Book Club Update
We started with a few interesting facts about Thomas Hardy, who like the "Native" in his novel, loved his "heath" wilderness and rual community more than any other place he could choose to live. Hardy has said that he never wanted to grow up. He wanted to stay in the world he lived in when he was 6 years old. Many can relate to that from time to time.
First A Little About Annie Proulx:
She was born August 22, 1935 in Connecticut, Educated in history in Vermont and currently lives in Wyoming.
She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Shipping News. She won PEN/Faulkner Award for her first novel, Postcards. She is the first woman to win the PEN/Faulkner Award!
A free spirit, she has divorced three times and has raised alone her three sons and one daughter. She lived many years in small towns in Vermont.
Most of her writing has been nonfiction. She has written both short and long nonfiction. Her controversial and critically acclaimed novella Brokeback Mountain was both a book and a film.
What we thought:
Like The Return of the Native, The Shipping News has “Nature” as a major character. Annie Proulx did a great amount of research, living many times in Newfoundland for months at a time. This showed in the exquisite details of the beauty of that stark, lonely, bleak and transcendent world. From the sparkling water shining as with diamonds at a glowing rainbow sunset, to slate gray, storm-tossed seas hiding its victims! Her knowledge of the details of boats, shipping, fishing and everything related to the ocean community enriched every part of her work.
Our group seemed to universally like or LOVE this book. Some had read it more than once and still really liked it the second time. The only negative comments were about the writing style, which sometimes had sentence fragments or long, run-on sentences. Others disagreed, thinking that these style “rule-breakers” enhanced the rhythm and texture of the narrative. Others didn’t even notice the unconventional style.
A few of us commented that, at first, the main character, Quoyle, his abused early life, his willingness to take abuse, his lack of confidence, made him very unsympathetic. A few wondered about reading on, but kept at it, then, it all changed!
Petal's violent death, his kidnapped very young daughters' close encounter with possible sex slavery, the joint suicide of his parents, the hostile rejection of his brother, and job loss, suddenly thrust our kind, loving, sweet-natured anti-hero into chaos with no future......that is, until his Aunt showed up for the funeral.
His Aunt's down-to-earth sense of reality and belief in redemption from adversity, led them to Newfoundland to try a new life in the harsh sea town, in the ancestral home which was filled with specters of Quoyle ancestors’ century long secrets.
What transpired there was amazing. While still afflicted with hardship, gradually all the characters transformed! The readers could barely see the changes as they occurred. We loved how Annie Proulx pitted each character's weakness, including the peripheral characters, against what that character hated or feared most. Quoyle wrote The Shipping News and he was afraid of water and hated boats. One man, abused as a child, wrote of the local sex crimes. An old bachelor wrote about home decorating and cleaning tips.
We loved the chapter headings from The Ashley Book of Knots. They were symbolic clues of the developments in the coming chapter. We loved the names! Each was such a unique Dickensian invention. Humor was evident throughout, but subtle. We would find ourselves chuckling over made-up newspaper headlines, then immediately pulled back into the plot.
One theme was sexual identity and sexual deviance. Our homegrown newspaper contained all the stories of incest and other sexual abuse they could find. The Aunt, a major character, whose actions saved them all, kept her same-sex relationships secret.
In fact, we loved all the characters, except maybe Petal, the evil wife of Quoyle, who was dispatched by the author early in the book. Without Petal, Quoyle would never have grown. This proves that all adversity, at least adversity in novels, is there for a reason. :>
All the characters were quirky, strong in their own way, honorable, likeable, solid and interesting. We tried to see if we could think of any other novel where all the characters were so engaging and strangely weird and wonderful! One member of our group mentioned Kent Haruf's Plainsong. We all agreed.
We loved the intensity of the dangerous and suspenseful scenes, such as the cheap speedboat capsizing and Guy Quoyle almost drowning, and also, the wind-storm blowing away the ancestral home. We even really liked the historical description of the pirate, inbred family of Quoyles pulling their enormous house across the frozen bay with the angry jeering villagers pursuing! What an image!
We loved the drunken "good-bye" party that destroyed one newspaperman’s trailer home and sank his hand crafted solid boat, which prevented him (temporarily) from leaving. He was loved THAT much!
We noted the themes of the changing economy and even global warming! This book was written long before global warming was widely discussed. Proulx talked of government changes that directly put people out of work, then started companies to rescue those out of work. Those new companies then immediately failed due to poor planning. In contrast the locals found ways to continue in smaller ways, helping each other and still satisfying their deep love of the sea. This was how the newspaper was started!
Bunny, Quoyle’s older daughter, was understandably emotionally disturbed after her trials. She was also "sensitive" to the strangeness of the past and the current mysterious events around her, (the white dog, the dream of the house flying away) yet she slowly and quietly evolved into a normal child. We loved that.
Quoyle's and Wave's transformation from passive, ungainly people into leaders in the community and into confident lovers was so gratifying to the reader. They both clung to loving memories of their deceased spouses only to reveal to each other later that both spouses were cheaters and abusers!
We talked about the scene at the end of the book where Quoyle, after achieving success in his community and acquiring the true love of his life, examines himself in a mirror after a shower. Approaching middle age, his stomach protruding, a loaf of a man, tall, heavy, with tree trunk legs, facial features grouped in the center of his face, thick red hair all over, Quoyle realized he was probably at his prime and he liked what he saw! It was a redemptive moment making the reader smile and almost bringing out happy tears.
We liked the end, which affirmed that winds called by magic knots can blow evil away, the dead can rise again and most importantly, true love can come gradually without obsession and pain.
Annie Proulx deserved her prizes for The Shipping News!
There were eleven of us, including two new members, one who said she had been trying to get here for two years!
A little background about Barbara Kingsolver. She was born in 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland. She was raised in eastern Kentucky, where her options were to be a farmer or a farmer's wife. She knew she wanted out! She has a B.A. in biology and graduate degrees in biology and ecology. During her college years she also took writing courses, but she had been making up stories for her family since she was a child. Obviously, this story rings so true, because the themes and events have been an intimate part of her life.
Insomnia led her to write The Bean Trees, her first book. Her style was honed with journalism writing and science writing. She is aware of the need to compel in the reader to turn every page. All of her novels have been very popular and that was validated last night.
We all liked this book! Some loved it. One of our longtime members said she has read every book that Kingsolver has written and has loved each one better than the one before. When asked why, she noted that the writing style is vivid. The story is alive. Our member glowed with enthusiasm :> She said that Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer also deals with ecology. She liked the underlying messages.
We went around our circle and each shared a little. I wondered that there would be enough to say among the 11 of us. Once we read a book that everyone LOVED and found little to say other than it was really, really good :>
That was not the case here, people have much to say and most all of it was different. What follows is sort of the stream of comments in no particular order:
General comments about why we liked this book were:
The rich scientific theories she put in this novel, educating us, almost without us realizing it, i.e. the writing style was filled with beautiful prose. (one member read it twice!) Other comments were that it was hilarious, filled with symbolism, such as the "flight," Delarobia's flight away from her unsatisfying life and the flight of the endangered butterflies! Whether human or creature, the environment didn't fit.
There was suspense. The mother-in-law, Hester, and daughter-in-law, Delarobia, had similar crises at young ages that directed the stunted courses of their lives. The secret of the mother-in-law and her judgment of the daughter-in-law caused the tension and suspense. The secret was that the pastor of their church was actually the child given up for adoption by the mother-in-law at the insistence of her husband. The father of the pastor was not the husband. He is unknown to us.
The parents appeared almost unkind to Delarobia and Cub, but when we finally understood the history of the family secret, the behavior made more sense to us. The mother, Hester, stifled her grief of losing her son and moved on with her life. She was able later to join her given-away-son's church. Her son never knew she was the mother. We thought that most likely the unknown man who loved her before she married, was probably the love of her life. Hester never accepted Delarobia, because she knew that Delarobia was smarter than Cub. Delarobia had married Cub, because she was pregnant. Hester, therefore, figured Delarobia "had one foot out of the door," and would leave them all before long. As it turned out, Hester was correct, later, rather than sooner.
We mentioned the folk story of the butterflies being the souls of children who have died and we found that touching. We liked Delarobia's children, the budding scientist Preston and the free, strong spirit, Cathy. We commented on the killing of the lamb and how Delarobia mastered that skill. Life on a farm puts life and death in perspective.
The prose was beautiful, colorful, but two members had a few minor criticisms. One was that the male characters were not as fully developed as the women in the book. We would have liked to have known more about how they became how they were. In other words the men characters were a little flat. That member liked the comparisons of the haves and have-nots in the book. When people from the outside came to teach our down-to-earth farming people how to conserve resources by traveling less in airplanes, our rural people noted that they never fly and can barely buy gas for their cars or tractors. One set of ladies were knitting and selling sweaters to raise money to save the endangered butterflies and one person in the book thought they were knitting sweaters "for the butterflies."
We liked how the anguish of the mismatched marriage was described. We could feel and understand Delarobia's unease. We discussed why she had not left the marriage before when her baby, who caused her teenage marriage, died. The reason was she had no family and no way to live support herself. It made sense at that time to stay, but she was bored, bored, bored. She focused her angst by obsessing about the visiting scientist Ovid, but, thankfully, did not stray.
We figured that Delarobia had arrested development, getting pregnant as a teenager and going into a busy farmwife marriage with two children coming soon after. She had raging hormones and craved a stimulating man, a true romance. The book starts with her escapade to meet her much younger lover-to-be, with his sexy tool belt, the man who could fulfill her! This man turned out to be the randy, community lothario who was soon romancing humorous Dovey! It was a Good thing that God, Climate Change and Floods in Mexico, sent the butterflies as a miracle to distract Delarobia from her intended sin. She didn't even figure out, at first, that the flaming trees were actually millions of monarch butterflies. She was so vain she left her glasses at home, thinking her face without glasses and her uncomfortable high heeled boots would make her more sexy to her intended lover! Thank you butterflies! We really didn't want her character to "stray."
The TV reporter was manipulative and caused problems in the community. Our scientist, Ovid, finally stated the TRUTH of the situation, but did not want to lose face with other scientists, by stating the truth which is controversial. He was, however, going to get an Award for his work and he comments about it, "Yeah, a purple heart." We could feel his pain and ours as we saw, that although this is partially fiction, it could become real. One member mentioned how the Washington logging has destroyed the Seattle shores.
The consequences of the weather shift is frightening. One member commented that although conservative Christians, as in "don't put science before God," may lean toward the conservative/business oriented stance on ecological issues. Once they see, however, that God's beautiful creatures are disappearing, they may change their views.
We liked that Ovid's happy marriage stifled Delarobia's obsession over him as a possible romantic partner.
We liked the character, Dovey. She was a humorous element that kept the story light, when it was getting heavy.
Some questioned the authenticity of Delarobia's husband, Cub. He was passive and ignorant, but sweet and reliable. Some of us have known people like that and found him very believable. He was "too good" to cheat on Delarobia, even though the town promiscuous lady was circling him, yet was it just that he was too dumb? That's what Delarobia thought. Some of us thought he was a weak man, but an honorable man, serving his wife, his parents and his children.
Money seemed to be a large pressure on this community. The levels of poverty were examined. A few members thought the detailed shopping excursion to the used items store went on too long, but we liked that what came from that was the episode where Preston negotiated a purchase of an entire old encyclopedia set for one dollar!
Some of us noted the pace seemed slow, then all of a sudden there were only a few chapters left and huge amounts of plot to resolve. Some didn't like that some issues were not really resolved. We liked how Delarobia explained the divorce to Preston and that the divorce didn't seem contentious, but why didn't Kingsolver let us see more about the interaction between Cub and Delarobia, when they were figuring out how to end their marriage? In other words the ending seemed a tiny rushed.
We did like that in some ways the ending seemed hopeful, hopeful about the butterflies, hopeful about the new lives for Delarobia and her children and that they would return and bring what they learned back with them to the community that loved them and needed them.
We learned about butterflies and climate change, complicated lives filled with secrets and unbreakable rules being broken over and over. We learned about the TRUTH and the manipulation of it, about gradations of rural poverty and rural wisdom. We liked the people in this book, even if we didn't want to!
Barbara Kingsolver did a GREAT JOB!