First this week I read a modern classic, the novel Push (1996), by Sapphire. I had seen the film based on this book (Precious, dir. Lee Daniels, 2009). It’s the sort of film one doesn’t forget in a rush, and scenes from it were still vivid in my memory when I saw Push going cheap on a charity shop shelf. Both on screen and on the page, the fictional story of Claireece Precious Jones, a very young woman pregnant for the second time by her own father when we meet her, is hard to look at directly, harder still to sit with and internalise. The book reveals in more detail the abuse that she has faced in her childhood in Harlem throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s, and suffice it to say that any one of her many ordeals would lay an unconscionable burden upon a child. She is a survivor of both the detested attention that manifests in incest and expresses itself in the body of her first-born son, and the unstinting neglect, both at home and at school, that renders her almost mute. This is just the premise, though brutal details of her childhood trauma are not confined to the book’s opening chapter. The main body of Push is Precious’ narration of her limited flowering at a new kind of school, where she is taught by the heavenly “Miz Rain” to read, to write, and also to question the one thing that her parents have actually taught her, which is bigotry.
Reading Push is, I assume, something like self-flagellation without the penance. I can’t think of another book in which I have underlined words, phrases and whole paragraphs with such lead-threatening intensity. Until she is referred to a specialist school for those who struggle in mainstream education, we see that Precious had been conditioned to abjure her inquisitive nature, to sit still in her seat all day, to wet herself rather than risk the humiliation of making herself known to the outside world. And then she finds Miz Rain in the most unlikely place, in a two-room school set in one floor of a hotel half-way up a skyscraper. This is the first moment of what Gwendolyn Brooks would call her blooming. On her first morning of class, her world begins to open up and change:
“I ain’ got no notebook, no money. My head is big ‘lympic size pool, all the years, all the me’s floating around glued shamed to desks while pee puddles get big near their feet. Man don’t nobody know it but it ain’ no joke for me to be here in this school. I glance above teacher’s head at the wall. Is a picture of small dark lady with face like prune and dress from the older days. I wonder who she is.” (p. 40)
She has been craving role models, people deserving her emulation, though she hardly knows it yet herself. Miz Rain will be one, as will the woman on the poster, prunish in pictures perhaps but towering in the black consciousness: Harriet Tubman.
Second, another charity shop find: The Road Through the Wall (1948), the first and perhaps least celebrated novel by renowned spook artist Shirley Jackson. The novel is set on Pepper Street, a sheltered suburban street within commuting distance of San Francisco. That location is, properly, the lead actor in the narrative: its character develops, its nature changes, and it seems to exert an influence on its residents less than benign. Almost everybody who lives on Pepper Street is unbearable, a vile backstabber or bully. They put in substantial effort to insult, undermine and sabotage one another without ever saying an offensive word aloud.
Most of the narration is offered in the form of brief vignettes, scenes inside or on the front porch of one family home or another. I read this book quickly in an attempt to keep the name and personality of each character distinct in my head, but it was a challenge. It’s not so difficult while they remain in their own defined spaces, their closely described front rooms and kitchens reflecting the clean sheen of the families who occupy them. It’s when the occupants of a house change, or one family visits another, or when a party for the neighbourhood is thrown, that identities begin to muddle.
The best part of The Road Through the Wall, the most perfectly excruciating, is the dialogue. Consider this exchange, between Mrs Merriam and her daughter, Harriet, in which the parent is explaining to the child why she must cease contact with her friend (an interloping Jewess) at once:
“’We must expect to set a standard,” [Harriet’s] mother said. […] “Actually, however much we may want to find new friends whom we value, people who are exciting to us because of new ideas, or because they are different, we have to do what is expected of us.’
“’What is expected of me?’ […]
“’To do what you’re told,’ her mother said sharply.” (p.148)
I also just finished the excellent historical novel The Lonely Furrow (1977), by the remarkably prolific Norah Lofts, set in post-feudal East Anglia in the latter half of the fifteenth century, shortly after Edward IV had led the Yorkists to short-lived victory in the Wars of the Roses. This was another book that I found and bought for next to nothing, this time at a library book sale—the first American edition in hardback, dust jacket intact and little worn, for 50¢. Any transaction made entirely with coins in the US is as good as taking something for nothing.
The Lonely Furrow is the third instalment in Lofts’ first ‘Suffolk’ trilogy, preceded by Knight’s Acre (1975) and The Homecoming (1975). Given the serendipity of my encounter with The Lonely Furrow, and my unwillingness to pay more for battered copies of the first two books in the series that I might track down online, I decided just to wade in late to the story and infer the necessary details of character interrelationships, family histories, etc., from context. As it happened, once I began, very little guesswork or even chancy deduction was required. I get the feeling that all the retreading of old ground, the brief resurrections of the stories of ancestors meant to illustrate the allegiances and influences felt by living characters in The Lonely Furrow, might seem fatuous if I had recently read the two earlier books from which these stories are presumably taken. But in my ignorance of the series—perfect.
It is a wonderfully rich story. While the story in The Lonely Furrow spans only two or three years, its historical scope and range of action is huge. Over the course of the book, which takes place in and around the insular village of Intake, one witnesses pestilence, hunger, cruel winter, and the perfunctory trials (and grisly tests) of two unfortunates accused of witchcraft. The village itself is governed more by a council of Elders than by the church, the latter of which has become more concerned with courting the king’s fickle favour than it is with a lowly congregation of mere peasantry. The local nunnery, though briefly seen, is in awful shape, and the church only seem stop care for its adherents insofar as they may bring it profit. The picture of late medieval England given to us by Lofts might make you think that Henry VIII’s Dissolution, looming on the novel’s furthest horizon, will be almost welcome when it comes. Certainly, the people of Intake will not mourn much.
The men and women of Intake, however, are not Lofts’ main subjects. Our protagonists occupy higher space, in mind and on land; they live in the largest house around, the ancestral home of the Tallboys family, called Knight’s Acre, and their trouble comes when others—nosy villagers, unwelcome church fathers, even King Edward’s emissaries—make claims upon them. The loving (and chaste) relationship between Henry Tallboys, the head of the family, and young Joanna, his ward, is an oddity in The Lonely Furrow not because Joanna is only eleven years old when it begins—child marriage is the norm—but rather because (spoiler) both manage to survive. In doing so, these two characters break the most striking rule of the world Lofts creates: death comes to all, and early to most, as a plain matter of fact.
The studied detail Lofts brings to this world is only occasionally distracting or dry. Most often, the lessons in life as our long-ago predecessors lived it are enlightening and her rendition seemed to ring true. I was sparked to thought, though—with me as a reader, and with my ignorance of the period hampering my judgement, Lofts might have got it all wrong and slipped it by me without my knowledge, clothed in the always convincing colours of an engrossing story. So if I can find one for less than the cost of a packet of crisps, somewhere around here in rural Pennsylvania, maybe you will find next week that I have read a history of the period, have slogged through the mud of it all myself.