Thursday, August 10, 2017

Assaulting a Boston Fern: Confessions of a Broke H&Ger (Part 1)

It's time to come clean

First Confession: I'm a lifestyle/Home & Garden nut. Even though I nearly flunked Home Ec (twice!) growing up, I really love a pretty house. Ditto, lawn, and garden.  Set me inside a home-improvement store and I will happily spend us into the poorhouse. 

Second Confession: We're already too close to the poorhouse for me to do much home-improvement.

Hey, that's how it goes.  When my husband and I both worked, we had the cash for decorating but no time. Now I have the time and energy needed but insufficient valuta for the home-improvement store.  What's an H&G addict to do?

Answer: Find a cheaper choice.

For example, I've always loved the look of potted ferns. They say "summer" when I see them  on a front porch. But have you priced those suckers lately? Anywhere between $10-$50 bucks each.  And I wanted at least four ferns, two to hang and two to stand.  Given that price tag, I figured my house would stay fernless this summer.
What's a porch without hanging ferns? A sad thing indded

Then, Sunday before last, I noticed my local hardware store was having a garden sale. Big racks of season ending plants were displayed in the parking lot, going including ferns for $5 bucks apiece.  I picked out the biggest, handed over five bucks and the salesman popped it into my jeep. I had a stack of old planters in the garage and an idea in my little head. If I could sub-divide this baby, I might have enough to fill two or three planters for the front porch. 

I didn't realize just how big the fernster was until I tried to wrestle it out of the jeep.  This was a Jolly Green Giant of a fern, a botanical monster, and wider at the top than me.  Still, I reasoned, as I searched for plant dividing instructions on the 'net, a plant this big should suit my purpose, provided I could sub-divide it.
The last of the 45 lb. ferns

The internet said all I had to do was draw Jolly out of his pot and saw his root ball into manageable portions with a serrated knife. Sounds easy? It wasn't! For the next 40 minutes, I hacked away at his foliage, while the roots stubbornly clung together. None of my serrated knives were long enough to cleanly divide that monster or sharp enough to slice through the roots. I eventually managed to divide and conquer but afterward, the cutting table looked like a gardening disaster and I wanted to wash my hands for an hour and repeat the Act of Contrition.

A cat sleeps by the scene of the crime!
Even subdivided, the JGG was still too big for the planters. Still, once I got his quartered remains replanted into the new pots, (complete with new soil, plant food, and water) and cleaned up the scene of the crime, things looked a bit better.  I called my sister, a real garden guru, and asked for her advice.

Bern, Verne, Sterne & LuCerne: The Four Big Greens
"Mist them," she said promptly. "Every day for a month. Ferns need to be misted."

I was this close to saying, "Are you saying I need a mister, sister, to spritz the dad-burn fern?" but I didn't. I was too tired. 

Eleven days have passed and the first shock is over for me and the fern, now known collectively as Bern, Verne, Sterne and Lucerne, the four Big Greens.  They require lots of misting and so much attention I'm beginning to wish I'd kept my money in my pocket. Still, they are behaving and starting to unfurl new fiddleheads which means, I suppose, they are happy.  And the porch looks pretty nice for five bucks.

What are your penny-conscious decorating stories?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Redeemed by the South

Strangers to the South take a look at this place and react in one of two ways: either they loathe it or love it.  Either they see nothing but the region's excesses and sins and complain endlessly about both ("Oh God, it's so hot! And what happened here! I couldn't live in this place.), or they fall in love with the South, history, Kudzu and all.  Southerners understand both reactions because they tend to fall into the same camps, except the South is a part of their identity.  Still, love it or hate it, few people can claim they were rescued by the American South.  The exception is one dear, troubled, fictional child. Ladies and gentlemen, meet CeeCee Honeycutt, a girl who really needs saving.

Today, Cee Cee would be called an abandoned child, but they didn't talk like that in the 60's, when she was young.  If her father is rarely home, well, he travels for his job.  And CeeCee's mom is...well, let's say a bit odd. To CeeCee's schoolmates and the citizens of their Ohio town, Camille Honeycutt is a bona fide loony, with her flamboyant behavior and fashion sense. To CeeCee, she's mom, by turns loving and frightening, the grown-up Cee Cee looks after. Still, no one steps in to help until the Happy Cow Ice Cream truck accidentally runs over CeeCee's mom. The funeral brings Tallulah Caldwell, a stranger who says she's a great-aunt and invites CeeCee to move in with her in Savannah, Georgia.

These days, Savannah is probably best known as the setting of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a hothouse for eccentrics and oddballs in the 1980's.  The Savannah of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is 20 years younger, still quirky but suitable for its younger audience. Here is a world of lush gardens, storied houses, garrulous neighbors, and sweet tea; a place where living is an art to be appreciated and savored.  Burdened by conflicted memories and thoughts of her parents, CeeCee begins her childhood over again at 12 and learns about life and friendship from the women of Savannah, white and black.  CeeCee's Savannah is neither heaven nor hell, but a place redolent, flavorsome and alive.

Like the South, CeeCee has a conflicted past that sometimes threatens to overwhelm a good heart. But the love and acceptance of friends can move mountains, they say.  They can save an old house, or a child's future, or even a life. That's redemption, wherever you are in the world, folks. And on summer mornings as beautiful as this, redemption is a miracle that seems possible.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Victorian Tale/Modern Mind

I'll admit I've been on a Brontë kick this summer; heat tends to drive me toward stories about simmering characters in cooler climes, a sure recipe for a Brontë book.  But, for all of my repeated readings of Charlotte Brontë's prose and my disaffection for sister Emily's Wuthering Heights, I never bothered to read the work of Anne Brontë.  Now, I want to bang on the front doors of all my English teachers and yell, "Why didn't you assign her books to your courses?  What were you thinking?" Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may be the surprise sensation of my summer reading.

It seems the book has always defied expectations. Published when English Women had no right to vote, own property or even have custody of their children, it's a challenge to that "civilized" society.  It dealt with issues like addiction and adultery so realistically it was a literary sensation when it was first published. It was so controversial, that sister Charlotte tried at one point to suppress the book's being reprinted.  

The story's subtitle could be "the mysterious new girl in town, " and it's told by Gilbert Markham, a young, rather satisfied, gentleman farmer whose family has "always" been part of the community.  He sees the same old friends all the time and visits the same old places with them. His mom doesn't like his girlfriend, but that's nothing new. Life, for Gilbert, is just a bit boring. Then strangers move into Wildfell Hall.

Everyone's curious about the new tenants, a Mrs. Graham, and her little boy and everyone wants to know more about them. But Mrs. Graham doesn't like to socialize.  She stays away from parties and turns down invitation until many think she's anti-social. When Mrs. Graham's in a group, she voices strong-minded opinions on subjects like alcohol and education for girls. Gilbert's intrigued. Between his mom, his sister and the females of the village, he's used to flattery and flirtation from women, two things Mrs. Graham won't give him. The more he learns about her, the more he wants to know and the harder she pushes him away.   Eventually, Gilbert learns his new neighbor is hiding from her charismatic bad-boy of a husband, a man who wants to introduce her and his young son to every degrading vice in the book. It's a complicated story, told in Victorian Language, but it reads like a modern page-turner.

There's something in the urgent voice of Mrs. Graham that compels you through most of the story. You can see why she married the wrong man and how initially she tried to make the marriage work.  You understand how hard and necessary it was for her to shut the door against him and how frail is her hope of freedom.  Even when she stops speaking and Gilbert again takes up the story, Mrs. Graham's voice is the one you remember.

Anne Bronte
It's astounding to realize this is only Anne Brontë's second book and her last one at that.  She died at 29, the year after  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published. More strident than Charlotte and less moody than Emily, she is the realist of that intense family: Wildfell Hall is no romantic spot like Thornfield or Wuthering Heights, it's a big old house that sorely needs maintenance.  And, instead of vengeance or spiritual transcendence, Anne's characters want and demand justice, a call that resonates today.  Perhaps that's why, after almost 200 years, Anne seems the most "relevant" Brontë.  She wasn't just the youngest Brontë sister.  She was the most modern female in the bunch.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Forgotten Book about the Forgotten Bronte

Obsessions aren't part of my better nature.  They take up time and energy and can turn me into an absolute bore but, nonetheless, they are part of me.  I find an interesting subject and suddenly I want to know all there is about it.  It's the mark of an obsessive and, as I say, it has its downfalls.  But sometimes the search yields obscure treasures.

That's what makes me a fan of Daphne DuMaurier, a writer who understood the nature of obsession. Two of her most famous works, Rebecca and My Cousin, Rachel are about the mania of being haunted by one subject.  And, according to at least one biography, the author had a literary obsession of her own, one that I share: the Bronte family. Trust me, this makes sense.

The Bronte sisters are a fascinating subject, whether you are studying literature or women's history. Three adult sisters, with minimal resources, strive to support themselves as writers, although the world of publishing is pretty much closed to women at that time. The women submit first poems and then novels under male pseudonyms. The novels become best-sellers and then literary classics, studied and loved ever since.  It's a compelling success story but Ms. Du Maurier wanted to write about the great failure of this talented family: their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte.  Story-wise, this makes sense too.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a look at the then-forgotten brother of geniuses (genii?) and figure out why he failed. By all accounts, it should have been the other way around. Young Branwell, with his imagination and brains, led his sisters in games of imaginary world-building and should have been the Bronte writer the world remembers.  With his superior education, he should have, at least, been able to support himself financially. DuMaurier's research proves that the gifts Branwell had were outweighed by his flaws: an overwhelming ego, a distaste for any form of sustained discipline, and an addiction to alcohol. Still, he's an interesting failure and a brilliant psychological study, perfect for Du Maurier's mind.

After publication, it seemed that failure must be contagious because The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte did not sell well.  Before the Internet and e-books were available, it was probably the least likely Du Maurier work to be read.  But, like the subject, if this biography is a failure, it's an interesting failure about a man with a resourceful, uncontrollable mind.  In other words, an obsessive's obsessive.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Lessons of Old Wood

Some projects take more time than others. Twenty-seven springs ago, when I knew we were moving into this house, I bought an old, cedar lined, wardrobe trunk, to use as multipurpose furniture.

"It can be a coffee table or a lamp table" I caroled to my overwhelmed husband. "While it stores extra blankets and quilts."

"What we need is more floor space," he replied, eyeing the battle-scarred box, "and we're not going to get it with that ugly thing."

"Just you wait, once I paint it, this thing will be beautiful," I said. And, because I was in a hurry, I poured a quart of ivory paint over the entire trunk and hauled it into the house. It didn't look good or hold the out-of-season linens like I planned, but it served as table and storage container for decades, first in the living room and then on the porch. With the construction of Darling Husband's garage, the cedar trunk was emptied of its cache of tools and finally ready for the restoration I promised it years ago.
Trunk after years on the porch. This should be an easy cleanup, right?

That process has taken the best part of a week and three layers of skin from my hands. But I also gained some wisdom worth keeping: what I think of as The Lessons of Old Wood

Respect the Product That's what I didn't do with ivory paint years ago. Wardrobe trunks were manufactured to be complex, durable luggage made from various woods, metals, cloth adhesives and other materials. As a result, these trunks were durable, one reason there are still so many on the market. But that also meant, no matter how sad my trunk looked when I purchased it years ago, the ivory paint didn't hide the scars of its use; instead, it added an extra layer I'd have to take off down the line. And none of those layers would leave without a fight.

Respect the Process. After years of neglect and exposure, I expected stripping this thing would be a cinch. So, putty knife in hand and the lyrics to Born in a Trunk in my head, I went to work. And five hours later, the porch floor was covered in layers of adhesive, paint and cardboard, I was a sweaty mess and the trunk looked like it had an incurable skin disease. After that came three days of rubbing, sanding, chemical strippers and removing decades of grime from the details of this box. By the end of the third day, my unconscious had switched from Born in a Trunk to Give Me Something to Believe In and the top layer of skin on my hands was gone. And the trunk still looked sick.
3 days and the boring trunk now looks diseased.
Strong Problems require Strong Treatment. After a little Internet Research, I found Citristrip, a marvelous product that cleans wood and metal without killing your sense of smell. That took layers off the wood of the box and floor below when it dropped (well, I can repaint the porch later.) Notice all the stained wood? Yeah, so did I. Trust me, no chemical stripper or high-grit level of sandpaper will fix that issue. So I went to work with the 60 grit sandpaper and kicked up a huge level of dust. Now that sucker's beginning to clean up.
Post CitriStrip - Stained but Cleaned
You have to Get Dirty to Clean Something Else Up. This is something the DIY blogs don't mention. When I reviewed posts on restoring old furniture (and there are thousands of them out there) they all mentioned several things, like chemical strippers, vinegar and water solutions and lots and lots of sanding. None of them mentioned the mess all this creates. As layers of paint, glue, and cardboard came off of the trunk, they reattached themselves to whatever was handy; the floor, my shorts and me. And stripping gel is an ooey-gooey gunk before it gets to work, even worse when it does its job. So have trash bags handy and lots of paper towels if you decide to do this. Expect to wash a lot of laundry during the process. And repaint the porch when you're done.
Stripped and Sanded - The trunk looks better even if the porch floor looks worse
Perfect ain't necessarily flawless. When the trunk was clean inside and out and the goo-soaked mess was gone, I took a serious look at the box left behind. To me, the wood was beautiful, but it looked far from flawless. There were scars and pits in the surface that even a good sanding couldn't touch and the woodgrain had some serious issues. I remembered that, although the interior was lined with cedar, this exterior was a different wood, probably considered inferior and cheap. So had all of my work been for nothing?

No.  I cherish this old wooden box because of the age and events that gave it these scars.  It was probably made somewhere between 1910 and 1940, which means it's seen at least one world war, a few revolutions, some economic downturns, and a lot of social change.  At first, it was somebody's luggage with drawers on one side and hangers on the other, which means it's probably been hauled to a lot of places and had a lot of hands upon it.  As the times changed, it got shoved into unlikely places, filled with crap, and ignored.  And then I dumped my husband's greasy tools inside and left it out in the weather.  And still, the trunk survives.  

So, this time, I rubbed it down with layers of tung oil, allowing it time for each layer to cure. I didn't try to mask the imperfections in the wood but I did try to let its golden beauty shine through along with its age.  And then I put it back to work.

Now the Trunk is where I always wanted it to be, holding the quilts and blankets we don't need right now.  Even Darling Husband says it's beautiful.  And I think he's right.

Thursday, June 15, 2017


Ever been slapped upside the head by a forgotten Memory?

I'm not talking about the memories with short-cut, easy-access triggers.  Those are the ones you use from every day, stuff like your computer password, social security number and how to drive a car. Other recollections get misfiled in dusty cranial drawers so when you need the information, you walk around feeling stupid for five minutes, saying, "I know (fill in the blank) like I know my own name, what is it?" I'm talking about the memories that pop up out of nowhere and surprise the heck out of you.  That happened to me today. You could say it was a random accident or because Father's Day is coming up soon. Personally, I think the culprit is cake.

See, dense sugar/carb sweets are like cocaine to me and I've been trying to live without them for the last 14 months or so.  I've been doing pretty well with that too, not even missing the pastries I couldn't live without before.  At least until a couple of things that happened lately....

See some friends did us a wonderful favor.  I mean HUGE.  And nothing says "Thank You" to a friend like bringing them a great, big, gorgeous, dessert you've made yourself.  But nothing will get me in trouble faster than getting my fingers near cake batter So, I purchased and froze one angel food cake, two cartons of ice cream, some strawberries and whipped topping.   The frozen angel food cake was sliced into three layered rings, ice cream was spread like mortar between the layered rings, the whole thing was frosted with topping and strawberries and the result?

Tempting, right?
One "Thank You" cake pretty enough for the cover of Southern Living that still managed to avoid the perils of temptation...barely.  But then, there came the cookout.

Cookouts are almost an obligatory component of summer, like visitors.  Since we were hosting the latter, we had the former.  And (because you can't host a cook-out without dessert), pound cake and fruit were on offer for dessert.  A dessert no one had room to eat.  So after the cook-out, I'm stuck at home with a pound cake.

Does anyone remember Richard Pryor's routine about the cocaine pipe?  He swore that the pipe talked to him when he was actively freebasing. Now, when I first heard it, I thought he was a brilliant comedian, during the misery of addiction into performance art but I didn't really believe the pipe talked.  Well folks...the cake started talking.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN:  Lessslie. Oh, Lessslie... I'm heeere.

ME:  Shut up, cake.  I don't want you.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN: Now, we both know that's a lie. You liiiike me. Come on over here.

ME:  No.  Go Away.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN: You want me to go away?  You know how to get rid of me.

Cake wouldn't stop talking until I left the room and went to bed. Right after I cut out one thin slice.

Next morning, I'm back in the kitchen and cake's voice is stronger than ever, which makes no sense since there's less of him now on the plate.  I'm actually considering eating a slice for breakfast when I heard one of my dad's favorite records playing:
You came...and I was aloooone
 I shudda knooown
You wuz Tump-TAY-shun 

This was a speeded-up, country version of the old standard Red Ingle and Jo Stafford recorded. Dad loved because it sounded so silly. I hated it. I hadn't heard of or thought of the recording for years, but here it was, plain as day.

I stood there, looking at Cake and listening to Stafford moan and yowl her way through the lyrics.  When she got to,"Take it Away, Take it AWAY" the memory meaning clicked in my head. That cake was Tump-TAY-shun and I had to take it away or, succumb.

Well, somewhere in this favored land, 95% or more of a pound cake lies in wait, looking to seduce some other poor chump jonesing for sugar.  But not in my house.  And I have the memory of Dad's music choices to thank for this. And I've decided, no matter what the occasion, I'm not bringing cake back into my house for awhile. It's one dessert that doesn't know when to shut up.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Betrayed by Your Closest Friend

He called them his swans.

It's a story beloved by literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens everywhere. Between the last World War and the Fall of Saigon, there roamed a covey of fascinating young women known for their individual and collective beauty. Beauty had turned them into fashion icons and trophy wives but none of them had happy lives. They wanted to be loved and known for something besides the beauty that would fade away all too soon.  This collective of lovely, lonely ladies discovered a man, unlike any of their husbands,  An odd, unique, little man, who agreed with their values, dished the most interesting gossip and told each one he adored her. Not just her beautiful appearance but her wonderful soul. And, because he was gay and understanding the trophy wives believed him, to some extent, and they showered him with gifts and friendship.  They even shared their deepest secrets.

Secrets he listened to and wrote down.

This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, a novel recounting one of the most fascinating literary scandals of the 20th Century.  It starred some of the original taste-makers of the mid-century: Babe Paley, who sparked a national trend by tying a scarf to her purse handle, Slim Keith, a California girl who hit her stride in Manhatten and, of course the man they and so many of their best friends befriended: Truman Capote. When he was a young, semi-successful writer, these women and many of their friends each found Capote to be a kindred spirit. He cherished not only their faces and forms (referring to them collectively as "swans") but the beauty in their souls.  In turn, they supported him during the lean years and cheered him on once he found success.  Because of this, none of them expected him to publish their nastiest secrets in Esquire magazine, fictionalized just enough to turn their most embarrassing, humiliating memories into a guessing game for readers.  At least one woman described in the story killed herself the day that she got the printed story. The rest of them ended the friendship.   And was Capote surprised they took offense?

You bet he was.

In one sense, The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a story of friendship made and destroyed by understanding and misunderstanding.  It's also something of a history piece, capturing a small section of America in the latter half of the 20th century.  Indeed, like Capote's masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Swans is that amalgamation of research and imagination known as the "non-fiction novel" (without ICB's meticulous prose).  It's also plain, old-fashioned, gossipy fun in places, perfect for a summer read.

Most of all, it's a story of trust and betrayal and how people cope when those they love let them down.  Many get angry. A few grow sad.  But most find a way to cope.

And how we cope is what makes us stronger.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Murder Takes a Hike

Summer is here in all but fact, the season when most people take vacations.  If you grew up in the United States, the odds are pretty good that your vacation history involves one or more of our National Parks.  That's great! The National Park system is one of the smartest, most democratic ideas this country put into place: beautiful spaces are preserved so they can be used by everyone, at an affordable price.  The only problem, for the addicted reader, is how all that natural beauty can get between your eyes and a book. I mean, as much as I adore the magnificence of nature, (and I do) I start jonesing for a good story to read, even when I'm face to face with the Grand Canyon or El Capitan. Of course, the minute I bury my face in a book, I feel guilty because I'm not paying attention to the gorgeous Park. It's a no-win situation

At least I thought it was until my friend, Edna, introduced me to Nevada Barr.  In case you haven't heard, Nevada Barr is the writer of the Anna Pigeon mystery series.  Why are her books the solution? Because Anna Pigeon is a Ranger and each of her adventures occurs in a National Park.

Let's start out with the first book in the series, the award-winning Track of the Cat.  It's set in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a spot I'd swear my folks dragged me to when they were young and broke.  It's a beautiful, barren, deserty kind of place, full of antiquities and cactus.  That's the world the tourists see.  To Anna Pigeon, Park Ranger and heroine of the series, the park is so much more.

Of course, she sees the land and its animals: beautiful, terrifying, vulnerable and dangerous.  She also deals with the Park's human visitors, from the ill-prepared, day-tripping tourists to the semi-permanent citizens with political or economic interests in this land that belongs to the nation. Most of all we see, through Anna's eyes, the world of those who work in the National Park Service, well-trained and working for a pittance in order to keep the rest of us safe.  When another Ranger is found dead, it becomes Anna's mission to bring the responsible party to justice.

Like all good literary detectives, Anna is at least as complex as the victims and perpetrators she pursues and that's why I'm continuing with the series.  Thanks to Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta and Val McDermid's Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, I've started expecting fictional detectives to fight City Hall and their own personal demons while they track down a killer.  On this score, Nevada Barr and Anna Pigeon don't disappoint.

So, get out the map and decide which vacation spot you'll visit this year.  Remember to pack your camera, bug repellent, and a big enough water canteen.   And, if you're visiting a National Park, be nice to the Rangers, especially if they catch you reading an Anna Pigeon mystery. Park Rangers need fans too.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Deep End of the Deep South: The Help

I was 25 when I married and moved from the plains to Mississippi. It was like learning to swim by diving in the deep end of Southern Culture.  I traded wide, far, horizons for close, verdant landscapes; dry heat for humidity; corn for okra.  I also fell headlong, into beliefs and traditions that weren't my own. For example, one of my first acquaintances was an elderly neighbor lady who continually delighted and frustrated me. She was a lovely, friendly soul, and very kind to a lost, newlywed, giving me afternoon tea and shopping tips, but she insisted on calling me Mrs. Golden and deferring to me in every question. She also insisted I call her solely by her first name. Now I had been raised to recognize the seniority of older, more-experienced, hostesses, especially when using their names, but I reckoned without two things.  My neighbor lady had been taught that skin color established who had the real authority, and I was fair while she was dark.  Because of this, we spent most of our afternoons trying to verbally outmaneuver each other with courteous remarks.  In the end, our mutual efforts to show respect became one more insurmountable obstacle to developing any genuine friendship.  
Those memories of long, sweltering days and sweet, frustrating afternoons came flooding back when I read Kathryn Stockett's The Help.  I've always been an outsider, but Mississippi is the place that taught me what it means to be a "Stranger in a Strange  Land."

Stockett's Jackson, Mississippi in this 1960's tale is like a never-ending high school for outsiders. Here, the successful derive their social and political power from their ability to exclude. They use all kinds of rules to undermine and isolate others: blacks are excluded from white society, women from men, poor from rich, single people from married couples and "well-born" people from "trash."  Meandering through this miasma is Skeeter, a girl whose family and skin color should make her an insider, but whose height and ambition exclude her from the group. More than anything, Skeeter wants to be a published author and, since the Civil Rights unrest is in the news, she decides to write about the least powerful groups in Jackson; the black women who work in white households.  That decision and the resulting book overturns Jackson, Mississippi and the lives of each soul in The Help.

Much has been deservedly written about how The Help captures the story and voices of black and white Southern Women in that tumultuous period, but it is the humanity of the characters that I like. All of the central characters of The Help are female and ensnared by the rules and expectations of their society. This trap frustrates some and enrages many, but all suffer from its pressure. Because of these strictures, the women all become creatures of want, some chasing the love, and power they think will make them happy while others fighting for the ability to survive. Still, The Help isn't just about what happens to people in an awful situation.  It's about how they survive even in the worst of times.
Of course, Southern culture has changed a great deal since the 1960's.  It's even changed in the years since I moved here.  But a few old discredited beliefs still hang on in some corners, breaking hearts and causing terrible damage. Until they die out completely, the South's tragic Civil Rights history will remain the elephant in the room, keeping good people trapped together but estranged, unable to trust each other enough to move forward.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Name It and Claim It: Summer Sisters

If you went to camp as a kid, did you wonder what the counselors did in the evenings? Speaking for myself, that's when I learned to play Name it and Claim It. Are you familiar with the game? One person sings a few lines from a song, and if you can either join in singing or identify who made the song famous, you win. Sort of. See, knowing the song was usually a sign of how old you were and, although most of the staff were all still in college, advanced age wasn't an honor we were all that anxious to grab. I haven't played the game in years. Yet, Name It and Claim It was the first thing that came to mind as I read Judy Blume's Summer Sisters: A Novel.  In so many ways, it's a Gen-Xer's version of We Didn't Start the Fire.

In a way, this is entirely appropriate, since Judy Blume was the writer for many Gen-X women at an early point in their lives. Her Middle Grade and Young Adult stories steered many of them through the horrible, hormonal adolescent years until they grounded safely into adulthood.  That's no small task, and many grown women remember Blume because of the help she gave them as girls.  And memory is the central theme of Summer Sisters.

These are Victoria "Vix" Leonard's memories of her friendship with Caitlin Somers.  At first meeting, these two girls should have little in common.  Victoria, growing up in a working-class family, is familiar with siblings and debt.  Caitlin, the only child of affluent, divorced parents, knows the joys and sorrows of travel and non-stop relocation.  What they share is a sense of loneliness that is relieved when they become friends.  The effects of that relationship change the trajectory of both their lives.
Blume tracks the changes of her characters' young lives through the popular songs and news stories they follow, a move that first endears and then dates her story.  When  Vix says in the first chapter that she dreams of being the bewitching "Dancing Queen" when she sings along with the record, it tells us a lot, both about the story's setting and what occupies this child's imagination.  Unfortunately, nearly every chapter follows with some pop culture marker until the reference feels obligatory.  By the time Vix mentions the padded shoulders in her first business suit, I wanted to shout, "Yes, I get it! We're in the 80's!" 

Blume does a better job of capturing Martha's Vinyard, that off-beat, island of eccentrics, hard-working islanders, summer tourists, and money.  A Summer day at the Vinyard is something to be experienced, with its ambiance of light, color, and joy and you get the suggestion of that in this fire-fly narrative, as well as how much harder life is for year-round residents.  But, what she does nail is the intensity and durability of certain adolescent friendships.  Adult friends like the people we became; first friends loved the people we were becoming.  That makes them worth remembering and writing about, for the rest of our lives.