Monday, February 23, 2009

A Book About Mothering

I got the call all mothers dread last Thursday--the call from the school nurse saying that my child had gotten hurt while at school--except that it was Walker who called me, because the nurse was taking care of another child with a sore throat. Walker, like his sister (who once went an entire afternoon at school with a broken arm because she thought it was "just sprained") is not a complainer. So when he called to tell me that he'd hurt his (wait for it) arm, I was out of the house and over to the school in record time. We spent the afternoon in doctor's offices and went home with a splint on Walker's arm for what they told us is a "buckle fracture."

It was a good day, as these days go, because he called me right after he hurt himself, I was in town and able to come right over, and I didn't miss any meetings or classes or even picking up his sister, since she was scheduled to be at an after-school activity until late that afternoon.

I wasn't organized or calm enough to bring either of us a book for what I knew would be an afternoon of waiting, so I didn't finish reading Sing Them Home, by Stephanie Kallos, until yesterday, and reflected that it was the right kind of novel to be reading through most of the week. It's about mothering, especially about how to do it in a small town, and for one character-- Hope--about how to do it in a limited amount of time. One of my favorite parts is when Hope thinks about Sylvia Plath's suicide:
"Some people doubt the authenticity of her intent, since she'd prearranged for someone to come to the flat early in the morning. Wasn't she hoping this person would find her and save her? Surely she was bluffing. Weren't her actions a plea for help rather than a real attempt?
Idiots. Of course not. She was seeing to the children, making sure they'd be taken care of when they woke up. I'd do the same. Any mother would."

I identified with Hope more than any of the other characters, which is a strange way of relating to this novel, because Hope is dead before the events of the novel take place, and we know her mostly through journal entries. There are some odd attempts at third-person beyond-the-grave storytelling that don't work very well, but there's some realism in the attempts of Hope's children to remember her and know each other, while the omniscient narrator reveals how little they actually expose to each other. The small-town setting is a fictional Nebraska town settled by the Welsh, and Welsh traditions are a big part of their life (this was an odd segue from The Eyre Affair, which is also set partly in Wales, albeit a fictional version).

The novel was a very slow read for me, and ultimately it wasn't as compelling as the first novel I read by Kallos (reviewed here). Part of the problem is that the novel is about ordinary lives. One of the culminations of the plot is a small-town contest for eleven-year-old girls, all of whom are "mediocre" but patiently watched by parents and neighbors:
These are not foolish people, deluded people. They know that, in the grand scheme of things, their daughters are undistinguished, ordinary, but that their efforts on this day deserve reward, because it takes courage to put ordinariness in the spotlight."

I am not as patient, as a reader or as a small-town parent. I do shift in my chair when a child soprano goes sharp and after "the twentieth cartwheel." So I got impatient with this story. But then there's always some bit of particularly lyrical prose or an image that stays with me. My other favorite part, again from Hope's journal, is another part where I identify with her, when she thinks about herself as a mother:
"It seems to me that there are people in the world who are able to contain their lives, neatly, calmly. They create boundaries that allow them to function in whatever way is called for at the present moment. They ignore their children, for example, when that is an appropriate response. They pay their bills precisely at the same time every month, clean the bathroom on Wednesdays, plan a week's worth of menus.
I am in the other category. There is spillage everywhere....Motherhood is so messy in so many more ways than I expected. A chaos of emotions and laundry. A life without boundaries, splitting at the seams and spilling over everywhere."

I wish this novel made more sense of the spillage, revealed more of the extraordinary. I might even wish that it was shorter, that a good editor had helped Kallos emphasize why these lives are worth our attention, in the midst of our own.


Anonymous said...

I think the idea that the author would have the parents populating her book see their children as ordinary is so sad. Children need their parents to see them as extraordinary somehow, to acknowledge the child's uniqueness.

I hope that arm heals quickly. Our five year old (four at the time) broke his arm last 4th of July in a dramatic fall off of our backyard slide (the burgers burned), and the cast didn't come off until a day or two before school started. Quite the summer, but we made it!

Jeanne said...

To give the author credit, the part about seeing the children as ordinary comes mostly from the point of view of an unmarried woman (Hope's daughter). She won the contest when she was 11 and is now judging it.

We're old hands (ha) at broken arms. Eleanor broke her arm at 14 months, broke both arms badly at 10, and broke one arm at school at 11 (that's the one she went around with all afternoon). I told her she couldn't wear high heels until she'd gone without a broken bone for a year, and she hasn't broken anything since.