This Tuesday, I will take a break from the weekly song posts and talk about a book that makes me cry. My friend Anna had mentioned on Facebook a few weeks back a big, weep-inducing Victorian novel she loved, and it brought to mind my own literary crying experiences. If you have any to offer, let me know.
It was a very seventies chair, the one I sat in while I read and cried over Harriet Simpson Arnow’s novel The Dollmaker. The chair was huge and low-slung, was upholstered with lime green ribbed velvet, and had an ottoman the size of a swimming platform. It was a chair that thoroughly enveloped its occupant, or occupants, as it was possible for two to sit together in it quite comfortably, even non-lovers. It was the greatest place for reading I’ve ever known.
The chair and my middle-class, suburban, 1970s life contrasted sharply with the poverty-ridden, rural and then urban, 1940s world of The Dollmaker. Yet much of the novel was set in my beloved Appalachian Mountains, and Arnow’s descriptions of the piney smell and caressing air resonated with me. She had the place down. When the main character, Gertie, packs up her kids and moves to Detroit, where her husband has found war-time factory work, I felt the dislocation along with her. After all, my family had moved several times during my childhood, and I had my own sense of dislocation.
Gertie is tough as nails. In the opening scene of the novel, she is racing to a clinic on a mule with one of her children, who is so ill with congestion that he is near choking to death on mucus. Finally, she stops and cuts a hole in his windpipe so he will survive til she gets him to a doctor.
Gertie, however, is also an artist who sells out. She is a whittler, but once in the city, she turns her craft to cheap and simple results that she can sell for extra income. No reader could fault her for this, as she’s contributing to the survival of her family, but I felt the pain of her compromises. I came to see that art is not created in a vacuum and that talent does not always come to full fruition.
What made me sob over this book, though, was the character of Cassie Marie. (I later named a cat after her.) One of Gertie’s children, she is lovely and imaginative and dreamy–and ill-equipped for the big city slums. She dies, of course, in one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve ever read anywhere in literature, run over by a train while pursuing her imaginary friend, Callie Lou. Both the mother, desperately and futilely trying to get her to the hospital and save her, and the daughter, lost to a brutal world she doesn’t belong in, are tragic to the core. I still identify with Cassie Marie in a world where there seem to be fewer and fewer places where the dreamy and impractical can survive, much less belong. Gertie could adapt; Cassie Marie could not.
It may be that now in my life, I feel more like a combination of Gertie’s determination and toughness and Cassie’s diffuse enchantment, but I sometimes wonder if in fighting for survival I have given up too much of my whimsy and day-dreaming. I also feel for so many of my students, the “creative types” who don’t want to become part of the corporate machine, but who find few other avenues open in the narrowing trends of our work world. The Dollmaker taught me some of my first lessons in the challenges of a creative life without wealth.