|In My Country: the Fictional World of Bobbie Ann Mason
In her memoir Clear Springs, Bobbie Ann Mason recalls a trip home to visit her mother on the family farm, on the outskirts of Mayfield, Kentucky. Mason writes:
It is late spring, and I am pulling pondweed. My mother likes to fish for bream and catfish, and the pondweed is her enemy. Her fishing line gets caught in it. . . . The pondweed is lovely. If it were up to me, I’d just admire it and let the fish have it. But then, I’m spoiled and lazy and have betrayed my heritage as a farmer’s daughter by leaving the land and going off to see the world. Mama said I always had my nose in a book. (3)
The lines, a bit bemused and hovering harmlessly between self-deprecation and tongue-in-cheek, reveal much about the work and life of Bobbie Ann Mason. Mason is a writer who, like Robert Morgan, found her fictional world, one sunk solidly in the rich soil of her western Kentucky roots, only after she left home. Morgan, too, found a fictional landscape after leaving his native North Carolina mountains for a position on the Cornell faculty. In the short essay "Nature Is a Stranger Yet," he writes about leaving home for New York and the university environment, yet at the same time never really leaving: "In the almost forty years since I left, I have continued to live there in the imagination, in the geography and landscape of language" (2). The “geography and landscape of language” likewise run powerfully in the prose of Mason; however, the singular difference between Morgan and Mason is that Mason has returned to those roots, both figuratively and literally.
If Bobbie Ann Mason hungered to escape the drudgery and routine of the dairy farm on which she grew up for a different world up north, for a life of intellect and imagination, the very distance that her sojourn away from home gave her also provided a necessary ingredient for the writer: “I think my exile in the North,” she says of leaving home, “gave me a sense of detachment, a way of looking in two directions at once. It’s an advantage” (“Interview,” Missouri Review 4). That detachment provided a heightened sense of imagination and a vividness of memory about home that has allowed Mason to create extraordinary stories, rich in details and characters so true to life that they are lodged in the reader’s mind, forever real and familiar. Mason writes of everyday people, working-class people, whom we know or remember from our own past and present. The rhythms of her language lock into the familiar, the everyday, rather than into metaphor, image, or theme as is the case of many of her contemporary writers. Her forte then is found in those vivid details that create the veracity of character and the truth of the story, for Mason is, despite her sometimes contradictory assertions, a master storyteller.
Mason begins her memoir Clear Springs with a lovely vignette that serves as an emblem for her life as an artist. She writes:
My grandmother baked cookies, but she didn’t believe in eating them fresh from the oven. She stored them in her cookie jar for a day or two before she would let me have any. “Wait till they come in order,” Granny would say. The crisp cookies softened in their ceramic cell—their snug humidor—acquiring more flavor, ripening both in texture and in my imagination. (ix)
While it is the past that informs her work and that she is most often interested in understanding, it is the detachment that comes with leaving the landscape of one’s origin, the landscape of memory, family, and familiar scenes, that helps one understand both past and present.
Bobbie Ann Mason is winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award, two Southern Book Awards, O. Henry and Pushcart awards. She is also recipient of Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1983 she received the National Endowment award, and in 1983 and 1989, she was recipient of Pennsylvania Arts Council grants. Many other awards and critical acclaim over the years speak to the value of her work. A variety of labels have been attached to Mason’s work, none particularly accurate and mostly annoying to the writer. Joanna Price in Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason details these as “Kmart realist,” “dirty realist,” “blue collar minimalist hyper-realist,” and “minimalist.” Mason herself, Price notes, “somewhat skeptical of such categorization, has wryly defined her fiction as ‘Southern Gothic Goes to the Supermarket’” (5). While Mason’s work leaves a similar impression on the reader as that of Jayne Anne Phillips in its attention to working-class people, its essence goes beyond such labels—her characters struggling to make sense of their lives and the spare, bare-bones style that relates their stories are a hallmark of Mason’s style of storytelling.
In a 1997 interview published in The Missouri Review, Mason says, “I’m a little sensitive about being reduced to the terms of ‘popular culture,’ since it’s often a pejorative term.” Of her characters, many of whom happen to be working class, she says:
Their lives are just as important as the lives of those who read the New York Times and go to the opera. I often write about characters who happen to watch TV. Most Americans do watch TV. . . . I try to write what is appropriate to the characters, the attributes and interests that are meaningful to them. . . . As a writer I can maintain a bit of detachment from the characters, showing them in their world and seeing a little bit more than they do. But I’m not looking down at them. (8)
While Mason eschews any sort of didacticism in her work, leaving her readers to come to their conclusions about her stories and characters, she does believe in the truth of the story and the importance of exploring the human spirit through literature. “Writers belong on the edge,” she says, “not in the center of the action. . . . if writers can make us feel and appreciate and explore the world, then I think that’s an extremely valuable function” (10).
Of those writers who have influenced her literary aesthetic, she lists Joyce and Nabokov among the most influential. “From Joyce,” she says, “I learned about how a work is organic—how sound, for instance, is meaning, how the language is appropriate to the subject” (The Missouri Review 9). From Nabokov she “learned that the surfaces are not symbolic representations, but the thing itself, irreducible. Rather than depending on an underlying idea, an image or set of images should be infinitely complex—just the opposite of what we’re sometimes taught about symbols and themes as hidden treasures” (9). It is clear that those critics who’ve attempted to reduce Mason to a “minimalist” or, as Barbara Henning has written, to suggest her work lacks “metaphoric depth” have missed the point of what Mason has tried to achieve (qtd. in Price 7). “The goal” for Mason, “is to leave the story at the most appropriate point, with the fullest sense of what it comes to, with a passage that has resonance and brings into focus” the essence of the piece. “It has to sound right and seem right,” Mason says, “even if its meaning isn’t obvious” (The Missouri Review 9-10). Of her storytelling, Mason says, “I’m not a natural storyteller. I see writing as a way of finding words to fashion a design, to discover a vision, not as a way of chronicling or championing or documenting” (10-11). Writing for Mason is more an act of faith and a journey into the creative imagination: “Creative writing is not to me primarily [about] theme, subject, topic, region, class, or any ideas. It has more to do with feeling, imagination, suggestiveness, subtlety, complexity, richness of perception—all of which are found through fooling around with language and observations” (11).
“I don’t think of myself as the K-mart realist,” asserts Mason. “I hope that what I’m trying to do is more than document[ing] patterns of discount shopping in the late twentieth century!” Teachers and scholars who are principally concerned with “themes and ideas” are after something different from Mason in literature. “I think more in terms of literal details and images, as well as sound and tone—all textures that bring a story to life. . . . I write a story over and over until it sounds right. If it works, then the themes will be there. I don’t plant them.” It is the artistry of the whole that is most significant in Mason’s mind. “Ideally, form and function are inseparable. That’s what I read for most: writing that can’t be torn apart, a story that can’t be told any other way. And when the substance and style are perfectly wedded, you can’t reduce the story to a set of abstractions” (The Missouri Review 14). Thus what Mason gives the reader is a story brought to life by details which ring true and by characters we recognize, who are not necessarily angst-ridden seekers of some profound knowledge or “philosopher’s stone” but whose lives we ultimately care about because they are real to us and in whom we often see glimmers of ourselves.
Bobbie Ann Mason was born on May 1, 1940, in Mayfield, Kentucky, the first of four children born to her parents. Her mother Christianna Lee Mason and her father Wilburn Arnett Mason were dairy farmers, though her mother departed from that scenario for a time when she worked in a factory shortly after her marriage while she and Wilburn lived with their in-laws on the family farm. Mason recalls growing up on the dairy farm: “Food was the center of our lives. Everything we did and thought revolved around it. We planted it, grew it, harvested it, peeled it, cooked it, served it, consumed it—endlessly, day after day, season after season. This was life on a farm—as it had been time out of mind” (Clear Springs 81).
Though the Mason farm was on the outskirts of Mayfield, the isolation of farm life, few playmates, and her own quiet disposition formed Bobbie Ann into a thoughtful and shy child. Farm life also developed extraordinary powers of observation. “As a small child,” Mason remembers, “I saw everything up close. I saw how a flower bloomed; I distinguished pistils and stamens and pollen. I watched doodlebugs working in a cowpile, burrowing and pushing their balled burdens like tiny Sisyphean bulldozers” (Clear Springs 93). The radio, movies, and books became bridges to the world in the imagination of such a child. “Avidly I read about Amelia Earhart, Iceland, Australian aborigines, Abraham Lincoln. School—and more vividly, movies—told me about other human beings, worlds of them, in distant towns and cities and on alien continents” (97). More than anything, Bobbie Ann longed to see these “worlds” beyond Mayfield and the farm. “I wanted desperately,” she remembers, “to live near the stores and the library, yet I was so unsure of myself when I went to town that I didn’t know how to act. . . . At heart was the inferiority country people felt because they worked the soil” (97).
When she was ten years old, Bobbie Ann was hospitalized for a lung infection. She recalls, “I lay in the hospital, thin and bony, my lungs tight with congestion. But I paid no attention to Mama’s fretting over me. . . . I loved being sick” (Clear Springs 77). She was allowed to have ice cream and milk shakes, and during her fever, she “felt a loose plank flapping in my head; it was my mind speeding up, getting ready to fly apart. I enjoyed the sensation; it seemed to be coming from the very heart of my being” (77). There followed two more serious hospital stays, and both times she remembers the events as pleasurable. “In retrospect, I see how oblivious to suffering I was, there in my little pleasure-dome. I was enacting a typical Mason trait—retreating into the playhouse, the way Granny retreated into her mind, and the way Daddy retreated to the farm after the war” (79).
Despite the isolation and inward retreat which growing up on the farm encouraged, there were also transcendental lessons about life and living—Wordsworthian “spots of time” that remained in Mason’s mind as she grew up and went out into the world. She recalls in Clear Springs early one morning, after an ice-storm while waiting for the school bus when she was eight. The world around her was “a crystal dreamscape,” where every blade of grass and tree limb was encased in ice. “I carelessly grabbed an ice-covered twig on a bush and broke it,” she writes. “But then I stopped halfway through, when I saw what I was doing. The twig dangled there like a broken bone, a twisted foreleg hanging from the joint” (96). She thought to herself: “We were always destroying things . . . . Heedless, we children would kill . . . . But breaking the twig brought the dawning of moral consciousness. I knew I was neither performing a useful task nor exhibiting thrift. I was mutilating a bush simply for the joy of the tactile” (96-97). For the first time, the notion of “depravity” dawned on Mason, and as the months and years went by, “this notion seeped into [her] consciousness,” both the individual and universal depravity that she believed we carry with us as human beings (97).
Though she didn’t receive much encouragement from school, Mason began as a child to think about writing, recasting the books she read through her own imaginings. “When I reread a scene,” she remembers about her fascination with the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew books, “it unerringly sprang to life . . . . An image in my mind always had a direction and a size. And I could remember where it appeared in the book—top, bottom, left, or right on the page” (Clear Springs 73). And yet, her own imagination transposed the scene into a reality that she herself created. “When I pictured a scene in a book, it was always some variation of a familiar place,” she recalls, “with an added element of strangeness, so that the scene appeared slightly bent from reality. Like a circus marching down our lane. Or Gypsies in the barn” (74). She began to wonder about the creative process for the writer: “I asked Granny, ‘How does a writer think up a whole book?’” Granny responded that “she made plans. She didn’t just write the first thing that came into her head.” Mason remembers, “I didn’t follow Granny’s advice. I couldn’t think ahead. The pleasure of writing was discovering what might pop out of my mind unbidden.” She remembers as well that there “seemed to be a storehouse of words that I didn’t know I knew, yet they appeared at the right moment, like a girl joining a game of jump-rope” (74).
After graduating from Mayfield High School in 1958, Mason was encouraged by her teachers to major in math at the University of Kentucky. Finding little inspiration from the discipline, she soon switched to English and journalism, pursuing an interest she had developed in high school while serving as president of the Hilltoppers fan club, a rock group for whom she published a bimonthly newsletter. In an interview with Guy Mendes in 2001, Mason remembers that she was “desperate to go to college. I loved the whole idea. I loved being away from home and being in a big place with lots of people” (1). For the first time, she was introduced to contemporary literature, particularly in the classroom of Sheldon Gradstein. She read Hemingway, Steinbeck and the Catcher in the Rye for the first time, and a literary world was opened to her that was inexplicably grand. She also began to write for the campus newspaper, The Kernel, and in that capacity she came to know Gurney Norman and Hap Caywood, then two “brilliant humorists” who also wrote for the paper. She also took creative writing classes from Robert Hazel, who gave her the idea for the first time about the uniqueness and glamour of being a writer. “I think,” recalls Mason, “throughout his career, young writers gravitated toward him and he fostered that sense of identity. . . . I know that with Gurney [Norman] and Ed [McClanahan] and Wendell [Berry] and Jim [Hall], it was like a boys’ club, and he would have them over and read their manuscripts and so on” (Mendes 2). But for the young women writers, it was different in those days. “I was in awe of him [Hazel], [but] he had a different idea of women and didn’t want to treat the young women in his class quite the same way . . . and didn’t [give them] the same kind of encouragement and feedback” (2). Nonetheless, despite the double standard and occasional harassment that was seldom questioned in the early sixties, Hazel kindled in Mason a hunger for the creative life and an appreciation for the first-rate writers of that day. They read Flannery O’Connor, William Styron, Phillip Roth; and by the time Mason left UK in 1962, she wanted only one thing—to be a writer. “My real aim was to write fiction. I got out of school and, having none of those job connections I should have had and knowing that I could not just launch into making a living writing novels or short stories” (3), Mason made do with other kinds of writing. After graduation, she moved to New York and got a job with Ideal Publishing Company writing for fan magazines such as Movie Stars and TV Star Parade. However, this kind of writing had its limits, and she soon returned to school, in large part to read literature, receiving an M.A. at SUNY Binghamton in 1966, and then moving on to the University of Connecticut, where she finished her Ph.D. in 1972. Mason turned her dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov into her first important published work, Nabokov’s Garden: A Guide to Ada (1974). Her next major publication was The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and their Sisters (1975), a book that predates many feminist assumptions that would become standard in the 1980’s.
It was while in graduate school that Mason met and married Roger Rawlings. Also, in graduate school she became painfully aware of how different she imagined she was. She remembers finding herself “catapulted into situations” where she felt she didn’t belong—“I had neither the confidence nor the social graces to manage” (The Missouri Review 4). In 1971, she and Roger moved to Mansfield, Pennsylvania, where for several years she taught at Mansfield State College. Then finally, she says, in the late seventies, as she neared a “middle identity-crisis time,” she determined to give up teaching to write full-time: “I think the crisis went back to my childhood conviction that I was special,” she says, “and I followed the notion, picked up in college, that writing was a calling, that writers were different and could indulge their sense of apartness by writing” (5). Summoning up the courage to send off some stories to The New Yorker, she remembers, “To my surprise, I got encouraging responses from Roger Angell. . . . He took me under his wing, responded to all my submissions with great care and interest, and gave me the first real encouragement I had ever had” (6). While she worked with Angell and honed her storytelling skills, she also attended week-long workshops for three summers at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks: “It was pleasant, a chance to hang out with some writers. I attended workshops run by Gail Godwin, Charles Simmons, and Margaret Atwood. They were all encouraging” (6).
More than anything, Mason began to see herself as a writer and writing as an “honorable thing to do” (The Missouri Review 6). She admits that it took her twenty years to begin to achieve her goal: “The typical story for women writers seems to be that they spend twenty years raising children and then they go back to their original ambition of writing. I didn’t raise children but took twenty years” to accomplish becoming a writer, and Roger Angell was the principal individual to help her finally reach this goal. Roger was the first person to tell Mason, “You are a writer” (6). Angell helped her to understand that she had to “go deeper into the characters’ lives. His responses were subjective, never prescriptive. I heard how the story made him feel. He was always very careful not to tell me how to do it. He said he didn’t know, but he made me think that I did” (6). Finally, the story “Offerings,” later republished in the Shiloh collection, was accepted by The New Yorker.
Mason talks about the thrill of expectation she felt with the possibility of publishing in The New Yorker: In 1979, Angell had called to tell her he liked “Offerings” but that something darker was needed in the story. Three weeks later, Mason found herself in New York with the possibility of meeting Roger Angell for the first time. “I took the revisions with me—only about three sentences worth—and met him in his office. He passed the story along to William Shawn, the editor, who made the ultimate decision. The next day, a Friday, I met Roger for a drink at the Algonquin Hotel” (The Missouri Review 6-7). Mason still didn’t know whether or not her story would be published. She was to call the following Monday at 1:00, which she did only to be told to call back in fifteen minutes. Again she called and still no definitive answer. She had another engagement that afternoon, and finally reached The New Yorker from the ladies room at Saks, learning the good news.
Mason was fortunate to work with some of the best editors of the seventies and eighties, including Ted Solotaroff, who pushed her to confront the subject of the Vietnam War, which resulted in her first novel, In Country. Mason went on to publish a steady stream of brilliant short stories in the Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, Paris Review and other first-rate magazines. The best of these would go into her first published collection Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), a book that would be hailed as a stunning fictional debut and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction.
“What I mean is, you can’t just do something by itself. Everything else drags along. It’s all involved.” —“Graveyard Day”
from Shiloh and Other Stories (1982)
Shiloh and Other Stories is an extraordinary collection which focuses on the working classes and how people respond to changes wrought by popular culture, cultural shifts, including gender and generational shifts, and the intrusion into our lives of rampant commercialism. The stories, however, are marked by the compassion and understanding Mason always exhibits toward her characters, particularly her male characters who in many ways must make the greatest adjustments to these changing values and cultural shifts. Typical is “Shiloh,” a story about a couple whose lives have drifted apart so imperceptibly over the years that Leroy Moffitt, the truck driver husband, has hardly noticed. “They have known each other so long,” muses the narrator, “they have forgotten a lot about each other” (11). Leroy has been home for several months recuperating from an on-the-job trucking accident, and he is noticing things about his and Norma Jean’s life together that he had missed during all those years as a trucker: “He has begun to realize that in all the years he was on the road he never took time to examine anything. He was always flying past scenery” (4). Meanwhile, Norma Jean muses one day, “But I have this crazy feeling I missed something” (5).
For fifteen years, they have ambled through life together, Leroy driving his “big rig” across the country and Norma Jean working at the Rexall drugstore, amassing “an amazing amount of information about cosmetics,” Leroy thinks admiringly. Yet the reader is given small details that suggest the complexity of their life together: Leroy’s “getting Norma Jean pregnant” (7), the child they lost to sudden death syndrome one night at the drive-in while watching Dr. Strangelove, Norma Jean’s deciding to take courses at the community college in Paducah, her body-building program, and Leroy’s unkept promises to build her a home. Finally, at the suggestion of Mabel, Norma Jean’s mother, Leroy takes Norma Jean to the Shiloh Battlefield, just the two of them, where rather than the new beginning Leroy is hoping for, Norma Jean tells him, “I want to leave you.” When Leroy protests, “You and me could start all over again,” Norma Jean answers, “We have started all over again . . . and this is how it turned out” (16). Leroy is as mystified about this place where so many soldiers died in a battle a hundred years ago as he is about marriage: “He tries to focus on the fact that thirty-five hundred soldiers died on the grounds around him. He can only think of that war as a board game with plastic soldiers. . . . And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him”(17). While there is certainly compassion for Leroy Moffitt, the narrator is singularly blunt and to-the-point as the story is told.
Other stories in the collection, such as “The Rookers,” “Old Things,” “Drawing Names,” and “Graveyard Day,” deal with shifting family relationships and the disconnect between generations, while stories such as “Nancy Culpepper” offer characters attempting to reconcile the past with the present in order to discover their own identities while, at the same time, coming to terms with modern life. The stories in the Shiloh collection are contemporary and relevant to our lives and offer the opportunity to think about American consumerism and commercialism, loss of social decorum, and the social dislocation of contemporary working-class life. However, more than this, they are simply . . . what they are: each story a gem, glittering with facets of perfect details and genuine feeling that portray the small moments and events that are the substance of everyday lives.
“The main thing you learn from history is that you can’t learn from history. That’s what history is.”—In Country (1985)
In the early 1980’s when Mason began seriously to consider a book about Vietnam, a number of thoughts crossed her mind: that it was time for such a book, that such a story would be both complex and daunting to tell, and that perhaps it was not a story she could or should tell. Mason has made these comments about writing the book: “I have to confess that when I began writing the novel I was afraid of the subject. I didn’t know how to confront the huge subject of the Vietnam War and its aftermath” (“A Note from Bobbie Ann Mason” 4). When Mason began the book, America was only just beginning to face the recognition of all that this and wars like it meant, this war that had been so debated, vilified and justified, which had divided the country and the generations as it had. Mason writes: “In early drafts, I simplified Emmett’s situation, not daring to get close to him. . . . I even wondered if I—as a woman—had the right to tell his story. But the war forced itself on me. Sam’s questions were my questions” (4). As Mason read the oral histories and first-person accounts of the war, the “voices of the soldiers telling their stories were eloquent and powerful” (5), and her confidence about telling the story grew. Listening to those “real” voices empowered the voices of her characters, and then in the spring of 1983, she visited the new Vietnam Memorial, which was a turning point for her in writing the book. The rain pummeled as she slogged toward the Wall, and she could hear the voices of her characters: “They were along on the journey. . . . And when I saw the Wall, I saw it through their eyes, and I felt their hearts pounding. And then an incredible thing happened. In the pouring rain, quite by accident, my eyes fell upon my own name on the Wall, a version of my name—Bobby G. Mason” (5). At that moment, Mason understood Vietnam was her story too, and In Country was every American’s experience.
In Country, a term that references the soldier’s period of deployment to a war zone, is set within the narrative frame of a pilgrimage or journey—a family’s visit to the newly constructed Vietnam Memorial. Parts one and three of the book detail the road-trip to reach the memorial, with the opening evincing a light, almost comedic quality, while the intertwined stories of the book itself—Samantha Hughes’ coming of age story or journey, her father’s death in Vietnam, and her Uncle Emmett’s attempt to survive as a Vietnam Vet—are sandwiched between the trip to see the monument. The journey motif in the novel is thus layered and rife with profundity, as the reader travels with the characters through the book.
Sam Hughes is a feisty, original teenager, with an overly cute, somewhat shallow boyfriend Lonnie, who like her schoolmates and most everyone else in the country just doesn’t get it when it comes to true patriotism. “Lonnie was just like all the other kids at school,” Sam thinks after Lonnie declares unflinchingly his “love-it-or-leave it” patriotism. “In her history class last year, 90 percent voted in favor of the invasion of Grenada. They were afraid of the Russians” (88). Sam, on the other hand, knows about war; she has carried with her the burden and responsibility of her damaged Uncle Emmett and a great deal of personal family baggage resulting from the Vietnam War for most of her life. Sam has reached a point in her life where she wants answers . . . about her father Dwayne Hughes, who died in Vietnam before she was born; about her mother Irene who has remarried, moved to Lexington, and (in Sam’s mind) replaced her with a new little sister; about her Uncle Emmett, whom she fears suffers from Agent Orange poisoning and who only barely functions socially since returning from Vietnam. Sam feels responsible for her uncle after her mother leaves Hopewell to remarry. However, Sam mostly has questions about the war itself that took her father’s life and left Emmett and many of his friends damaged . . . and likewise everyone else connected to these soldiers—the collateral damage of war seldom spoken about when nations whip themselves into a frenzy to make war. Disgusted with the whole idea of war and the sometimes cavalier way a country gets itself into conflict, Sam says, “The least little threat and America’s got to put on its cowboy boots and stomp around and show somebody a thing or two” (221).
Sam Hughes also needs to find answers about herself—who she is, why she is, and what she is to do with her life. Sam looks at a picture of her father Dwayne and thinks to herself: “The boy in the picture was nineteen. Lonnie was going on nineteen. Sam looked at her face in the mirror—fat, sassy, stubborn. Her father’s face was so scrawny. She couldn’t see any resemblance to him” (58). As her mother Irene attempts to convince Sam to leave Hopewell for college in Lexington, Sam is adamant about staying with her Uncle Emmett, worrying about him and the crumbling house in which they live, crumbling it seems to her like the very social fabric and values of the world around her. For Sam, Lonnie is too controlling and far too superficial, silly, and cavalier about life in general; her best friend Dawn finds herself pregnant and worried about telling her boyfriend, while Sam wonders what fickle fate might have in store for her: “Since Dawn got pregnant, Sam had been feeling that if she didn’t watch her step, her whole life could be ruined by some mischance, some stupid surprise, like sniper fire” (184).
Sam is also very angry, though at first she doesn’t realize it. She confesses to Lonnie, “My mom said not to worry about what happened to Emmett back then, because the war had nothing to do with me. But the way I look at it, it had everything to do with me. My daddy went over there to fight for Mom’s sake, and Emmett went over there for Mom’s sake and my sake, to get revenge. . . . The ones who don’t get killed come back with their lives messed up, and then they make everybody miserable” (71). Sam strikes out at her mother Irene, who receives the blunt edge of her anger perhaps more than anyone else. Irene thinks that Sam and Emmett watch too much TV, particularly reruns of M*A*S*H episodes. When Irene tries again to get Sam to come live with her in Lexington, to enroll in college since women, as she says, “can do anything they want to now, just about,” Sam rages at her: “You just want me to get out of Hopewell and forget about Emmett, the same way you want me to forget about my daddy. . . . You want to pretend the whole Vietnam War never existed, like you want to protect me from something” (167). The following day, Irene tells Sam that she doesn’t “have to move to Lexington” if she doesn’t want to but adds, as she gives her daughter a check for $600 for the broken-down car Sam has been trying to figure a way to purchase, “you need a car and you can at least come and see me” (172).
As Sam talks to Emmett’s veteran friends, she hopes to gain some understanding of how her dad must have felt while at war, what he feared, and what he was like. She’s surprised when Emmett’s Vietnam buddy Pete tells her, “It was the best life I ever knew, in a way. It was really something. . . . It was just the intensity of it, what you went through together. That meant something. . . . Hell, yeah. I admit it. I enjoyed it. I felt good over there. I knew what I was doing. I knew certain things. There was a dividing line. Life and death” (134). Sam breaks up with Lonnie and pursues Tom, another of Emmett’s Nam buddies. She also tries to arrange a relationship between Emmett and her buxom older friend Anita, who is a nurse, but neither Emmett nor Tom are able to commit to anyone, and Sam comes to realize that despite the appeal that an older guy like Tom has for her, such a relationship isn’t really appropriate for her. Finally, Sam realizes that perhaps none of this is completely fathomable to her and certainly there are no easy answers to her questions: “Maybe she was going nuts. It wasn’t just Tom. Or just Emmett. Or Lonnie. Or Dawn’s predicament. It was her. She was at the center of all these impossible dramas, and somehow she was feeling that it was all up to her. But she didn’t really know where she was, or who she would be if all those people left town and walked into the sunset to live happily ever after. If she got all of them straightened out, what would she do” (178). She yells at Emmett, who had given her a scare when he disappeared without telling her where he was going: “I think Mom’s right. . . . You’ve got to get off your ass” (178).
Sam has been told more times than she could count that her birth was a miracle, a gift to “compensate for the loss of Dwayne.” She begins to think that perhaps she has made “too much out of the brief time her parents were married before he went overseas.” She muses: “During that month, she had originated. She didn’t know why the moment of origin mattered. Scientists were trying to locate the moment of origin of the universe. They wanted to know exactly when it happened, and how, and whether it happened with a big bang or some other way” (192). Perhaps the existence of the universe and her own minute existence were nothing more than Crass Casualty or Happenstance, some mere mechanical accident, she thinks: “Maybe the universe originated quietly, without fireworks, the way human life started, with two people who were simply having a good time in the bed, or in the back seat of a car” (192). When Sam visits her grandparents and has a chance to rummage through her father’s possessions, she is surprised by what she finds. She had already learned from Dwayne’s letters to Irene that her father had wanted her to be named Samantha, a name from the bible. At her grandparents’ farm, Mamaw gives her Dwayne’s diary, which presents a very different picture of what she had imagined her father had experience in the jungles of Vietnam. She learns of the day-to-day drudgery, the boredom, the fear and horror of war, and she learns about the loss of his best friend and the day Dwayne killed a Vietcong in the jungle: “Big surprise,” Dwayne writes, “Face to face with a V.C and I won. Easier than I thought. But there wasn’t time to think. It was so simple. At last” (204). Sam is horrified by the casualness of it all. She wonders why her “father hadn’t said how he felt about killing the V.C. He just reported it, as though it were something he had to do sooner or later, like taking a test in school” (205). Rather than at last finding some kinship with her father, the whole business of the war made her sick:
. . . the diary disgusted her, with the rotting corpse, her father’s shriveled feet, his dead buddy, those sickly-sweet banana leaves. . . . Now everything seemed suddenly so real it enveloped her, like something rotten she had fallen into, like a skunk smell, but she felt she had to live with it for a long time before she could take a bath. In the jungle, they were nasty and couldn’t take a bath. (206)
How could she “face Emmett now” she wondered (206)?
What was it with men and violence and war, Sam wonders when she returns home to find that Emmett has set off a flea bomb in their decaying house, disregarding, she thinks, the well-being of Moon Pie, the cat? “He was all the time reliving that war. Men wanted to kill. That’s what men did, she thought. It was their basic profession” (208). She leaves a note for Emmett that she has left and that he should not try to find her. As she gathers her camping gear to head for Cawood’s Pond, certain that she will surely not find any enlightenment as Thoreau had when he escaped to Walden Pond, she thinks: “Grandad killed Japanese soldiers in World War II. Her father had been killed because that was the way the game was played. Some lived and some died.” She storms out of the house trying to banish from her thoughts the “rotting corpse her dad had found” in the jungle: “Women didn’t kill. That was why her mother wouldn’t honor the flag, or honor the dead. Honoring the dead meant honoring the cause. Irene was saying, Fuck you, U.S.A., he’s dead and it meant nothing. . . . Sam thought, To hell with all of them—Lonnie, her dad, her uncle, her grandfathers . . .” (210).
Finally, smack in the middle of the swamp, Sam does have her own transcendental epiphany. She is in the middle of nowhere, in a solitary wilderness, maybe like Dwayne had felt on watch in the jungle; then it hits her that “this nature preserve in a protected corner of Kentucky wasn’t like Vietnam at all,” even the “soundtrack was different” (214). As the night wanes, suddenly the birds grow quiet and she hears footsteps headed toward her. The “rapist” that she imagines turns out to be Emmett, who has walked all night searching for her. Sam confesses to her uncle that she cannot understand her father’s experiences in the war, nor can she understand Dwayne himself: “The way he talked about gooks and killing—I hated it. . . I hate him. He was awful. . . . He loved it, like Pete. He went there to get some notches on his machete” (221-22). When Emmett grabs Sam by the shoulders and shakes her, sharing for the first time his own honest emotion about the war, he shouts at her: “Look here, little girl. He could have been me. All of us, it was the same for all of us! Tom and Pete and Jim and Buddy and all of us. You can’t do what we did and then be happy about it. And nobody lets you forget it. Goddamn it, Sam!” With this, Emmett begins to sob. “Oh, shit-fire, Sam! We were out there trying to survive. It felt good when you got even” (222-21). Emmett looks at Sam, who understands her uncle and perhaps now her father for the first time. “This is what I do,” says Emmett. “I work on staying together, one day at a time. There’s no room for anything else. It takes all my energy” (225). Sam thinks about all the strange oddities of Emmett, his inability to focus, his flying the Vietcong flag from the Hopewell courthouse, his fascination with birds, “always watching birds and writing them down on his life list” . . . and his search for one particular kind of exotic bird—one like the egret he had seen in Vietnam with the water buffalo. “If you can think about something like birds, you can get outside of yourself, and it doesn’t hurt as much,” Emmett says to Sam as they leave the swamp together at the end of the story. “That’s the challenge for the human race,” he tells Sam (226). As Sam and Emmett walk out of Cawood’s swamp, the image that he presents ahead of her reminds her of “an old peasant woman hugging a baby” (226). The essential humanity of the image and the reconciliation it suggests is also emblematic of Sam’s own transfiguration and acceptance of the commonality of our being and the universality of our experiences, which transcends time, nationality, and gender.
Mason’s narrative ends by returning the reader to the raggle-taggle family road-trip in Sam’s “new” car. Mamaw, Sam, and Emmett have arrived in Washington, D.C., to strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” blaring on the car radio. There at the Wall, they at last find the name “Dwayne E. Hughes” etched into the black granite. For Emmett, the experience is cathartic; for Sam it brings this part of her personal journey to a close. As Sam muses at the Wall, her eyes happen upon her own name, or a version of it, “Sam Alan Hughes.” Now she understands that Dwayne’s story, all the stories represented by the names on the Wall, are every American’s story; and this war, as all wars, is as much hers as the soldiers’ who die for their country. If, indeed, there is anything to be learned from history, and for Emmett that premise is doubtful, perhaps it is this—that we all are engaged and affected by the conflicts that our country undertakes, no matter how slick the media sell or how appealing the rationale our leaders give for putting young American lives in danger. In times of war, we are all “in country.”
“Life has turned out so differently from anything she could have imagined . . . . The world has changed so much . . . . She tries to go along with anything new, but she is afraid that inside she hasn’t changed at all.”
—Spence + Lila (1988)
Though Spence + Lila came out in 1988, its reprinting in the Nancy Culpepper collection in 2006 puts the novella in the best context for discussion. Both the short stories and the novella are interconnecting works that trace the life events and family members of a character who has long functioned as a kind of doppelganger for Mason; indeed, the resemblance to Mason and the lone woman standing in a field on the cover of the collection is striking. Mason has said that Nancy Culpepper “is more like me than any other character I’ve created, but I see her at a certain distance from me . . . . It is her sensibility that I feel closest to” (Nancy Culpepper 227). Nancy, the eldest child of Spence and Lila, is on a quest to understand her relationship with her family, the past, and her place in this complex, fast-paced and rapidly changing contemporary world. Nancy long ago left rural Kentucky for a life in the Northeast. Married to “a Yankee,” she finds her country roots displaced, yet her habits and heart still in Kentucky: “Kentucky wouldn’t release her. She wouldn’t let it. She fought Jack on this, and he always accused her of being held back by her culture” (216).
The novella Spence + Lila tells of the loving and complex relationship between Nancy’s parents, who find themselves at a crossroads when Lila is hospitalized for cancer and cardiovascular surgery. The novella explores the humor, loving acceptance, and wisdom that can come with aging gracefully and learning to cope with life’s vicissitudes. While many of the motifs of earlier stories are in this novella, the book is principally about accommodation and reconciliation, in a broad, Miltonic sense. In some ways, the story provides readers with a touching roadmap for survival and living life with dignity. Lila thinks to herself as her family—husband Spence, daughters Nancy and Cat, and son Lee—gather round her in the hospital: “As you grow older, you give up things, hand things over to the younger generation. You plant a smaller garden. Instead of accumulating, you start giving away, having a yard sale” (138). For both Lila and Spence, her illness seems to clarify their life together, to distill their relationship to its bare essentials. For most of us, that might be stripping a marriage down to the bone, with not much left that is appealing or of substance; however, for Lila her illness lets her cultivate the best flowers left in her garden: “Growing into old age toward death is like shifting gears in a car; now she’s going into high gear, plowing out onto one of those interstates, racing into the future, where all her complicated thoughts she has never been able to express will be clear and understandable” (136). While Lila and Spence’s journey is very like that of most of us, they are at the same time unique. Lila remembers when she eloped with Spence, she “brought something with her that has lasted to this day—a handful of dried field peas, a special variety that her cousins told her that her mother had raised. Lila kept the peas going in the garden year after year, always saving out some seed. They weren’t brown and ordinary. They were white, plumper than most field peas, and she never saw that kind anywhere else. She always called them ‘our peas’” (138). Thus her family is her garden, and Lila has done well in tending them.
Lila’s life didn’t start out easy—her mother’s dying early, her father’s leaving the family, raised by an uncle and never really feeling that she belonged. Mason writes: “Lila loves puzzles. When she was little, growing up at her uncle’s, she had a puzzle of a lake scene with a castle. She worked that puzzle until the design was almost worn away. . . . It was like knowing something for sure” (57). Eloping with Spence when she was barely 18 and bringing all her worldly possessions with her in a “bag she had sewed out of sacking,” Lila “didn’t even have a Bible” (118). Afterward, she and Spence lived with his parents. She managed as best she could while Spence was in the Pacific during the World War II, and later she cared for his ailing mother—none of it was easy, but always the children were her center. Lila remembered one day when Nancy was little, hearing her screaming and finding Spence’s father Amp, the family patriarch, giving Nancy a good beating for some infraction—“She has to learn to mind,” Amp scolded Lila. “Don’t you never do that again!” Lila replied, fiercely gathering her daughter up in her arms. Lila didn’t believe Nancy remembered the incident for she adored her grandfather, but she always clung to Lila for protection and “strangers frightened her” (137). Lila “never understood why Amp did that to Nancy. Men,” she thinks, “had a secret, awful power” (136).
Lila’s illness makes it clear to Spence that he cannot “live without” her, for it is Lila who is the real center of the family, despite the deference shown to men-folk in such farming families. Once it is clear that Lila’s illness, serious though it is, will not be fatal, Spence does something he had never thought he would do, for Spence had always stayed close to home and been earth-bound since the war years that put him on a ship in the far-away Pacific. Spence finally agrees to go up with his friend Bill in an airplane, a crop-duster, over the farm. He sees their home and the land from a different perspective. The plane ride becomes a poignant metaphor for what Lila’s illness has meant to Spence and their children—a time to reassess, a time to reconcile the present with the past. “All his life, Spence has had a conception of the size and shape and contours of his farm,” muses the narrator. Now “above the place, seeing it whole,” he realizes it is different from what he had imagined with earth solidly under his feet, walking his fields in the moment (152). As Spence flies far above the landscape, he is unexpectedly exhilarated. He looks down and sees more than just a landscape, the moment becoming both a tribute to the female principle and to Lila herself: “Bill turns the plane and swoops back down over the farm. Spence gazes at his land, his seventy-three acres. . . . The woods are like hair, the two creeks like the parting of a woman’s legs, the house and barn her nipples. Spence laughs to himself. He has been sending out a cosmic message to alien explorers and didn’t even know it. . . . Spence wonders if he’s losing his mind. Maybe seeing the land that way only means that his mind is on Lila coming home” (152-53).
Each of the children, none of whom elected to remain on the family farm, also takes the time during Lila’s illness to reassess their relationship to their parents and to the land: Lee who since his parents have grown older has tried to convince Spence to divide the land up into plots for a subdivision, Cat who seems so worldly wise, and the bookish Nancy who has spent much of her life trying to re-establish her relationship with the land she had so desperately wanted to leave. As they gather around Lila, who spent her entire life caring for her family, she is touched and grateful by their care and concern now for her. The girls have tried to assume some of Lila’s chores and she muses: “I never would have thought you all would care this much about me as you’ve shown. . . . I was always used to doing for y’all, and I never expected you to do for me this way” (156). When Nancy protests and says Lila deserves the attention, Lila thinks about what it is that’s really important in life: “It is strange how happy one can be at the worst times. When Spence was on leave from the Navy, before he was sent overseas, Lila felt happy just to be able to see him once more, knowing she might never see him again. Now she feels exhilarated” (156). Lila is content and understands this “is what a life comes down to . . . replacing your own life with new ones. It’s just like raising a crop” (64).
While Lila + Spence is the centerpiece of the Nancy Culpepper volume, each of the Culpepper stories, in one form or another, reinforces this affirmation of family and home, and each suggests that enlightenment and self-understanding are manifest through our connection and coming to terms with our past. The stories detail Nancy’s journey through her life, the difficulties of relationships in the modern world, and the struggles that we must endure to achieve some peace as we wend our way toward the end of that journey. In the last story, appropriately called “The Prelude,” Nancy meets Jack in England. Jack has come with good news and bad news: their son Robert and his wife are expecting a baby, and Jack has just learned that he has prostate cancer. The meeting is a reconciliation after Jack and Nancy have spent a long period of time separated and reassessing their lives. Awaiting Jack in the Lake District, Nancy has already experienced a familiarity and connectedness with this, her favorite, part of the world and with the literature it has produced. As she waits for Jack to join her, her thoughts turn to Lila and to the unexpected connections that we find with the past and with the human experience: “Nancy was thinking of the time Coleridge stopped in at Dove Cottage, while Dorothy and William were away. Coleridge went into the garden, picked some peas, and cooked them. He dressed them, he wrote in his notebook,” Nancy muses. “Nancy’s mother used that word. She dressed eggs, dressed a hen. Nancy was pleased to find this cultural connection to her parents and grandparents” (216). Nancy has traveled far from the fields of Spence and Lila’s Kentucky farm, her “home place.” She and Jack have likewise traveled far from each other, as time and the complexity of their lives made such unexpected turns. Yet the connection between them was still strong: “And it occurred to her that she had left home in Kentucky to get away from the hard labor that had enslaved her parents. She was meant to use her mind. But her mind wandered, and she never had a successful career” (217). No, Kentucky “wouldn’t release her,” and she was glad (217). She thinks again about Coleridge, “afraid to go home” after his life with Sara Fricker had gone sour. Hers and Jack’s “coming together again seemed easy” because of the connection they had with each other. “Perhaps Jack’s good news and bad news had canceled each other out, leaving them in limbo,” Nancy thinks, as her husband talks with their son over the phone. As Nancy looks at her face in the mirror, she is surprised to see how much “she resembled her mother. This used to frighten her, but she had come to find the recognition pleasant” (222). That evening Jack and Nancy walk under the stars down Stock Lane, where Dorothy, William, and Coleridge had walked together two centuries before. As she and Jack stroll toward Dove Cottage, Nancy feels their presence, “young people struggling with the future” (224). “I missed you,” she says to Jack. “I want you back,” Jack replies (224).
“. . . I don’t aim to live out my days all hunched up over my memories. I want to watch the sun come up and hear a hen cackle over a new-laid egg and feel a kitten purr. And I want to see a flock of blackbirds whirl over the field, making music. Things like that are absolutely new ever time they happen.”
–Feather Crowns (1993)
If Nancy Culpepper posits the importance of dealing with the past and looking back across time in order to fully comprehend our present, Feather Crowns stresses the importance of looking squarely at our here and now, accepting life (and death), and moving forward. On the surface, the book looks at the birth and short lives of one of the earliest sets of quintuplets born in America and how public fascination and voyeurism transform an extraordinary event of nature into a carnival side-show, as Christiana Wheeler, the novel’s protagonist, attempts to understand her destiny and the fateful event that transforms her life and relationship with her husband James and her family. Feather Crowns is a story that causes us to ponder the psychology of celebrity and the nature of public greed and fascination with fame and notoriety, themes rife today in American popular culture. However, the novel is likewise about the importance of telling one’s own story, about seizing one’s destiny as best one can in a universe manifestly without apparent plan. When James and Christie Wheeler come to the end of their journey, having dealt with the extraordinary circumstance that has transformed their lives, Christie sees “the central flaw in her desire to understand why such an extraordinary thing had happened to her. It wasn’t why it happened—that couldn’t be known; it was what the world made of it that was the issue” (417). With this realization, Christie and James speed through the night back home, to their farm in Kentucky, to their children, to their lives: “The train lurched and jerked steadily through the night. As the night wore on, she found herself thinking ahead to the work to be done: gathering in dried peas and beans, hilling up turnips and cabbages, teaching Nannie her ABC’s, killing hogs in the first long cold spell. She felt as light as one of old Dove Wheeler’s legendary angel-food cakes” (417).
In a 1997 interview, Mason talks about the genesis of Feather Crowns. “The book,” she says, “was inspired by a true story, the birth of quintuplets in 1896. It happened in my hometown—in fact, across the field from where I grew up” (12). Mason notes that she did not hear about the story until 1988, and had little information about the specific details of the event but was nonetheless inspired to tell the story. “I had been wanting to go back into the world of my grandparents when they were young, and that true story was just right for the journey. I seized on it for my own, as a chance to get into the language and folkways of the rural culture of the turn of the century” (12). Since the story was literally so close to home and since she knew well, as she says, “the language, superstitions, landscape, [and]farming methods” either first-hand or from her mother, the book did not require a great deal of historical research. Rather, it was a matter of imagination and invention—but, Mason says, from the beginning she had “a clear sense of direction” for the story (12-13).
It is the year the great earthquake had been predicted when the story opens February 26, 1900, a prediction that holds a different sort of portents for the Wheelers. Christie and James Wheeler have a rich and vibrant relationship, one that offers them full-range to the secret pleasures of the body, at a time when such pleasures were neither acknowledged nor sanctioned by society or the church. After three children, the hardships of living for a time with family, relying on the good graces and financial help of James’s Uncle Wad, and the back-breaking everyday life on a family farm, Christie finds herself in bed and suffering through a pregnancy that seems unrelentingly difficult. Always the words of her Aunt Sophie, who never married, echo in Christie’s mind: “It’s nine months from the marriage bed to the deathbed” (7). When Christie finally gives birth, Dr. Foote is called in, and though the midwife Hattie is certain Christie’s will be a multiple-birth delivery, the good doctor is clueless. When the five babies are born—James Lake, Emily Sue, John Wilburn, Mollie Lee, and the tiniest Minnie Sophia—the community believes this event to be a miracle, one to be shared with the world. And “the world” literally begins to come to Christie and James’ front porch, as the local train Friendship begins to make regular stops as it passes by the farm. Uncle Wad sees dollars (or in this case dimes) coming from all the adoration and as a way for Christie and James to repay their debt to him for land and a house at the family homestead; and the “cuckoo bird spring[ing] out of the clock on the wall” seems to auger a kind of madness that occurs not only in the community but in the country over the babies (155).
The first order of business is to find a way to feed the five hungry babies, and when new, and unmarried, Elvie Smith does not return after an insulting remark from Wad’s sister Alma, an African American neighbor of Dr. Foot, Mittens, comes to help Christie feed the babies. The friendship that evolves between Christie, Mittens, and Wad’s young wife Amanda is genuine and strong, but all the women’s care and effort cannot save the babies with the human traffic tramping in and out of the house on a constant and regular basis. Dr. Foote gives the babies opium to keep them quiet during the comings and goings, a standard practice during the time, and slowly their appetites diminish. When the babies eventually fall ill and one by one die, first the delicate Minnie and finally the stalwart James Lake, oldest and strongest of the brood, Wad blames the weather, and James blames Mittens: “‘It was nigger milk,’ James said one night. . . . ‘Nigger milk and cow’s milk.’” Christie answers, “I’m not listening to that” (251). And so begins the growing estrangement of James and Christie, as events continue to fall out of their control. Mittens, as it turns out, is herself a Wheeler and kin to James, as the tangled skeins of 19th-century southern genealogy finds its way into the story; and the babies die not because of the weather or the milk, but because of the incessant curiosity and handling of the public—or as Alma asserts, “Them babies was wooled to death . . . . Just like a old dog got aholt of ‘em and wooled ‘em” (290). Later, Christie learns about germs, and she begins to understand that the babies probably could not have survived under almost any circumstances, given the times and given their notoriety. Even in her mature years, when the Dionne quintuplets again captured the attention of the country, Christie knows that normalcy would have escaped them and the “monster she had thought was inside her” when she was pregnant “did in fact exist—in the spectacle the babies generated” (213).
After the children’s death, a Mr. McCain offers the Wheelers the opportunity to travel the country—with the babies who have been enshrined in a glass case as a gift from the local mortician. Christie, who wants to tell her story, unexpectedly agrees. Wad sees another source of ready income, but for Christie this is an act of defiance that no one seems to realize. “I reckoned you’d see it my way,” Wad smiles with satisfaction at Christie. “But I’m not seeing it your way,” she answers. “I don’t see what she means by that,” Wad sneers to James, as Christie snaps back, “Think on it” (302). This moment is a kind of declaration of independence for Christie Wheeler, and as a reluctant James escorts her across the country, first at fine lecture halls in Nashville and later at tawdry country fairs in dusty southern towns, their journey is a discovery for Christie and James. At first, Christie in her anger asserts, “I’m going to show people what they done to my babies” (304). Though she isn’t ready to let go of her babies, she knows there is a lesson to be learned: “If the world killed her babies and wanted to see them dead to draw some lesson from them, then she would show people more than they bargained for. She’d show them, with spite burning in her eyes. . . . She would be master of the scene” (311-12). Christie begins to change, first before they leave, she takes to the fields, dressed in James’ britches, cutting the tobacco plants with a vengeance: “She was freeing herself, so she could leave. Three whacks in a row, three perfect cuts” (311).
The trip across the country, however, becomes a different sort of journey from what Christie had imagined, with each stop, with each crowd of the curious and sometimes the anguished:
Her eyes burned fired. The public’s greedy curiosity was just the same, whether the babies were alive or dead. But she hadn’t expected so many people to bring their own grief to her. Every day, amid the curious stares, she met someone who told her of losing a baby, or pressed upon her a photograph of some dead child lying in a heap of flowers or sitting in a straight chair as if still alive. (337)
The days become tedious for her and James, “She could hardly bear to be with James all the time. The trip threw them together in a way she couldn’t get accustomed to. . . . Now they were close together at all hours. But they didn’t want to touch. Increasingly, James irritated her. He used to be so easy going, but now he was moody and argumentative” (339). When at long last Christie and James have had enough, convinced that McCain is less the esteemed lecturer than a flim-flam man, they get on a train and head first for Washington, D.C., and then for home. They remembered Dr. Graham Johnson from the Institute of Man in Washington, who had offered to take the babies, with the condition that they could return to Kentucky when Christie and James were ready to bury them, when they felt it was safe to put the babies in the ground, away from the ogling, the curious, and the obsessed. With Dr. Johnson, the babies would at last be out of the “public eye.” Christie could lay aside her guilt and her anger. “James,” she says, “do you realize nobody ever said what that doctor said—about keeping the babies out of the public eye, like they were too precious to let just anybody see? . . . . It’s just the opposite of what Brother Jones told us to do” (417). James tells Christie they cannot blame the preacher who had told them the babies were a gift from God, like Jesus, to be shared with the world. But Christie knew she would. “She knew what to blame at last—what the world had made of it all” (417).
In the first of the novel’s two postscripts, Christie is celebrated in 1937, and invited by the Canadian government to visit the Dionne children, the famous Canadian quintuples, who become wards of the state in an effort to protect them. However, she declines at the last minute, not wishing to “bother” Mrs. Dionne or the children. The final postscript occurs in 1963, during her ninetieth birthday celebration in Hopewell. At that time, she has the opportunity to tell her story, including the story of James’ death in a tractor accident, for which her son Jewell blamed himself. Christie remembers telling her son, “. . . what happens happens, and even if you were the one that caused it, you have to go on” (453). The story ends with Mason’s acknowledgment of the importance of one’s telling her own story, as Christie speaks to her granddaughter:
If you think of me from time to time, or tell your chillern about me, just promise me you’ll tell it fair. You don’t have to make me out to be something I’m not, but I want you to try to understand the way it was for people back then and not blame them. They was just too busy, and there was a lot that went on ’cause they just didn’t know any better. That’s no excuse for some things, such as the way everybody treated the colored people, but it was how we were told to think. (452)
However, Christie adds, “But I don’t aim to live out my days all hunched up over my memories” (454).
Christie Wheeler is one of several of Mason’s most remarkable female characters—strong in body and sense of self. She is intelligent, quick to understand both the world around her and herself. Though she initially feels a sense of guilt that she and James had too freely enjoyed the physical part of their relationship and losing the babies was her punishment—guilt that emanates from the Reelfoot Lake revival episode at the beginning of the book—she is smart enough to give up such wrong thinking and forgive herself, understanding that she had done the best she could with the knowledge and advice she had during the time her babies lived. Her journey around the country has its horror aspect, which James is quick to sense, but it is a necessary journey for Christie that allows her to let go of her babies, forgive herself and forgive James, as well as reestablish her relationship with James. Ultimately this extraordinary book is about forgiveness and reconciliation that comes from self- assertion and self-understanding. The monster that Christie had thought her babies to be while she was pregnant was not the devil or any wrongs within herself, including her own acknowledged vulnerability to celebrity, but the public response that followed her babies' birth. Yet for all that she went through, she became a different person from what she would have been had she not brought those five extraordinary human beings into the world.