A Heart-Breakingly Good Story

My husband loves to read the comics.  While I was raised to believe cartoons were simultaneously the lowest form of art and literature, they helped him learn how to read.  Before the Internet, he read the comics page before he read anything else in the paper.  Now he follows them online.  One strip, Mom’s Cancer, has made such an impact on him that I got him the complete graphic novel but I wasn’t going read it. Like everyone else, I’ve lost loved ones to this awful disease and the idea of reading about some poor woman’s struggle didn’t send me.  Add that feeling to what I was taught about comics as a kid and I decided this was a book to avoid.  Well, I was wrong, not just a little bit wrong, but WRONG with whip cream and cherries.   Mom’s Cancer is a story that needs to be shared and a strip was the best way to tell it.
In 2004 Brian Fies was just one more baby-boomer in the sandwich generation part of his life (That’s when your kids see you as an adult but your parents still react like you’re a kid.) His parents and his siblings were living mostly separate lives.  Then his mother had what seemed like a seizure and the medical searchers found not one tumor but two.  A brain tumor (no surprise) caused by metastasized lung cancer.  Stage Four.  The only reason his mother wasn’t dismayed at first was because she thought there were ten stages of cancer.  Her children changed the rhythm of their lives to help her fight the disease.
This kind of story only works (I think) when it’s told with marrow-deep honesty and Mr. Fries pulls no punches.  He and his sisters became their Mom’s support system but there were times they found it difficult to pull together.  Serious illness makes families want to pull together while their anxiety tears them apart.  And since responsibility for Mom was apportioned between three siblings, conflict was inevitable.  In the end, the mutual support of their mother was the over-riding factor and that support evidently continued into the creation of this volume.   Families can be wonderful, that way.
The words and art quickly point out that the health-care industry could use some improvement. Mom’s initial diagnosis came seriously late because an osteopath didn’t put the evidence together. The family doesn’t get the referral support they need to find appropriate specialists. Then the specialists tend to face this seriously ill and depressed woman wearing jack-o-lantern grins and expressionless eyes.  (My husband, a long-time health-care worker himself, thinks these drawings are incredibly accurate and scary.)  In the fight to prolong their patient’s life, her quality of life sometimes gets overlooked and cancer victims don’t always learn the degree of permanent change they face, even if they recover.  If nothing else, Mom’s Cancer lifts that shade of ignorance a bit. It should be required reading for cancer patients, their families and their doctors.
The art of the book is spectacular in explaining some complex parts of the story (like how a one/fifth decrease in a tumor’s size is really a fifty percent improvement) and highlights some electrifying moments.  But at heart it’s a story of people negotiating some of their most difficult days with humor, anger and the occasional moment of grace.  It’s full of life, hope and humanity. That’s what makes Mom’s Cancer so worthwhile.  

The Right Book at the Right Time

There’s a theory that people come into our lives to teach us what we need to know.  They may be people we like or dislike and we may not always care for their lessons but the knowledge we gain from them helps move us through our lives.  I like that theory but I think it needs to be expanded to include books.  Along with entertainment and education, the right book at the right time can change a person’s future.  I’m still giving thanks for a book that came my way about twenty-five years ago.  I’ll always be indebted to Pat Conroy for writing The Prince of Tides.

If anyone missed the announcements, Mr. Conroy writes stories about the perennial outsider.  Whether the focus is on a Marine’s family readjusting to a new environment or the English Major in a military college, his people don’t think they fit in the orderly pattern that makes up their world.  Because they don’t fit, Outsiders tend to stay on the defensive. The first lesson in The Prince of Tides  is how defending yourself can cost you everything you care for in life.

Tom Wingo, the coach in The Prince of Tides has had good reason for living life in defense mode.  As a son, he suffered under a physically abusive father and an emotionally manipulative mother.  As a child of a poor family, he experienced the cold-hearted snobbery that exists in so many small towns. As an adult Southerner visiting New York, he now gets a lot of grief about his home.  In response, he’s learned to hide his feelings behind a wise-cracking persona.  The problem is, that persona has walled him away from his wife and the children he loves.  Tom is a miserable, isolated man, in danger of losing his family, when his sister’s psychiatrist asks for his help in understanding the childhood traumas he and his sister repressed.

Silence was part of the pattern of their dysfunctional family, making it hard to uncover the truth.  The silence their mother required meant no child could admit feeling pain or anger after being abused.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, kept her anger inside until she turned it against herself.  Tom’s anger simmers even in his humor, and it conflicts with his feelings of affection but that’s because he still has something to learn.

The biggest lesson in The Prince of Tides is the necessity of forgiveness as a way for letting the anger go.  If silence creates an emotional infection and honesty is the lance, then forgiveness is the medicine that allows an abscess to heal.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting some people are dangerous or giving them carte-blanche to cause more damage, but it does mean the victim is no longer a hostage to injuries or pain they endured long ago.  Forgiveness means living in the present and future by letting go of the sins in the past.

I haven’t spoken of the lyrical beauty in this book’s prose or the riveting plot and dialogue.  I should because I was swept away by these.  I haven’t spoken about the brilliance or “deep Southern magic” that’s present on every page.  I haven’t spoken about a great many things that make The Prince of Tides a wonderful book.  Instead, I’ll say that the book came along at just the right time for me.  For a year, The Prince of Tides became the book I needed until I started to absorb its lessons.  It was the book that helped me understand a conflicted past didn’t have to dictate the future.  That lesson changed my life for good.

In Praise of Southern Mamas: All Over But the Shoutin

There is something special about a Southern Mama.  I used to explain it by saying I moved to Alabama because, “I married a Southern Boy.  And Southern Boys don’t get too far away from their mamas.”  That usually got a laugh because, on one level, it’s true.  Southern mothers are strong women and their children respond to that strength.  These women have raised generations of kids who know Mama is stronger than anyone except Grandma or God Almighty.  Dads are dads and everyone should have a good one but no one’s more certain than Mom.  That standard was true of my southern mother-in-law and it is certainly true about Rick Bragg’s mother.  In All Over But the Shoutin‘,  his mom is the heroine of the story and the center of his life.

To hear Rick tell it, life should have been nicer to Margaret Marie Bundrum.  Although she was born into a large family in one of the poorer areas of the United States, the country was beautiful, her family was loving and her father provided for them all by building houses and making moonshine.  It was a reasonable childhood for that area and at seventeen, Margaret Marie had the looks southern girls use to change their luck.   Instead she married a man who made her life twice as hard.

All Over But the Shoutin‘ is the account of how Rick’s mama came back from that marriage and how her sons grew up in the shadow of their strong, loving mother.  Margaret Bragg didn’t have the vocational skills or education to make her life or her sons’ lives easy but she worked hard so they could go further in the world.   Margaret took every hard-labor job and government program available to keep her boys healthy and fed and they took their own roads in time.  Sam, the eldest, followed his mother into a lifetime of physical labor but Rick, through a combination of talent and luck, became a reporter, studied at Harvard and earned a Pulitzer Prize.  The reporter made mistakes and was hypersensitive about his antecedents but he was a good boy to his mama: she was there when he got the Pulitzer and, with the prize money, he bought her a house.

A house is something extra special to folks like Rick, his mom and my mother-in-law.   After years of rented trailers and space heaters a legitimate, solid home that you own “free-and-clear” is saying goodbye to an ache.  My mother-in-law did it, through entrepreneurship (she’d fuss at me for using such a ridiculous word) and thrift and Rick’s family did it with talent and drive.  I sit comfortably in my own home now and marvel at their work.   Whatever I accomplish in this world comes from those who did much more.

There’s a book about Alabama sharecroppers called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men .  The title is ironic since most sharecroppers aren’t well known.  But that book and All Over But the Shoutin’ make one thing abundantly clear.   These are the people that should be celebrated, especially the Southern Mamas.

The past through a prism: A look at David Copperfield.

“I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child.  And his name is David Copperfield.”  That’s what Charles Dickens said in the preface of his famous novel and I believe he meant it.  History didn’t record how his wife or his ten human children reacted to the statement (that would have been a Jerry Springer show in the making!) but, as sad as the remark probably made them, I doubt if they were surprised.  A large amount of fiction comes from the writer’s re-imagination of his or her own past and much of the novel David Copperfield can be traced to the life of Charles Dickens.  The transfiguration of those experiences in David Copperfield redeemed a lot of the author’s own childhood. It also made a much-loved book.

Every fan of fiction knows Charles Dickens had an unsettled childhood.  His father was always in debt and the family moved continually, trying to avoid Dad’s creditors.  That ended when his father was thrown into debtor’s prison and all of the family (except 12 year old Charles and his slightly older sister) were incarcerated there for a time.  His sister managed to stay in her school but his parents forced Charles to leave his studies and go to work in a shoe polish factory to support himself.  Charles Dickens never got over the humiliation of those experiences or the anger at his mother for trying to keep him in the factory after the family got financial relief and freedom.  After his father tried to capitalize on the adult son’s fame (borrowing from his son’s friends and publishers) Charles banished his parents to the country.

Those experiences found their way into David Copperfield. Dickens’s  father becomes two characters, the terrible Mr. Murdstone who forces his orphaned step-son, David into child labor and the likeable, irresponsible spend-thrift, Micawber with his financial advice and unfounded optimism that “something will turn up.”  By splitting the sin from the sinner, Dickens managed to write of his father with some remaining affection. (Since the Micawber ends up becoming one of the unlikely heroes of the story, a suspicious reader might infer a lot of fatherly affection remained with the author, despite his father’s profligate ways.)

Reality seeps through the fiction in other ways.  Dickens examines his own experience as an impoverished child laborer in the book and the unrelenting shame he felt about that episode.  Like his creator, David is embarrassed about his familiarity with pawnbrokers, rats and extreme poverty and once firmly past it, he keeps it a secret from his new friends but fear of poverty fuels the ambition in both hero and author.  Reality also makes David Copperfield a more identifiable protagonist than some of the author’s earlier heroes like Nicholas Nickelby or Martin Chuzzlewit.  David makes mistakes the earlier protagonists avoid, like drinking too much in the chapter, “My First Dissipation (The line, “‘Agnes!’ I said. “‘I’mafraidyou’renorwell.'” is terribly funny) and falling for all the wrong people but that’s because David Copperfield, like Charles Dickens is human.  The novel’s weakest spot is that the David’s “right people” are still too impossibly good to be believable but Mr. Dickens was still developing as a writer at this point.  If you want a Dickens heroine that isn’t a saint, you’ll have to pick up Great Expectations.  That’s further down the line.

Yes, David Copperfield‘s an old-fashioned novel.  It has a million characters with silly names and everything works out for the best.  But that’s part of the art of story, creating redemption through imagination and giving everyone a “good enough” ending. It’s a way to resolve some old issues and keep alive those that we miss.  There’s the life that we had and the life we wish we had and fiction connects the two.  Blessed be the fiction that binds.