On reading GLORY DAYS…and other summertime scares

It starts with fire sirens, so loud the littlest children clap their hands over their ears. But not my guys, old enough now to tough it out–and join the parade on their decorated bikes to cheers from neighbors lined on both sides of the street.

Only … this Fourth of July Parade, one boy returned after he’d finished the short parade route, red-faced and sweating. The other wasn’t with him. “Where’s your brother?” was answered with a shrug. The street was empty. And I had the feeling of dread every parent knows, that hollowing out, followed by cold palms–on a very hot day.

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Trash on Easter

“Tie-dyed variety this year–cute, right?

This Easter, I’m thinking about trash. Of course, I’m also thinking about the usual holiday trappings—the decorated eggs, the leg of lamb, and flowers for the table. Then, there are small shirts to be ironed, my slip to find… Wait. Why trash? Well, as I was listening to The Passion read at Good Friday mass, last night, arm around one of my boys, I tried to see myself in the “Crowd” role we congregants play. You know, the crowd, who witnesses the suffering and death of Jesus, the crowd who yells out in unison “crucify him,” several times—something which felt fairly naughty to me when I was a kid and feels just plain conflicting now.

Before I lose you… whether you view Jesus as a savior, a prophet, or simply a literary figure, today, it can be instructive to think how we might have viewed him if we were his contemporaries. This poor vagabond, wandering around preaching too loud, associating with prostitutes, beggars, and the diseased. We might have thought his sandal-ed feet smelled bad. We might have even called Jesus “trash.”

This one terrible word, “trash,” shorthand (on our worst days and in the worst ways) for something we Americans have a hard time discussing—class—is following me around in my wider reading and pondering.

I just finished the audio version of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, in anticipation of the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE. In the deft, character-studying way Strout has with fiction, her Lucy Barton character discusses her family’s poor upbringing in the Midwest with her mother, who visits at her hospital bedside. (And this is the thrust of the entire novel; do not expect plot from this one.) After a strained discussion between mother and daughter about Elvis Presley and his upbringing, Lucy’s mother says he was from a “trash” family. Then, in a moment of painful clarity, Lucy responds: “We were trash. That’s exactly what we were.”

Really, I should have pulled the car over, listening to those words, like a gut punch if there ever was one in literature. But, why? I wondered. Why is it so hard to even hear—from a character at that, not even a real person—that insult, “trash.”

In my tandem-reading way (find my last tandem read here) I consulted Sarah Smarsh’s well-researched HEARTLAND: A MEMOIR OF WORKING HARD AND BEING BROKE IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY ON EARTH (a finalist for the National Book Award) in which the journalist author examines class in America through her own personal lens, having grown up in a working poor family in Kansas.

We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand…And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country…”Flyover country,” people called it…Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”

Sarah Smarsh in Heartland

And, so what? We read about it, think about it, write about it, publish the stories of the underdog if we have the means. For the rest of us, our influence may be small. But witnessing something is something. As is finding our voice, however small, in the crowd.

Now, it’s your turn. Have you read either of these books? Do you read or write about that other C-word: class?

And on a lighter, holiday note, Happy Easter to you and yours from me and mine…

~Rebecca

Throwback Thursday: Why half the world should read IN ZANESVILLE

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Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve heard enough to know the American Midwest isn’t sexy. I’m hardly the first Midwest native to admit to being from a Regular ‘Ol American Place.

The Midwest is “flyover country”–its detractors call it–between the glittering East Coast and shining West Coast. Yep, no matter how many Northeast Ohio boosters try, most of the U.S. will never be convinced of the beauty that is the “North Coast.” And that’s okay.

But…the insult that really stings: “Ohio is flat.”

It stings–not just because it’s a blanket generalization and untrue of my rolling Ohio hometown. (In fact, it stings more than memories of the same thing being said about my 6th grade chest–and that stung.)

It stings because flat is sameness. And don’t we (even States–if States had egos) want to feel special, unique, memorable: the opposite of same, boring, forgettable?

I am more than a home state booster; I’m a home state narcissist. You see, I picked up Jo Ann Beard’s novel, IN ZANESVILLE (pub. 2011), thinking it was set in Zanesville, Ohio.

It’s not. It’s set in Zanesville, Illinois, which, I sheepishly admit, is pretty much the same. In fact, it’s the sameness, the universality of the experiences of the novel’s fourteen-year-old narrator, that makes this novel so special–and yet relate-able to any reader who is or was ever a girl. And that’s about half the world. Read more