Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review: Juliet in August

Dianne Warren’s Juliet in August is a novel in stories, most of which take place over a period of about twenty-four hours in the tiny town of Juliet, Saskatchewan, population 1,011, located at the edge of the Little Snake sand hills. The book moves among a dozen characters in five overlapping storylines. Though the characters repeatedly intersect, all are profoundly alone, glimpsing only a partial view of the whole, often misapprehending or not even noticing what is happening outside of their limited perspectives. The author portrays her characters tenderly, empathetically. Their lives are understated, quiet, and so is Warren’s prose. Her style deceptively simple and straightforward, she conscientiously builds these unassuming characters into authentic, complex human beings.

If Warren’s book can be said to have a central character, it is Lee Torgeson, a man in his twenties who recently inherited the family farm from his adoptive parents. He is just as alone as the others—if not more so—for he lives by himself in the country, and over the course of the book he goes on a long journey, a hundred-mile ride on a stray Arab horse, tracing the route that two legendary cowboys took in a hundred-mile race decades ago. During his journey, Lee visits his adoptive parents’ graves and thinks over what he knows of his life—beginning with being left as an infant on the Torgesons’ doorstep—and the distance he has always felt between himself and his well-meaning but laconic caretakers. Left with fragments of their advice—get yourself a good map, use the silver tea service—he still wonders about his origins. After his arduous ride, he returns home to discover a new source of information about his past; though his transformation over the course of the book is not profound, we can see the subtle shift in his perceptions of who he is and where he finds himself in the world.

Another storyline focuses on Blaine and Vicki Dolson, who are on the verge of bankruptcy, about to lose the family farm. While Blaine is doing road work to keep financially afloat, Vicki takes her six children into town on unnecessary errands in order to avoid the drudgery of the task that awaits her at home—processing the beans from the garden. While browsing in Robinson’s store, Vicki spots Marian Shoenfeld. She quickly appraises Marian’s behavior: “She sees Marian take a mint-green outfit off the rack and hold it up to herself in front of a mirror. It looks like a pantsuit of some kind, slacks and a vest. Curious that Marian is buying a new outfit. Maybe she’s going to a special event, a wedding or a graduation. She doesn’t think Marian is the kind of person who would buy new clothes without a reason.” And then Vicki turns her attention back to her own affairs—looking for caning supplies and watching after her children (though she is not nearly vigilant enough—later, her daughter breaks an arm and floods the hardware store with red paint).

We as readers are attuned to Marian’s presence in the store because hers is another of the story strands that we are following. Marian and Willard Shoenfeld run the town’s drive-in movie theater. Bound together in unexpressed love and profound misunderstanding, they have continued to live together since the death of Ed, Willard’s brother and Marian’s husband. Though nine years have passed since Ed’s death, Willard, a lifelong bachelor, is still convinced that Marian is on the verge of leaving. Each time she makes an overture to speak to him, he is certain that she’ll be announcing her departure. Even when she stands outside his bedroom door in her nightgown in the middle of the night, Willard cannot read her true motive.

Willard is so undemonstrative, so out of touch with his own feelings, that “he just couldn’t stand it—the idea that some pretty little girl might actually like him, and that he’d never be able to live up to whatever idea she had in her head about who he was, but it had to be a wrong idea, because if it were right she’d like someone else and not him.” When Willard finds Marian “sitting on the couch in an outfit he’s never seen before” (presumably the pantsuit from Robinson’s) with two cocktails waiting, he can only assume that Marian must be expecting someone else. He tries to flee, but she invites him to have a drink before dinner. Perplexed, he spends time shaving and changing his shirt several times. After drinking his cocktail, he abruptly loses his nerve. “I’ve just remembered . . .” he says and leaves, heading for the local diner.

Late that night, Marian comes to his room, and in a beautifully understated scene, the two make love without speaking a word, after which Marian quietly returns to her own room. Later still, when the two are awakened by teenagers setting fire to the movie screen, Marian tries to go for water, “but Willard holds her back and says, ‘Too late. Let it go.’ Then, ‘Don’t go, Marian. Don’t leave me. I love you.’ Surprising the absolute hell out of himself.” This man who had such a damper on his own feelings and was so terrified that the woman he loved would leave didn’t even know until this night that he loves her. And their story concludes: “Marian stands in the open doorway as though she’s on fire with the flames behind her, watching him, and she says, ‘I’m not going anywhere, Willard. Where in the world did you get that idea?’”
Warren’s is a subdued book about the inner life, about the subtle shifts of our internal landscapes that are echoed in the shifting of the dunes surrounding the town, ceaselessly burying and uncovering missing objects from the past. At the very end of the book, Lee pitches a tent among the dunes and lets the wind rip pages out of his boyhood desert scrapbook, sending a map of the Sahara and a marketplace in Cairo flying out into the sand.  The whole scrapbook skids is eventually lost. As the wind rages all night, “He imagines things blowing around outside—clumps of tumbleweed, empty cigarette packs, plastic water bottles. The wind exposing objects from the past. A deerskin pouch, perhaps. The dipper from a water pail. A worn leather boot cracked and missing the lace, a coffee can blown from the windowsill of a one-room shack.” And Warren has retrieved this one day in Juliet from the shifting sand, these dozen lives, and has held them up to the light to reveal their elaborate contours in this beautiful book.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I was at work in my office in Massachusetts on Friday, waiting for my students to drop off their final projects, when I checked the news online.  I saw the words, Connecticut school shooting, and my heart seized up for a moment. Both of my children were at school in Connecticut, in different districts. I quickly scanned the article, and seeing the words Newtown and Sandy Hook, I felt only relief. Not me, I thought. Not mine. Before it was known who was dead, or how many, my first reaction was to be grateful for being spared. My state, but not my town. Not my children.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked at several daily newspapers, reporting on crime. Every day, I would make a round of calls to police stations and fire departments, asking if there was any news. And every day, there was news: traffic accidents, burglaries, fires, robberies, assaults, rapes, murders. Every day, the world was rife with crime, with danger. Gradually, I began to see the world in terms of danger, near misses. I could have been on that street when that shooting occurred, or I could have been driving on that overpass when that fatal accident occurred. Every day, I narrowly missed being robbed or murdered. It was just a matter of time. My life became a matter of dodging danger, of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I began to believe that somehow, proximity—distance in space, distance in time—could protect me.

In one high profile case, a ten-year-old boy was abducted, and later, he was found murdered. I couldn’t imagine his mother’s suffering. I remember telling myself: At least I don’t have kids. Having children, I realized then, was the worst way of exposing yourself to the world. My brother-in-law once told me that having a child was like watching your own heart walking around outside your body.

Now that I have children, I have multiplied my exposure to danger.  As the news came out of Newtown on Friday, as the full magnitude of the event became clear, I counted the hours until my children would be home safe from school. The superintendent of my daughter’s school district issued an emergency communication promising “increased police presence” at the schools, which, we were assured, was “purely precautionary.” In one online news story, a Newtown resident was quoted as saying that he hoped his neighbor, a Sandy Hook teacher, was not among those who were shot. Like me, he hoped it was someone else, someone he didn’t know.

That evening, my brother-in-law called. “How far away is that school from you?” he asked. “It’s southwest of here, probably forty-five miles,” I told him. “Not that close.” He was asking about proximity. How close are you—in space, in time, in impact—to the horror?

Is it human nature to measure our proximity to events of great magnitude? People older than I often recall exactly where they were when they heard news of JFK’s death, men landing on the moon, Pearl Harbor. My generation has no shortage of momentous events: the Challenger disaster, the Berlin Wall coming down, Columbine, Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech, and, most memorable of all, 9/11.

On 9/11, I was working at a cemetery in Northern Virginia, a little over twenty miles from the Pentagon. My husband and three of my brothers-in-law were all working nearby in Northern Virginia or Washington, DC that morning. Although no one I knew was directly impacted, we did eventually bury one Pentagon victim at the cemetery where I worked. I watched his wife weep during the funeral. That was my proximity.

My students, college freshmen, remember 9/11 through the lens of childhood. On 9/11 they were about the age my daughter is now. Earlier this semester the subject of 9/11 came up in a class. How much were they told? I asked them. What did they know? One of my students said she was told nothing at all about it at school, but another said that her class watched the whole thing unfold on television. “We knew everything,” she told me. “From the very beginning. They didn’t keep anything from us. We were right there watching it all.”

What, if anything, should we tell our children about what happened in Newtown? Many parents here and across the country asked themselves that question over the weekend as they prepared to send their children back to school on Monday.

My own children didn’t yet know. They had been told nothing at school on Friday. We don’t have a television, so there was no chance of them hearing it on the news. I knew it would be best to tell my second grader, since she would likely hear about it somewhere, but I hadn’t figured out what to say. Then on Sunday morning, as she mixed waffle batter while listening to Christmas carols on the radio, the announcer mentioned “the children and the brave teachers we lost in Newton, Connecticut, on Friday.” My daughter looked at me and said, “What happened to the teachers?” I said, “I’ll tell you later.”

I read the articles about what to say to children: that we should give them the most basic information, that we should reassure them that they’re safe, that adults are here to protect them. And yet all of these things that I might say are not completely true. You are not safe. There are other shooters. You are never safe.

It was my husband who told our daughter that someone who had something wrong with his brain shot some people on Friday, that the shooter was gone, that her school was safe. He told her that if she wanted to talk about it, she should talk to her parents or her teacher or the social worker at her school. He asked her if she had any questions. She didn’t.

On Facebook I discovered that I know people who know people who lost a child. I can count my degrees of separation, measure my proximity. And I am just one person away. Just one person stands between me and the anguish of Newtown. An acquaintance knows one of the families. She changed her profile picture to one in which she is hugging a girl who is now dead. They are as close as can be, skin on skin. The dead girl’s mother has posted comments. I see her words on Facebook, and she is almost in a room with me, almost speaking to me. We are not that far apart.

Another Facebook friend who lives in my town and has two young children posted a quote from his daughter’s former kindergarten teacher: “No one’s perfect, but a five-year-old comes pretty darned close.” I think of my son, just shy of five, who doesn’t know about Sandy Hook. And I will not tell him, not now. Because he is still so close to perfection. Because he—and all of our children—deserve to live in a better world, and the only way I can give him even a piece of that world is by shielding him from the real world. In the world I make for him, first graders are not gunned down in their classrooms. In the world I make for him, he does not have to go to school in fear. In the world I make for him, he does not have to measure his proximity to tragedy. I do enough of that for the both of us.

On Monday, I got emails from my daughter’s teacher and school principal. With the crisis team standing by, all went well at school. It was “a routine day.” But that afternoon I made the mistake of turning on the Christmas carols again. During a break, the announcer said, “The first funerals were held today.” I hurried to turn off the radio, but my daughter had already heard.

“Is that related to that thing that happened with the person whose brain didn’t work properly?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I told her. “You’ll probably be hearing about it for awhile.”

“And then what? It will blow over?” Her tone was so flippant that at first I was appalled, but then I realized that she was merely mimicking the way adults talk. She has learned this from us.

“Well,” I finally said. “It won’t blow over for those who were directly affected.”

“Were we directly affected?”

“Well, no,” I told her, desperate to change the subject. “We don’t know anyone in that town.”

And I chose to say nothing more, to make no more of the matter, because being seven years old is not that far from perfect either. Because I can do enough thinking about children being shot for the both of us.

And then there is the proximity of time. Four days after the event, even as we keep burying children, already the headlines are suggesting a hint of normalcy. Already in our yearning to put pain behind us, we begin to turn away from tragedy. And I shield my children from it, fiercely, protecting them in their brief innocence, their perfection. Yet while I keep them out of proximity of fear and tragedy, I remind myself that what happened at Sandy Hook did not happen somewhere near here to someone I don’t know. It happened right here. It happened to all of us.