Monday, April 3, 2017

Saxon Roberts

Charmian London
When we meet Saxon, the heroine of Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon [1915], she is ironing fancy linen in a steaming laundry in Oakland with many other women. Paid by the piece, Saxon does better than some of the women who become hysterical and are miserable in the situation. She and a friend plan to go to a union picnic and dance on Sunday.

At the dance, Saxon meets Billy, a teamster and prize fighter. Billy immediately feels nice to Saxon, big, blonde and calm. Both of their ancestors crossed the plains into California as pioneers. Saxon idealizes her mother, a poet who died when she was young. Saxon was in an orphanage until her half-brother took her into his home. Billy asks Saxon to go buggy riding, admires her grit. Very soon they agree to marry. Saxon leaves the laundry and moves into a little house with Billy, with furniture not yet paid for.

As a wife, Saxon strives to retain Billy’s love, making pretty things for herself. She becomes pregnant, but there is much labor unrest. The men talk socialism. Billy’s friend Burt says they should not “bring children into the world with no guarantee you can feed them.” When striking men, scabs and policemen fight in the street in front of Saxon’s house, she has a miscarriage, losing the baby. Burt dies in the melee and Billy begins drinking. He enjoys the fighting, talking dynamite, sabotage, revolution. Life becomes senseless to Saxon.

Hard times comes to everyone in Saxon’s Oakland neighborhood. Billy goes back to prize fighting to earn money and is beaten. When he goes to jail for 30 days for assault, Saxon is left with no money. She is lonely and doesn’t have a strong sense of reality. She goes down to the beach and lives on mussels and oysters she finds there. “All the natural world was right, and sensible, and beneficent. It was the man-world that was wrong, and mad, and horrible,” she decides. Saxon decides she will fight, for Billy, love and happiness.

One day she meets a young man named Jack who reads and wants to go to sea. The two of them go out to Goat Island for rock cod. Jack says that “Oakland is just a place to start from.” This is a revelation to Saxon. She comes back to life, cleans her house, plays her ukulele and prepares for Billy’s return. When he comes back, she confronts him with her plan to find a farm for them somewhere in the country. Billy agrees and they prepare to go tramping, with bedrolls, cooking pans and Saxon’s ukulele on their backs.

At first they go south. In San Leandro, they find that the Portuguese immigrants have been buying up land, getting great yields from intensive farming of their small plots. Billy and Saxon ask everyone they meet about farming, wanting to learn how not to deplete the soil. Billy finds work plowing, because he is so good with horses. Everywhere they go, people are impressed with the two and offer them work, though Billy doesn’t want Saxon to work hard.

On Carmel beach, they camp, finding themselves in a company of artists who swim in the ocean and eat mussels and abalone, which they call "the food of the gods." They are offered a house for the winter and become members of this group. Saxon appreciates the childlike joy of the artists, but cannot understand their pessimism.

Saxon explains to one of the artists what she and Billy are looking for:  “There be hills and valleys, and rich land, and streams of clear water, good wagon roads and a railroad not too far away, plenty of sunshine and cold enough at night to need blankets, and not only pines but plenty of other kinds of trees, with open spaces to pasture Billy’s horses and cattle, and deer and rabbits for him to shoot, and lots and lots of redwood trees, and no fog!” He takes her out and points to the moon. “You are looking for paradise,” he tells her. “It’s like looking for a valley on the moon!”

Saxon and Billy move on, looking for their own land. Government land for the asking is no longer available in 1908, but they travel out to Sacramento and north as far as Oregon, looking for the perfect place. They buy a camping wagon and finally come back down to the Sonoma Valley, which Saxon recognizes as the place they are looking for. With luck and Billy’s horse trading, they acquire enough land to begin farming. Saxon sends for the baby clothes she has packed away at her brother’s house.

Saxon’s relationship to Billy is notable in that they talk to each other about everything, always returning to the first glimpses they had of each other when Billy thought, “that you was made for me,” and Saxon said to herself, “is he the man?” “I never talk this way to other girls,” says Billy. “It’s the same way with me,” Saxon says. It is a story of two people who, though they have little education, have large hearts and keen minds. Jack London spares us none of the details.

Behind Saxon Roberts, of course, there was a real woman, Charmian London, Jack London’s second wife. London called her his “mate-woman” and Charmian shared many adventures with him. London left most of his estate to her, because of "the love and comfort, & joy & happiness she has given me."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tenar

Over a 37-year period, Ursula Le Guin used her Earthsea series to state and refine her concepts of the nature of being and doing, living and dying, mostly through the embodied voice of her character Tenar. As a child, Tenar is stolen from the Kargad Lands, a bit more primitive than the evolving islands of Earthsea. Tenar is dedicated as high prietess on the Island of Atuan, where she is made complicit in the service of the “nameless ones,” ordering people to die by starvation.

When Ged, an archmage, comes looking for the other half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe, he wins Tenar by his kindness. Tenar spares him, bringing him food and water. They escape from the Tombs where she has hidden him and Tenar renounces her role as priestess. Ged takes her to the island of Gont, to live with Ogion, one of Ged’s teachers. Though she is a woman, Ogion offers to teach her magic, but Tenar refuses. She wants a man, children, an ordinary life. She marries Flint, who owns Oak Farm, and they have two children.

When Flint dies, Tenar is left with the farm. She takes in a child who has been abused and burned by her family. Ogion sends for her when he is near death and she brings the disfigured child with her to the edge of the sea, the Overfell where Ogion lives. Ogion sees something in the child, and sees a change that is coming, but he is not able to state things clearly.

Tenar stays on and one morning the dragon Kalessin brings Ged to her, half-dead. He has lost his powers in closing up the breach between the worlds of the living and the dead. Tenar nurses him back to life. When the soon-to-be king of Earthsea comes looking for him, Ged cannot face the fact that he is no longer a powerful archmage. Tenar sends him to Oak Farm where he becomes a goatherd, the job he did as a child. She tries to remember what it was like to have been powerful and then to lose that, throw it away, become only Tenar, only herself. “A woman got used to shame,” she thinks.

Tenar is caught between Aspen, an evil magician who is able to cast a spell upon her, and the family of the child who maimed her. They escape on the Dolphin, the ship of the king of Earthsea. He agrees not to demand Ged’s presence until Ged is ready, and takes Tenar and the child back to Oak Farm. But the child’s family finds them, Ged injures one of them and they are brought to justice. Tenar suspects that the change Ogion predicted is that magic will become less important once there is a king in Earthsea, who establishes the rule of law.

Tenar takes Ged as a partner, in her bed and in her farm. Together they teach the burned child and talk, especially in the winter when the harvest has been good and there is not much to do but stay warm. In the spring, Tenar’s son, the owner of the farm, returns. Tenar does not like how Spark treats her and she and Ged plan to leave, to go back to Ogion’s cottage. They are intercepted by Aspen, the evil magician, however, and the burned child must call the dragon Kalissen to rescue them, revealing her own dragon nature, and her real name, Tehanu.

Ursula Le Guin thought the series finished when she described how Tenar and Ged became ordinary people in Tehanu [1990], the fourth book of the series. In 2001, however, she published The Other Wind. Here Tenar is called upon to counsel the king of Earthsea, as there is a dispute between dragons and men, as well as some threat from the people of the Kargad lands. We see Tenar’s importance as an older woman to the young people who need courage to take up their roles in life: A Kargish princess is terrified when she is brought to become queen. Tehanu is shy and dependent, but it is she who is able to speak to the dragons. In the end, men and dragons meet to restore the balance of the world, Tehanu takes her true form and Tenar is able to return at last to live a quiet life with Ged on the island of Gont.

In spite of the fact that she consorts with dragons and kings, gardens, meals, goats, sewing, hearthfires and stories in winter, and occasionally a very good wine make up Tenar’s life. They restore and maintain Earthsea’s equilibrium as well. When she wants to go back to Ogion’s cottage Tenar thinks: “They would have to replant Ogion’s garden right away if they wanted any vegetables of their own this summer. She thought of the rows of beans and the scent of the bean flowers. She thought of the small window that looked west.”

It is this down-to-earth and intimate description which made me love Tenar. Le Guin recently said here: “I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.” Le Guin doesn’t hesitate to take up questions such as the value of death and rebirth as opposed to immortality, and trust as the basis for relations between men and women. Nevertheless, juxtaposing domesticity with magic and adventure; and finding common ordinary life more valuable is no mean feat!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wang O-lan

Woman of Taihu, William Armstrong
O-lan becomes the wife of Wang Lung in the opening chapter of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth [1931]. She has been a slave in a great house, but now is terribly proud to become the wife of a man who owns land. O-lan is not beautiful and does not have bound feet. She has “a brown, common, patient face.” Wang Lung likes her movements as he collects her at the great house. They go to a small temple and burn incense in front of the gods of Wang Lung’s fields. As they are going home, Wang Lung purchases six small green peaches for his new wife.

In the days to come, O-lan works hard, pleasing her new husband by all she does. When she does not have enough to do, she joins him in the field, which is a great happiness to him. She speaks very little, however. Very soon she becomes pregnant. She tells Wang Lung that she will have no one to help her from the great house. She wants to return only with her son in her arms, dressed in new clothes. The child is a son, but soon O-lan is back in the fields, working. The harvest is good this year and they are well-provided for against the winter.

When O-lan returns to visit the great house with her son, she and her husband are so proud that they are afraid of their good fortune. O-lan finds that the great house is poorer and needs to sell some of its land. Wang Lung decides to buy it with the extra silver he got from his harvest. To him, “land is one’s flesh and blood.”

Hard times come to the village with bad harvests. People are eating grass and bark from the trees. The children are starving, but Wang Lung’s father gets the first of any food they have. The Wangs’ third child, a girl, stops crying and lies still. O-lan makes sure her new baby dies, to prevent its suffering. When they are eating earth as gruel, Wang Lung is offered money for his land, but he refuses. The family sells its furniture and leaves for the south, where there is food and work, O-Lan carrying the little girl and Wang Lung his father on his back. When the “firewagon,” a train comes, they take it as they are too exhausted to walk.

In Kiangsu province there are public kitchens. Wang Lung cannot bear to beg, but he pulls a rickshaw. O-lan, however, practical and concerned for her children takes them with her, and her father-in-law, to beg on the streets. The Wangs feel like foreigners. There is food everywhere in the south, and the little boys take to thieving. Wang will not eat the food they take, but O-lan washes it off and puts it back in the pot. Wang Lung punishes his son and grows desperate to get back to his own land.

Soldiers begin to conscript men and Wang Lung must hide during the day. And then one night, the poor break into the houses of the rich. The Wangs are swept along with the crowd past the great gates and into the inner courts. Wang Lung comes across a fat man who gives him gold in exchange for his life and Wang Lung takes it. He buys an ox, seed, and the family goes back to their home, which is a ruin. O-lan mends the house and soon the pewter candlesticks gleam, the teapot and bowls are on the table, the beds are in their places and a new door hangs on its wooden hinges. O-lan once again becomes pregnant.

O-lan shows her husband the jewels she found behind a loosened brick in the rich man’s house in the south. She begs to keep two pearls, not to wear, but just to keep. Wang Lung buys more land with the jewels and has good harvests. He does not let O-lan work on the land, as he is now a rich man. O-lan works at home, making clothes and bedding. She gives birth to twins. The family is very happy, except that the first daughter cannot speak or do anything appropriate to her age. Wang Lung calls her his “little fool.” Wang Lung sends his first two sons to school, as they are anxious to learn and don’t want to work in the fields.

As Wang Lung becomes richer and more idle, he begins to wish for things. He takes a concubine who is beautiful, and even asks O-lan for the pearls to give to her. O-lan is miserable, but she keeps on with her housekeeping. For Wang Lung, the peace of his house disappears when the concubine comes. He has to build another part of the house for her to live in with her servant. And then he finds that his son is spending time with her. He thrashes the son and sends him away.

Returning to work on his land makes Wang Lung happier. He provides for his five children, the “little fool” remaining to sit silent in the sun each day beside her grandfather. But O-lan is ill. Her life is wearing out. Wang Lung is filled with remorse. He knows he owes his riches partly to her. As she lies dying, still a young woman, Wang Lung and his children realize “what she had been in the house, and how she made comfort for them all and they had not known it.” O-lan begs for the wedding of her eldest son and the woman chosen for him to happen. Lying on her bed, she is able to hear the feasting. Shortly afterwards, she dies muttering, “well, and if I am ugly, still I have borne sons.”

Though written by the daughter of missionaries to China, Pearl Buck learned Chinese and a wealth of Buddhist and Taoist tales from her nurse. She roamed the streets of Chinkiang and volunteered at a shelter for girls in Shanghai. She did not leave China until she was 43, and was heartbroken that she was never allowed to return. The epic story of Wang Lung and O-lan was welcomed in America at a time when Chinese immigrants had been banned for four decades. I loved O-lan for her stoic sense of herself and what she had accomplished, despite how she was treated and how women were regarded at the time. Her values, for her children, her home and the blessings the land itself confers, are enduring.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mary Hunter Austin

Mary Austin, 1906, Huntington Library
Born in Illinois in 1868, it is Mary Austin’s understanding of how people are affected by their environment that endures. As she writes in The Land of Journeys’ Ending [published 1924], “[Man] is all that he sees; all that flows to him from a thousand sources, half noted, or noted not at all except by some sense that lies too deep for naming. He is the land, the lift of its mountain lines, the reach of its valleys; his is the rhythm of its seasonal processions, the involution and variation of its vegetal patterns. If there is in the country of his abiding, no more than a single refluent color, such as the veiled green of sage-brush or the splendid wine of sunset spilled along the Sangre de Cristo, he takes it in and gives it forth again in directions and occasions least suspected by himself, as a manner, as music, as a prevailing tone of thought.”

Mary’s beloved father died when she was ten. Her mother, left with three living children, set to work, giving Mary the housework and the care of her little brother. Mary studied science, especially botany, at a small Presbyterian college, graduating at 20. She was intense and awkward, and felt unloved by her mother. Nevertheless, she joined the family when they moved to the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, filing homestead claims.

The farming venture failed due to drought, but the stark environment and the presence of the Paiute Indians fueled a perception that guided Mary throughout life. She wrote of herself in Earth Horizon [published 1932] that she sat out in the dunes in the moonlight, apathetic by day: “Her trouble was that the country failed to explain itself. If it had a history, nobody could recount it. Its creatures had no known life except such as she could discover by unremitting vigilance of observation; its plants no names that her Middlewestern botany could supply. She did not know yet what were its weather signs, nor what the procession of its days might bring forth. Until these things elucidated themselves factually, Mary was spellbound in an effort not to miss any animal behavior, any bird-marking, any weather signs, any signature of tree or flower.”

Determined to become a writer, Mary married Wallace Austin, who supported her in this. They moved to the Owens Valley, which Mary celebrated in her most famous book, The Land of Little Rain [published 1903]. “If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.”

Wallace Austin’s irrigation schemes were a failure. He and Mary also tried to prevent the attempts of Los Angeles to gain control of the Owens River. Mary visited William Mulholland, who said after the interview, “By God, that woman is the only one who has brains enough to see where this is going.” The Austins had one child, Ruth, who was developmentally disabled. Mary worked as a writer and teacher to support the family, eventually putting Ruth in an institution after the success of The Land of Little Rain.

Mary began to move away from her family, meeting other artists and writers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and living in Carmel, California, during its time as an artists’ colony, between 1904 and 1911. She spent three years in Europe, getting a reputation there as a writer from the American West. When she returned, she lived in New York, but was finally called back to the desert, to a home in Santa Fe, where she died in 1934.

Constantly writing for magazines and speaking until her death, Mary Austin was a well-known figure during her time. Though resentment and egocentrism sometimes mar her writing, much of it is straight observation of natural surroundings. She also sought out people who inhabited the desert, the Indians, miners and other outsiders with whom she felt kinship. Of an Indian woman basket-maker: "But suppose you find Seyavi retired into the privacy of her blanket, you will get nothing for that day. There is no other privacy possible in a campoodie. All the processes of life are carried on out of doors or behind the thin, twig-woven walls of the wickiup, and laughter is the only corrective for behavior."

Mary Austin’s writing feeds my own desert longings. Of the lure of the vast cactus garden between Tucson and Phoenix: “If I should disappear from my accustomed places,” she says, “look for me beyond the last spur of Santa Catalina, where there is a one-armed sahuaro having a hawk’s nest in the crotch. Beyond that there is a plantation of thistle poppies on the tops of whose dusty green stems have perched whole flocks of white, wind-ruffled doves.”

Monday, October 31, 2016

Nedra Berland

Lois Rosenthal, Philanthropist (my image of Nedra)
"Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside. She was tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. When she paused to read a recipe, her head bent, she was stunning in her concentration, her air of obedience. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. People were coming for dinner.” Thus James Salter begins his description of Nedra in Light Years [1975]. “Who cleans this large house, who scrubs the floors? She does everything, this woman, she does nothing. She is dressed in her oat-colored sweater, slim as a pike, her long hair fastened, the fire crackling. Her real concern is the heart of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing.”

She was born in Altoona, to a nondescript family in about 1930. At 17 she turns into a stunning beauty. When she marries Viri, an architect, he sees her as a woman “condemned to live with him. He could not define it. She had escaped. Perhaps it was more; the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last. Her face radiated knowledge. … She had accepted the limitations of her life. It was this anguish, this contentment which created her grace.”

Nedra and Viri live in a house on the banks of the Hudson with their two daughters, Franca and Danny. The book begins as a meditation on their life and their home. They go into New York often, to art galleries, to eat and to shop; they have wonderful conversations with friends at dinner; and they indulge their children with extravagant stories, puppets, pets and Easter egg hunts. In the summer they go to Amagansett. “Summer is the noontime of devoted families. It is the hour of silence when the only sound is sea birds. The shutters are closed, the voices quiet. Occasionally the ring of a fork.”

But Nedra and Viri are both having affairs. Viri is not very successful. Nedra wants to live in Europe. At 16 Franca tells Nedra, “I want to be like everyone else, not like you.” Nedra and Viri do go to London and Kent, finally, in 1970. English friends tell them: “I’m more or less obsessed with the idea of your country which has, after all, meant so much to the entire world. I find it very disturbing now to see what’s happening. It’s like the sun going out.”

Upon their return, Nedra and Viri divorce. By this time Franca at 20 and Danny at 18 both have boyfriends. Nedra leaves immediately for Europe. “She felt confident, a kind of pagan happiness. She was an elegant being again, alone, admired.”

When Nedra returns to the United States, she interviews with an experimental theatre group because she has been taken with their work. They reject her because is already 43, but she becomes the lover of one of the actors, living in a studio among the warehouses in New York. “A breakfast of chocolate and oranges. Reading, falling again into sleep. He said very little. They were deep in contentment; it was full, beyond words. It was like a day of rain.” “Your life,” Nedra’s friend tells her, “is the only real one I know.”

Danny marries. Nedra arrives at the wedding with Viri. Nedra weeps with Danny, wiping tears from each other’s faces. That summer Nedra and Franca live at the beach. “Her [Nedra’s] life was like a single, well-spent hour. Its secret was her lack of remorse, of self-pity. She felt herself purified. The days were cut from a quarry that would never be emptied. Into them there came books, errands, the seashore, occasional pieces of mail. She read them slowly and carefully, sitting in the sunshine, as if they were newspapers from abroad.”

But Nedra did not last much longer. She became ill, taking a small house by the sea. Franca comes to visit her. Nedra believes that the love of one’s children is the best love. “To be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by one’s own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy.” She died suddenly, in the fall of the year. “As if leaving a concert during a passage she loved.” Her daughters have a small funeral for her. Viri has been living in Italy. He comes home to walk in the garden of the house by the Hudson where he had been happy. “Those afternoons that would never vanish, all ended. He, resettled. His daughters, gone.”

For some readers, these lives which are blessed with so little to worry them may seem unreal. For me, they seem like some of the last lives to celebrate reality: sensual, joyous and content, without a flicker of television in them. Salter writes in his memoir Burning the Days, “Of those years, the 1960s, I remember the intensity of family life, its boundlessness. It was an art of its own – costume parties; daring voyages in an old sailboat, a leaky Comet, far out on the river; dogs; dinners; poker on Christmas night; ice skating.”

Nedra was a woman James Salter knew, as described here. In Burning the Days he writes: “I loved her, her frankness and charm, the extravagance and devotion to her children. I never tired of seeing her and listening to her talk. … Hers was a singular life. It had no achievements other than itself. It declared, in its own way, that there are things that matter and these are the things one must do.” He has given us an exquisite portrait of a woman, of a life.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Martha Quest

Doris Lessing by Godfrey Argent, 1969
Martha is the main protagonist of a five-novel series called The Children of Violence [published from 1952 to 1969] written by Doris Lessing. It begins in southern Rhodesia where Martha lives on a farm with her parents. Her mother tries to maintain a proper British household, controlling her children. Her father has been maimed by World War I. Rage and bitterness fill the house. Martha spends her time reading everything she can get her hands on. The elemental African landscape also sustains her. In a memorable image, we see Martha in a grass-stained yellow dress, reading and smoking, a gun across her lap.

To get away from home, Martha takes a job in Salisbury. Though she has been reading leftist texts, she is at the mercy of the currents swirling around her and falls in with a careless middle class group. She marries at 19 and has a child, Caroline, right away. But she is full of anger at the colonial attitudes she runs into. Her ideals compel her to take responsibility for them. When she leaves her marriage to again take up work of her own, her husband refuses to let her see Caroline. She tells her child, “I’m leaving to change this ugly world. You must live in a beautiful world with no race hatred or injustice.”

Martha then joins a group of communists, the Left Book Club, who are fiercely opposed to the color bar in Rhodesia. The meetings of the group are a study in personalities, as factionalism dominates. Martha marries the ideologue leader of the group, Anton, rather than the more human Athen. World War II intervenes, but nothing is accomplished. Black people’s struggles are unchanged and the whites have a na├»ve lack of insight into their lives. Martha’s growth, however, makes her a traitor to the race and class she was born into.

After the war, Martha’s marriage and her faith in the leftist group disintegrate. She is somewhat at sea, though she has an affair with a Polish ex-patriate which brings her some happiness. She begins to look back on her idealism and tries to make sense of things. She leaves Africa for London in 1949.

London is still recovering from the war. It is dirty and has no good food or nice clothing. Martha, after wandering around a bit, becomes secretary to Mark Coleridge, an author, and moves into the troubled Coleridge household. Lynda, Mark’s wife, is in an asylum, and his son Frances is joined by Mark’s nephew Paul, whose physicist father has defected to Russia and whose mother has committed suicide. Photographers and journalists surround the house. Martha keeps house. When this crisis dies down, Lynda moves into the basement with her helper Dorothy.

Though at first she tries to leave, Martha becomes the nurturer who holds the household together. She and Mark are lovers, though Mark longs for Lynda, who cannot bear his touch. Martha is wise and restrained, watching the young people as London changes, becoming the swinging city of the 1960’s. All of them participate in the protest marches from London to the Aldermaston atomic weapons research labs each Easter.

As the young people grow up, Martha spends more time with Lynda, exploring her inner space and experimenting with what fasting and not sleeping do to her perceptions. Martha wonders whether people designated mad by society are simply not more aware of what is going on. Evil acts are born of not being self-aware. In the end, the cataclysmic nuclear event which hangs over the narrative, happens. Martha survives, living on the west coast of England, helped by the young people.

Reading the Martha Quest books during my own period of self development and questioning, I was very grateful for Doris Lessing’s honesty and her capacious world-view. At the time, we were all exploring our perceptions, trying to expand our human potential. Though I didn’t have the crushing pessimism which led Lessing to her conclusions, I am not afraid of looking at things squarely, partly because of her example. Her books underscore the fact that one’s personal life is always political.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Lou Bigelow Maytree

Annie Dillard
At 23, Lou Bigelow meets Toby Maytree in Provincetown. He sees her first on a bicycle, “A red scarf, white shirt, skin clean as eggshell, wide eyes and mouth, shorts. She stopped and leaned on a leg to talk to someone on the street. She laughed, and her loveliness caught his breath.” He asks her out to the shack his family owns on the Cape Cod dunes. He is a poet. They talk and eventually marry. Their story unfolds in The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard [2007].

When she was 12, Lou’s father left her mother to live with her mother’s sister and never returned. Her mother moves first to Provincetown, and then away, leaving Lou the house. Her mother “polishes her grudges for the rest of her life.” But Lou is not like her mother.

Maytree loves making Lou laugh. She paints and he does carpentry. Lou wants more to love than to be loved. To Keats’ question, who enjoyed lovemaking more, she replies, “the woman.” They see their marriage as unique. They have a baby whom they name Peter. As a child they teach him to know the constellations which they watch from the dunes. Maytree enlarges the crawl space under the house, putting in furniture and finishing it off by installing many-paned French doors which open onto the beach.

When Peter is 12 and riding his bicycle, a motorist runs into him breaking his leg. Maytree carries Peter home, but then when Peter is settled and asleep, tells Lou that he is moving to Maine. With Deary, one of Lou’s friends. For the next 20 years, he lives on an island, and then in Camden, never seeing Lou, but becoming progressively richer as he works on Deary’s many real estate schemes.

Lou, deeply surprised, is at first calm. Her friends blame Deary. Lou “could persuade no one she was not heartbroken. She had seen her own mother heartbroken, and knew she could do better.” But when Peter goes back to school, Lou has time to think. She “found herself holding one end of a love. She reeled out love’s long line alone; it did not catch. She fell apart.”

She doesn’t speak, but friends begin to notice. Her son gives her a wide berth. Finally she climbs the steep streets of town, trying to work on herself. She understands that “if she ceded that the world did not center on her, there was no injustice or betrayal.” Why are we born into this selfish stew, she wonders. She begins painting again, finding a scheme that she sticks with: “foreground of disturbing beach, middle distance disturbing sea and sky above, disturbing.”

Meanwhile, Maytree realizes he hasn’t stopped loving Lou. “His abiding heart-to-heart with her merely got outshouted.” Peter becomes a fisherman, thinking often about his father and vowing to become a perfected human. At last Peter fetches up in Camden while his boat is being repaired, and visits his father who greets him with tears. Why had they waited so long, they each wonder.

Lou lives mostly out at the beach shack. She wants to hear herself think. “How else might she hear any original note, any stray subject-and-verb in the head, however faint, should one come?” When she works at a nursing home she found people recited received analyses of current events! The patients watched television, “informed to the eyeballs like everyone else and rushed for time, toward what end no one asked.”

Deary has congestive heart failure. She refuses treatment, though she uses an oxygen pump. She wants badly to go back to Provincetown before she dies. Maytree falls, carrying her from the doctor’s office, and breaks many bones in his hands and arms. Unable to find anyone to help him, he takes Deary to Provincetown, goes out to the beach shack and asks Lou if she will help.

Lou immediately makes plans to accommodate them. “Not going to slug me?” asks Maytree? Lou wonders, “Did he think so poorly of her that he fancied his chucking her and Pete for Deary had left her ruined and angry for twenty years? Surely he knew her better than that.” They set up a bed for Deary by the French doors so she can see the sea, the sky and people on the beach. When Deary dies, Maytree plans to go back to Camden, but Lou catches him around the waist one night as he is on the beach looking at the sea. Shame had kept them apart twenty years.

“As they aged, they grew avid of beauty.” Lou holds nothing back, but Maytree knew he never reached it all. He says, “only now did he reckon beauty itself was the great thing. As a deathbed revelation this required – like most, he suspected – more thought.” Lou lives until 80, spending most of her time out at the dune shack. One day her friend comes and finds she has laid herself out on the bed, no longer alive.

The Maytrees follows the inner lives and development of Lou, Maytree and their son Peter as they are reflected in the actual facts of their lives. Lou’s story is that of the difficult path to becoming a grownup. Dillard shows us exactly how Lou manages to get past her pain. It is not through religion or looking within. Lou had tried that. “It was fearsome down there, a crusty cast-iron pot. Within she was empty.” Instead she uses the earth, the world, living in astronomical, geological time. “She could guy out Orion and spread him like a spinnaker, a chute to fly beyond her own self-love.”

We have surprisingly few stories of people who manage to deflect tragedy and turn it to warmth and love. Lou’s story hovers in a poetic, beautiful language as well. Annie Dillard has said that she wrote more than a thousand pages before condensing the book down to two hundred. For my part, left with the cream of the story, I wouldn’t mind having the many pages it was culled from!