Socked in by ice storms and blizzards, I spent much of the past winter curled up with three novels, working my way through Michael Dorris' Cloud Chamber (S&S Trade, 1997), Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1996), and Jane Hamilton's The Book of Ruth (Anchor/Doubleday, 1990). Curiously enough, reading these books back-to-back reminded me of another winter--a quarter century previously--when the confinement of novitiate and a New Year's resolution led me to read all three synoptic gospels over a single weekend.
It wasn't that the style or content of these three novels reminded me of the differing accounts of Jesus' life found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Cloud Chamber, Alias Grace, and The Book of Ruth are largely women's stories, tales told by voices usually heard only in whispers in the Bible. And they certainly don't provide uplifting accounts of heroic redeemers coming to the rescue.
Instead, in Dorris', Atwood's and Hamilton's gritty and dark tales of intergenerational dysfunctions and family tragedies, the characters--whether they're doctors, social workers, or clergy--who try slipping on the mantle of heroic rescuer are largely ridiculed for their feeble efforts.
The stories of Rose, Grace, and Ruth remind me of the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke because--like the three synoptic gospels--they resemble one another so much. Reading them in quick sequence, the similarities were unmistakable. It as if Dorris, Atwood, and Hamilton had each fashioned their own modern narrative out of the bare bones of a common story--some ancient myth of Everywoman handed down for countless generations, continuously reshaping itself in an endless variety of forms.
And in spite of distinctive plots and protagonists Cloud Chamber, Alias Grace, and The Book of Ruth each revolved around a murder and its punishment. Grappled with were issues of family ties, betrayal, abuse, and abandonment. The books tried to make sense of the ways we are fashioned or fractured by our memories and the stories we tell.
Along with these similarities, the thing that struck me about the narratives of Rose, Grace, and Ruth and the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that they are all stories about storytellers, and the creative--sometimes destructive--power of our stories.
The murder in Cloud Chamber occurs at the very beginning of the story, over and done in a matter of pages. The punishment stretches out for generations.
Rose Mannion is an Irish lass (and black widow spider) who in an icy rage has her true love executed for betraying "the cause" and then spends the rest of her life manipulating and belittling the men she marries.
Exiled to Kentucky with a softhearted young man who dreams vainly of winning her love, or even begrudging respect, Rose is the chilly matriarch of a family that must bear the weight of her guilt and stony abuse, a family that must work out its redemption in the wake of her tales--both the ones she has lived and the ones she has told. Her sons, dominated and defeated by their mother's thorny shadow and crippled by an ambitious wife (Bridle) who hungers after one and betrays the other, are not up to the task. Instead the sons end up abandoning their dreams and families in a way that sets the stage for a whole new generation of victims.
But Rose's grand-daughters are made of different stuff. Though nearly strangled in the tangled web of memories, secrets, and resentments that tie them to their mother and grandmother's past, Marcella and Edna manage to forge something of a path to freedom. In a midnight escape from a 1930s tuberculosis sanitarium, Edna delivers Marcella into the arms of a black grocer with whom Marcella will elope, have a son, and--at least for a while--take her away from her troubles. There are no perfect endings in this web of stories, and Marcella's son, Elgin, must soon come to grips with his own mixed inheritance of race, secrets, and abandonment.
Ironically, as readers of Dorris' earlier novel A Yellow Raft on Blue Water (Warner Books, 1988) already know, Rayona is also carrying the gifts and burdens of three fairly stormy generations of Native American women And the fact that Dorris has made her the brightest character in his story, a warm--nearly bubbly--antithesis of Rose and Bridie and a livelier, healthier version of Edna and Marcella, reveals the fundamental hopefulness of this story and the author's underlying belief in the possibility of grace and redemption.
Rose and Bridie are not generous storytellers; rather they are mean--spirited misers who keep secrets and ghost lovers in the damp vaults of their hearts, tight-tipped wives and mothers from whom a kind word or disclosure must be mined with pick and ax. These are stingy, bitter women "in the habit of measuring each new person by a tabulation of their natural imperfections," and the husbands and children who must live with these storytellers are dwarfed and suffocated by the smallness of their tales. It is only when the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these women begin to tell their own larger, more generous stories--when they offer warmer, more embracing memories to their children and grandchildren--that the shadows of Rose and Bridie are in some fashion put to rest.
A murder in Alias Grace forms Atwood's historical novel. The punishment lasts for nearly three decades. In 1843 all of Canada is obsessed with the trial and fate of Grace Marks, a 16-year-old Irish servant girl convicted of collaborating with a stable hand in the brutal murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Kept from the hangman's noose by an insanity defense and a public sentiment unable to stomach the execution of so pretty a woman-child, Grace is sentenced instead to life in prison. By the time we meet her in 1859, the once notorious and celebrated murderer has become a model prisoner in her early 30s. A quiet, reserved woman, Grace claims to have no memories of the crimes she is accused of and spends her days as a seamstress in the warden's household. Intriguing, but no longer dangerous, she has become something of a trained pet, a local curiosity to be shown to visiting guests.
One of those guests is an American physician and budding psychiatrist, Dr. Simon Jordan, sent to help Grace establish her innocence and provide grounds for a long-sought pardon. Seeking the truth from his. patient in a series of interviews, Jordan discovers in Grace a ready and enchanting storyteller. She's a woman happy to have an appreciative audience and all too able to hold him (and us) in her spell. In the weeks and months that follow we learn of her impoverished childhood in Ireland, the tragic death of her mother, and the petty cruelty of her alcoholic father. We are introduced to the hardships and dangers of her life as a young girl in the service of the rich, and finally of the fateful events that led to the double murder of which she stands convicted.
But about the actual crime Grace is coy and enigmatic. It's as if she knows well that her double audience will disappear the second it has secured this vital tidbit.
Jordan baits and teases her with all his pre-Freudian tricks,but she is his better and enchants with a magic older and more powerful--the magic of a good storyteller.
Grace is so gifted a storyteller we cannot tell if her story is true, or if she is using her prowess to keep us both entranced and at bay. Like Jordan, we can neither leave nor approach any closer to the heart of the matter. Her tales remind us that it is impossible to judge someone without knowing the full story. But the problem is that she--like many old cons--has become so rehearsed and adept at telling her story that we don't know if we have actually met her or some version of Grace she has prepared for our entertainment. In the end she is only unmasked by the magic of another teller of tall tales. Unlike Rose and Bridie, Grace is not a cruel storyteller, but a superbly manipulative one.
We must wait a long time for the murder in the Book of Ruth, and most of the punishment is born by the innocent before anyone is arrested for a crime. The protagonist in Jane Hamilton's first novel is Ruth, a woman whose name means "mercy" or "compassion" but who receives little of either growing up in a family not even Tennessee Williams could envy.
Ruth's mother May is a bitter, controlling woman, jealous of other people's happiness and incapable of even minimal signs of affection. As a result her daughter must live on the few scraps of happy memories she can scrounge from a childhood diet of abuse and abandonment.
The situation gets worse when Ruth falls in love with and marries Ruby, a well-meaning but alcoholic weakling who descends into tantrums every time his fragile ego is bruised. And when May proves to be a spark for all of Ruby's fuses, and he for hers, Ruth finds that she has traded the prison camp of her childhood for a minefield of a marriage. Not even the birth of a child can deliver the inmates of this claustrophobic tale from the fate that awaits them.
In all of this, however, Ruth--living up to her name--is a tremendously compassionate storyteller. "I know the only way to understand is to steal underneath May's skin and look at the world from behind her small eyes. I shudder when I think about the inside of Ruby's head, but I know I have to journey there too, if I'm going to make sense of what's happened."
Unlike Rose, Bridie, or Grace, Ruth doesn't tell stories to belittle or manipulate. Instead she tries to understand. Ruth wants to get a sense of others' struggles and pains, and figure out how she can fashion a new chapter for herself and her children where she might deliver them from the horror in which she has grown up.
Curiously one group of story tellers that takes a real beating in these novels is the clergy. Both they and the stories they tell are portrayed as insubstantial, ethereal, and decidedly unhelpful. In Cloud Chamber Rose's son is a priest without much conviction or courage, a vacuous man so easily swayed and intimidated that it is hard to take his word with any seriousness.
In Alias Grace both Grace and Dr. Jordan describe the clergy as silly, humorless men, "bent on treating us all like straying sheep." And in The Book of Ruth the "Rev" can only offer Ruth the most saccharine and useless sort of piety. It is as if the storytellers in all three of these novels were accusing Christianity of failing at its primary task: to preach the Good News to the poor and tell stories of such substance, truth, and power that they can engage us, even in the midst of our pain and suffering, to face and make sense of it all.
Two millennia ago Matthew, Mark, and Luke set out to tell stories about a storyteller in the hopes of creating narratives with some of the same raw power and edginess they encountered in Jesus' stories and story.
The problem, however, is that having grown up on a steady (and often sweetened) diet of these stories, most of us try domesticating them, turning them--like Grace Marks--into tame, toothless kittens we keep in our parlors or by our bedside. That way it's a lot less likely they'll catch us off guard or knock us to the ground.
But every now and then a set of stories comes along and jolts us out of our comfort zone, awakens us to the power of stories, and makes us take a long hard look at the stories we tell and the sorts of storytellers we've become. If we're lucky, stories can remind us of our own vocation to be storytellers.
By Patrick McCormick, an assistant professor of ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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|Title Annotation:||books about women who are storytellers|
|Date:||May 1, 1997|
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