'the awful duty'
I love it when trusted bloggers get enthusiastic about books that may have been passed by and when a book is picked by not just one but two of them then my card details are usually just a click away. With its very title Larry Watson's short novel aims to evoke both a time and a place and it is one of those books that succeeds in doing just that; a short read that contains a vivid portrait of a part of America and a neat story that leaves the reader utterly satisfied from start to finish. It is also another piece of corroborating evidence in my case to prove that any novel of childhood is always improved by being narrated from the point of view of the child now grown up and looking back. You can have all of the unique insight with none of the irritating child narrative voice.
So it is we hear from David Hayden who looks back forty years to the summer of his twelfth year, a time from which he carries 'a series of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them.' These images are listed at the beginning just as they were in Julian Barnes' novel of memory, A Sense Of An Ending.
A young Sioux woman lies on a bed in our house. She is feverish, delirious, and coughing so hard I am afraid she will die.
My father kneels on the kitchen floor, begging my mother to help him. It’s a summer night and the room is brightly lit. Insects cluster around the light fixtures, and the pleading quality in my father’s voice reminds me of those insects — high-pitched, insistent, frantic. It is a sound I have never heard coming from him.
My mother stands in our kitchen on a hot, windy day. The windows are open, and Mother's lace curtains blow into the room. Mother holds my father's Ithaca twelve-gauge shotgun, and since she is a small, slender woman, she has trouble finding the balance point of its heavy length.
He offers them to us in chronological order whilst acknowledging that 'the events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequence seems wrong.' We should imagine instead 'a movie screen divided into boxes' or 'the Sioux picture calendars in which the whole year's events are painted on the same buffalo hide.' This last image is important, for David grew up in Bentrock, Mercer County, a town of less than two thousand people amongst which his family holds an elevated position: his father the sheriff (as his father was before him) and his uncle a doctor and respected war hero. There is also a Native American community, held by many (including David's father) to be second-class citizens. The Hayden family have a housekeeper from the reservation in neighbouring North Dakota, Marie Little Soldier, a statuesque woman young David is wonderfully in thrall to. When she becomes ill with a fever that might indicate pneumonia the family's natural reaction is to send for David's uncle, Dr Hayden. Marie however absolutely refuses to be seen by him and when David's father dismisses this concern as native superstition about modern medicine and calls him anyway he sets into motion the string of events that will send seismic shocks through the Hayden family and the larger community.
As a portrait of small town life we can see the obvious things like the casual racism directed towards the Native American community, we learn once again that 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely' so that David's grandfather clearly abused his position as Sheriff (as the deputy points out, being a peace officer in Montana 'means knowing when to look and when to look away'), still exerts an unhealthy influence over the town, and that David's father still struggles to emerge from the family shadow. This is where the portrait gets really interesting of course because by focusing on the family, with its own politics and divisions, Watson can make some beautifully nuanced observations. What is it like to marry into a family like that for example and how strong are the different types of family bond when an event happens that threatens to break them all?
Through David's narration we learn how the smallest things can make all the difference to how a story will pan out. A decision by him for example to eavesdrop on a conversation between his parents makes all the difference in the world.
If I had gone back into the house - to the kitchen, to my room, out the back door, if I had left the porch and followed Frank's steps down the front walk - I would never have heard the conversation between my father and mother, and perhaps I would have lived out my life with an illusion about my family and perhaps even the human community. Certainly I could not tell this story....
I don't want to tell you any more about the story, only to mention again the joy of an adult looking back on childhood. A child can express how frightening the sight of watching his mother load a shotgun is, 'but also oddly touching. She was so clumsy, so obviously unsuited for what she was doing that it reminded me of what she looked like when she once put on a baseball glove and tried to pay catch with me. I wanted to rush over to her, to help her, to relieve her of the awful duty she had taken up.' But only an adult looking back can realise how time passes differently from childhood to adulthood, how what we measure it by will alter, how soon it can speed up.
Young people are supposed to be the impatient ones, but in most cases they can outwait their elders. The young are more practiced; time passes slower for them and they are constantly filling their hours, days, moths, and years with waiting - for birthdays, for Christmas, for Father to return, for summer to arrive, for graduation, for the rain to stop, for the minister to stop talking, for girls to stop saying, "Not now, not yet; wait." No, when it comes to patience, even the enforced variety, the young are the real masters.
And one final quote, indulge me please: the child can sometimes sense when a conversation is important, even when it seems to be innocuous, but it often takes the adult to realise just where the importance lies. It also takes a writer of great skill and reserve to leave some room for the reader to make their own adult intuitions, to make their own connections. It is in this way, as much as its subject matter or brevity, that I was reminded of William Maxwell's masterpiece of a final novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow. Both books read and satisfy easily but also distill a lifetime's experience so that they become a much richer read. I heartily recommend both.
"We're going to have to paint the house," he said. "But before we do, we're going to have to scrape it and sand it right down to the bare wood. Then prime it good before we paint it. And we might have to put two coats on." He picked off another paint chip. "It's going to be hard work. Think you're up to it?" . . . Then as if it really were houses and paint he wanted to talk about, he turned back to the wall. "Though if it was up to me, I'd probably just let it go. Let it go right down to bare wood. If I had my way I'd let every house in town go. Let the sun bake 'em and the north wind freeze 'em until there isn't a house in town with a spot of paint on it. You'd see this town from a distance and it would look like nothing but firewood and gray stone. And maybe you'd keep right on moving because it looked like nothing was living here. Paint. Fresh paint. That's how you find life and civilization. Women come and they want fresh paint."