New England Stories
What sort of stories do New Englanders tell?
July 19, 2006
Jul 19, 2006
14 Min read time
What sort of stories do New Englanders tell?
The Thin Place
Little, Brown & Company, $23.95 (cloth)
Once upon a time, as every American schoolchild up to a point in our national history learned, there was New England. There were Puritans, and Plymouth, and Thanksgiving—then Boston, the Tea Party, Paul Revere, Nathan Hale. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. Emily Dickinson, scribbling away in Amherst. After that, New England’s affective place in the American mind recedes into a sort of vague patchwork of whitewashed colonial churches, town greens, and summer houses on the Cape or in the White Mountains. At some point Ben & Jerry’s enters the picture, revitalizing the economy of Vermont and assuaging the consciences of liberals everywhere.
It must be an odd thing to actually live in New England, to make a home in a region whose historical and ideological importance to the national collective—as the founding crucible of the American republic—has gradually eroded, at least in the version of the history peddled in secondary schools. The South manifestly did not share New England’s history, heritage, or ideals, nor did large swaths of the West. What is Massachusetts Bay to Arizona? California? What did the Puritan-cum-Revolutionary narrative mean to Native Americans, or African-Americans, or Hispanics, much less those later arrivals to New England itself, the Portuguese or the French Canadians or the Hmong? As the national epic has become more complex, more textured, New England’s place within that epic has been reduced, almost to the precise point of the New Hampshire primary. To the extent the result has been a richer understanding of who Americans are, as a nation, as a people, we agree that this is a Good Thing.
It has, however, left New England stranded in terms of its position—its meaning—in relation to the larger society, not exactly cut off from its own history but with a more and more tenuous connection to the understanding of self this particular history once embodied. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion reminded us. It seems obvious that no one—outside perhaps the DAR—is listening any longer to the stories that New England has preferred to tell about itself for the better part of three centuries. In this cultural free fall, when even nostalgia is no longer a particularly effective means of reconnecting with a shared past, what sort of stories do New Englanders, does New England, tell?
Kathryn Davis’s The Thin Place is one—a peculiarly New England story. It is New England in a way that has very little to do with Puritans and presidents and everything to do with a sense of a place that has somehow managed to find itself cut off from history. The inhabitants of Varennes—an imaginary town in the tradition of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County—are aware of the centrifugal collective that is the pulsing heart of New England small-town life. But they are also aware, if at times dimly, of how peripheral that life is to what lies beyond their borders. They come, they go; sometimes they come back. When the larger world comes knocking at their small-town doors, whether in the form of hippies in the 1970s, well-heeled urban refugees in the 1990s, or the lone occupant of a dirty Dodge Dart with Canadian plates circa 2002, there must be trouble.
Or at least there must be Story.
Davis is a fabulist, which is to say she offers stories, imaginative fables in which the lives of ordinary Americans are invoked and then transformed in surprising ways. The Thin Place is an associative novel, the point of view moving restlessly from a group of three young girls (one of whom may or may not have the power to raise men and beasts from the dead) to that of a middle-aged ex-hippie who now makes her living restoring old books; her husband, an archaeologist who specializes in cultures north of the Arctic Circle; an investment banker with a penchant for womanizing; his mother, at 92 years old a feisty but unhappy resident of the town’s privately run rest home; the lone female usher at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church; and a host of other local characters, some human, some not. The presence and fate of Mees Kipp, the angry young girl whose touch restores life, lies close to the heart of the novel, but the novel itself is a dizzying symphony of voices.
To say more about the actual plot would be to point toward, if not totally give away, the climactic incident in which Mees Kipp’s powers play a central role. What was surprising to me, however, was how anticlimactic this development seemed in the context of the whole. For those who desire plot with their narrative, the novel’s climax does bring together nearly all of those we have come to think of as the main characters in a more or less satisfying way. Certain questions are, as they say, resolved.
But the life of the town moves on, as do the lives of all the individuals involved. (“No one died. Not then, anyway,” Davis reassures the reader in her last chapter.) It seems to me that part of the point of the novel—part of the point of Davis’s restless intelligence and periodic interrogations of her own plot—is indeed that moving on: the sense that history as we know it is less a series of events than a broader tapestry in which events (even the most memorable ones) become mere punctuation: a thread here, a stitch there.
Davis’s narrative asides, which are numerous, chiefly involve four subjects. Three of these are the geological history of Varennes, dating back to and before the glaciers; her thoughts on the biblical narrative (both Old and New Testament), Julian of Norwich, and their possible relationship to the events at hand; and the laconic diary of Miss Inez Fair, who came from one of the town’s oldest families, had mysterious issues of unrequited love, and presided over an earlier turning point in the town’s history, the Sunday School Outing Disaster of 1873.
Through these digressions the reader is moved into and out of the ostensible time scheme of the novel—that is, the time scheme associated with its plot. Davis seems to be reminding the reader that perspective and proportion are necessary. There is the time in which we experience the present (i.e., the plot), and then there is historical time (over which Miss Inez Fair presides). There is the larger, ultrahistorical time—geologic time. And there is, too, what Mircea Eliade called sacred time—a time outside of time as human understanding reckons it, the Great Time in which myth happens. In which, for example, the dead may be raised. How a given event plays depends largely on which time frame it invokes.
Davis’s fourth tactic is perhaps her most original: that of imputing language or thoughts not only to the many animals that populate her novel but also to a few of the plants. This is a device that extends the reader’s creative dissociation from the human plot even further, outside of time, to a point where the novel verges on the lyricism of poetry. In Davis’s world the cats and dogs have their intercourse, as do the birds and the beavers, the moose and the carp. So, strangely enough, do the corn and the lichen. And while the idea of bestowing authorial omniscience on a kernel of corn (however briefly) might seem entirely too clever, too precious, too twee, it is in these passages that Davis’s skill as a writer serves her in the best stead. Here is her almost heartbreakingly inhuman description of the language lichens speak in lonely Labrador:
Lichen, on the other hand, lives to be very old and can survive the worst the world has to offer. Storms and wars, fires and floods. Lichen speaks a language like some music, repetitive and incantatory: manna star fold star. star star fold reindeer. fold fold fold fold. starlight starlight. It kept up a running commentary around the base of Daniel Murdock’s tent, though he didn’t know that’s what he was hearing. The ever-present wind, he thought, caught in the tent fly. The little yellow pebbles on the beach, scooped up and discarded by the sea.
And here is how she describes the inner life of a wandering moose:
He had mated two months earlier, and though he had no memory of this event, it had left him with a deep sense of well-being, of things having happened the way they were supposed to happen, like the muck underfoot, and the tender new shoots of the leatherleaf, and even the flies biting his belly . . .
Of course the moose’s vocabulary was less detailed; it consisted of a single (for want of a better word) word, that underwent constant modification, alternately stretching and shrinking. Were things not to happen as they were supposed to happen, which is to say, the way they happened year after year, as if repetition were somehow synonymous with cosmic design—if, for example, the designated mate failed to appear, having gotten involved in a collision with a pair of opera lovers in a black Saab on their way home from Montreal, or if she’d ended up languishing in a suburban backyard, having fallen victim to a snail infected with the brain-fever parasite, or if she ended up as a pile of shrink-wrapped packages in a hunter’s freezer—a new word wouldn’t form in the moose’s brain to express surprise or dismay or sorrow.
Davis is not above making fun of her own device, as in her late-breaking description of what passes for pike thought deep beneath the surface of Black Lake. These, however, are the moments when Davis’s dreamy novel seems, in its dreaming, to achieve a deeper, more primal state of what I can only call mindfulness, of existential presence.
And isn’t that, in part, what the stories New England now murmurs, mostly to itself, must insist upon? A presence that has value in and of itself, quite apart from any historical circumstance or technology corridors or vacation playgrounds of an urban elite. A presence that in fact insists upon value, on the particularity of value. Carolyn Chute’s novels serve a similar purpose, though by very different means.
I have quibbles with the book. Beyond the sense that one is not so much falling into another, perhaps parallel world as seeing it through the isinglass scrim of the author’s creative intelligence, there is also the fact that Davis, left to her own godlike devices in terms of both the narrative and her knowledge of what lies beyond its edges, chooses to withhold rather than explain at critical moments. (In her final chapter, she is fully candid about the eventual fates of some of her characters, makes veiled allusions to the apparently grim fates of others, and ignores a few altogether.) A friend of mine surprised me by describing the novel as a kinder, gentler Everything Is Illuminated, by which I think she meant that in places the novel feels too clever by half. There is no Holocaust here—or at least none beyond the slow holocaust of time, the daily accidents and terrors and deaths. But there were moments when I conceded my friend’s point, especially the mini-chapters consisting solely of police logs and horoscopes from the local newspaper.
I am writing this from New England, from a small town in New Hampshire in fact, and as I was thinking about Davis’s jewel box of a novel it occurred to me that I needed to walk down to the pharmacy at the center of town for more allergy medicine. In just the sort of turn that Davis might have invented, I accidentally found myself in the middle of a street fair, put on, as I later learned, by a local group called Children and the Arts. Small-town festivals, like happy families, are notoriously alike, even in their most distinctive elements. This one had jugglers, and cotton candy produced by a solar-powered cotton-candy machine, and a group of middle-aged white men playing steel drums—when I passed by, a heavily syncopated, calypso version of the 19th-century gospel standard “O Happy Day.” The snatches of talk I heard on the street involved the lilacs, who was or was not heading to Phillips Exeter in the fall, the recent flooding, and the possibility of more rain. The people were overwhelmingly white, but the age spread was broad: from the very old to the very young, with vast concourses of small children and their parents. (I mentioned to an elderly woman that I wasn’t aware there were so many children in all of Peterborough. “They’re not all from Peterborough,” she replied, then paused for a moment, tentative. “Some of them are from Dublin.”
The highlight of the annual Children and the Arts festival is the parade down Peterborough’s main street, with giant puppets. This year’s had a nautical theme, “Under the Sea.” The parade opened with banners, then a band composed of a dozen disaffected-looking high-school students, then a giant puppet king, and then a crowd of very small children dressed in what appeared to be tissue boxes, but which may have been meant as aquariums. Many of the groups that followed attempted to simulate schools of fish, often with brightly colored hand-crafted fish mounted on poles, which, when waved in the air above the children’s heads, were impressive, even if they raised a basic concern about whether the fish in question were supposed to be swimming or impaled. There was no shortage of silk streamers. The Dublin County Preschool wheeled along a bubble-blowing machine and a ten-foot vertical silver effigy of a giant squid. Happy Valley School carried a glorious yellow-and-gold papier-mâché octopus. The students from St. Patrick’s wore aqua T-shirts and hats with fish affixed (all in all a better plan than the prevailing fish-on-a-stick approach). I heard the adult leader of the St. Patrick’s group order his children to wave at the people, and then (apparently in response to some doubtful member of his shoal) bark “Just wave! Pretend you’re the president; pretend you’re the queen. These are your people. Wave at them.”
One group, apparently unclear on the concept, had poster-board fish dangling from outsized fishing poles the children carried. The local library had eight or nine people dressed loosely as pirates behind a banner reading “FIND THE TREASURE AT YOUR LIBRARY—READ!” A small group identified as “Monadnock Asian Adoptive Families” paraded with no Under-the-Sea paraphernalia; apparently it was enough to remind the public that they existed. A group called “Mountain Shadows” waved brightly colored foam tubing for no obvious reason; occasionally the children whacked each other with it. The Well School, Peterborough’s own early-childhood contribution to the counterculture, had the largest, the best, and the most brightly painted puppets, and two young women dressed in 19th-century ball gowns strolling on stilts. The Great Brook School Art Club had a giant papier-mâché effigy of a puffer fish that was genuinely alarming, though not as alarming as the group of unidentified preschoolers who followed, belting out “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine” while brandishing their fish-on-sticks puppets as if they were weapons.
At one point, a maroon pickup rolled slowly past bearing Ashley Thompson, Miss New Hampshire National Teenager. Miss Thompson was one of only two African Americans I saw all day; she waved gravely from the bed of the pickup, flanked by two other girls whom a placard identified as the “Preteen Princess of the Day” and the “Little Princess of the Day.” At another point a trio of adults passed by playing “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone” on accordion, tuba, and trombone. The parade ended with a seven-foot construct of a mermaid on the back of an antique fire engine.
The entire affair reminded me of the astonishing image Davis picked for the cover of her novel, Bo Bartlett’s 1998 painting Dreamland. They were of a piece.
As I walked back into the country, I was left wondering about the stories we tell ourselves through the fiction we choose to write (we who are writers) and the fiction we choose to read. Where I come from, small-town festivals tend to promote local agriculture or industry, or else respond to some yet-pivotal moment in the community’s or the nation’s past. What, beyond this obvious sheer joy of welcoming the arrival of spring, was the point of this parade, this festival? To celebrate creativity? Childhood? To see, and be seen? On a grander scale, to what extent is the literary approach we label sometimes “fabulism,” sometimes “magic realism,” an indirect response to conditions of disempowerment, of marginalization? At what point do our stories turn inward, toward the imagination? At what point did the nation consign New England, as a mythic place, to the realm of fantasy? Is this a retreat from what political activists like to call “engagement,” or an intensification of it? Or is it merely the outworking of Emily Dickinson’s famous contention, that she dwells “in possibility” rather than in prose?
Davis’s novel is, at the very least, a rebuke to Dickinson’s genre distinction: the novel is a hymn to possibility, both the possibilities of imagination and the possibilities of the many different things it might mean to be human, even in a small town. That some of the most achingly human entities happen to be nonhuman does not discourage Davis for a moment. The Thin Place is a novel about people in landscape, a novel about the ways in which beings—both human and otherwise—abide.
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July 19, 2006
14 Min read time