrator, Billy, catches a raccoon—after his dogs chase it up a tree—by, simply, felling the tree:

When I came to them and saw what they had done I was speechless. I groaned and closed my eyes. I didn’t want to believe it. There were a lot of big sycamores in the bottoms but the one in which my dogs had treed was the giant of them all.

While prowling in the woods, I had seen the big tree many times. I had always stopped and admired it. Like a king in his own domain, it towered far above the smaller trees.

It had taken me quite a while to find a name suitable for the big sycamore . . .

One day, while lying in the warm sun staring at its magnificent beauty, I found the perfect name. From that day on, it was called “the big tree.” I named the bottoms around it “the big tree bottoms.” . . .

Carrying the coon by a hind leg, I walked back to the big tree for my ax. Before leaving for home, I stood and looked at the fallen sycamore. I should have felt proud over the job I had done, but for some reason I couldn’t. I knew I would miss the giant of the bottoms, for it had played a wonderful part in my life. I thought of the hours I had whiled away staring at its beauty and how hard it had been finding the right name for it.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to cut you down, but I had to. I hope you can understand.”

The death of the raccoon is, to Billy, more valuable than the life of the tree. But I find myself more interested in the forest’s perspective, here, than in anything Billy has to say. This same story—told by someone who represents, or at least respects, the life of the forest itself—would be compelling for me. Intuitively, I feel that this would be a female perspective; and would both take into account, and accurately identify, the gender of the mother tree.

Going home

For years I thought this melody, included in Dvořák’s New World Symphony, was a traditional American spiritual. It turns out I was wrong; Dvořák himself composed the tune. It seems to have been turned into a hymn later, by one of his students; likely because it’s just so beautiful.

This week, I unexpectedly found myself going home. When I woke up Wednesday morning, I had no idea that I would be sleeping the night in Kansas.

My mother had already spent two nights in the hospital: the same hospital where I was born. I had thought the situation was under control. But Wednesday morning, I realized that my help was, in fact, desperately needed.

After a lovely flight across the desert Southwest, I arrived at the hospital late Wednesday afternoon with a stack of books for my mother. She chose The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi. But the next day—when Purple Hibiscus arrived in a package from California (shipped before I realized I would be traveling) I shamelessly took The Icarus Girl back again.

cover image of a girl in white and beige, with wings and a long shadow
Bloomsbury, 2006

So far, I’ve only read four chapters. But the interesting thing is that it turns out to be a book about going home: in the protagonist’s case, to a family compound in Nigeria which she visualizes, before she arrives, as predominantly golden. Kansas, on the other hand—at this time of year—is predominately green. Here is what the driveway leading up to our own family compound looks like:

My mother finally came home last night, after five days in the hospital. She’s hooked up to two oxygen concentrators, and really can’t move around. There’s so much work to be done, and very little time available for reading. But I’m determined to make it happen, and—out of courtesy—to finish the novel I stole from her, before she runs out of pages in the other one!

One story

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Last week—while waiting for Chocky to arrive—I took the time to read something which had been sitting on my TBR shelf for awhile. Months earlier, I had heard Anne Bogel praise Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, pretty much unequivocally, on her What Should I Read Next? podcast. Adichie’s first and shortest novel, Purple Hibiscus, felt like a natural starting point for me. Since I don’t always agree with Anne Bogel, I ordered it first in order to test the waters, and see how well I liked Adichie, before committing to anything longer. Midway through the first chapter, however, I found myself already in love; and knew I could trust this voice—this particular first-person narrator—as well as this author.

First published in 2003, my paperback edition was released by Anchor Books one year later, in 2004:

cover image of the arm, hand, and mid-section of a girl dressed in green, purple and orange
Anchor Books, 2004

The first thing I noticed about Adichie’s writing, and the thing that led me to begin trusting her so soon, was the close attention paid to textural details: to plants, to food, and even to items of clothing. This made for an immersive experience in the narrator’s world, even before this world grew comprehensible. And, the slow way understanding dawned—with basic truths unfolding gradually, even incrementally, throughout the course of the novel—made the book as a whole feel magical. Right from the start, the reader knows and sees so much . . . as though present alongside the narrator, Kambili. And yet, as it turns out, the reader knows and sees so little.

Continue reading “One story”