17 June 2007

Homeland, by Barbara Kingsolver


The title story takes place in Morning Glory, Kentucky, "a coal town hacked with sharp blades out of a forest that threatened always to take it back." The Murray family has native American roots, as well as European. Great Mam is the Cherokee great-grandmother of Nathan, Jack, and Gloria -- the narrator of the story-- the grandmother of John (Papa, "Indian John") Murray. Florence Ann (Mother) Murray is married to John, and the children's mother.

"The primary business of Mother's life was scrubbing things, and she herself looked scrubbed. Her skin was the color of a clean boiled potato. We didn't get in her way."

Great Mam is near the end of her life, and her grandson wants to take her to Tennessee, to see where she grew up, the Homeland of her people. He decides that they will drive to Cherokee, Tennessee. This will be an arduous and expensive journey in their old truck, but the whole family will go.

Gloria, "Waterbug," relates some of the Indian lore and mythology that Great Mam shares with her, such as her belief in the "little people," who appear at night as stars in the sky, and by day walk invisibly amongst us, reclaiming discarded things such as withered flowers, and returning them whence they came.

In 2001 and the dark years that have followed it, the word "Homeland" has taken on a meaning that it did not have before in this country. Kingsolver published this collection of stories in 1989. It is interesting to note that she seems to be using the word to point toward the destruction of the Indians homeland, the destruction of their past and their heritage. The Murrays represent, among other things, a stage in the assimilation of the native American people into the modern culture and society of the USA. They work, struggle, grow, raise their children, fight the exploitation of their lives by corporations, they die, and make way for the next stage, the next generation.


This is a story about Lydia and Whitman, a couple who, by choice, live in a rural area, a sort of "back to nature" rebellion against modern life. They have moved from Sacramento to Blind Gap, thinking to find romance. Instead they have discovered inconvenience, deprivation, and small-mindedness.

"Her memories from Sacramento smell like salt-rising bread ... Whitman with his sleeves rolled up, gregarious ... giving his kindest advice ... to the people who gravitated endlessly to their kitchen. But when [he] was removed from that warm, crowded place he'd hardened like a rock."

The story's title comes from this:

"Whitman has an astonishing memory for details. Often he will draw out the plans for something he's building and then complete the whole piece without referring again to the blueprints."

And this, while Lydia is lecturing her young science students:

"She tells them about imprinting in ducks.

" ' It's something like a blueprint for life.' "

In this short story we are invited deep into this relationship, and get to see its weakness and its strength, and have an idea of its future.

"Covered Bridges"

I will describe this as a love story, about another couple, unsure of who they want to be. The husband (I don't think we ever learn his name) narrates the story, and describes his love for his Lena believably and beautifully.

They are married, settled, thinking of whether to have a baby, but can't decide. They decide to "borrow" (babysit) a friend's youngster for a weekend.

Melinda, the borrowed baby, is a bit of a problem. They take her outdoors to amuse her. this works, but while they are playing Lena is stung by a hornet, to which she is deathly allergic. Her husband saves her by administering her epinephrine shot. Later, as she recovers in the hospital, she says:

"Having a child wouldn't make you immortal. It would make you twice as mortal."

And like Whitman and Lydia, they must decide what they will be.

"Quality Time"

This story is about Miriam, a single mother, and her daughter Rennie. As the life of such truncated little families can be, theirs is rather hectic, even stressful. Miriam tries to deal with it all by making lists, and carefully managing her time.

One day, as Miriam eats a hurried lunch, she overhears a mother explaining to her daughter that Mommy and Daddy are getting divorced.

It comes to Miriam like a slow shock, building up in her nerve endings until her skin hurts. This conversation will only happen once in that little girl's life, and I have to overhear it, Miriam is thinking. It has to be here. The surroundings seem banal, so cheery and hygienic, so many wiped-clean plastic surfaces. But then Miriam doesn't know what setting would be better. Certainly not some unclean place, and not an expensive restaurant either -- that would be worse. To be expecting a treat, only to be socked with this news.

In these few pages we get a very deep look into the lives of these two females adrift in the modern world, buffeted by its unfeeling forces, and how much they love each other, mother and daughter. Their life, Kingsolver says somehow (I think) is all right. It may not be the life of a single mother and daughter on American TV and it may not fit any stereotype at all, but it is all right. And they will live as well as they can, and they do.

"Stone Dreams"

In which we have a mother and daughter, a husband, and a lover. Complicated, dangerous -- and oddly resolved.

"Survival Zones"

Darrell and Millie Ormsby, and their friends Roberta and Ed are people in their forties, rural people who live somewhere around Cincinnati. As the story begins they're spending an evening together, although "Darrell is in bed with the stomach flu. Every so often he lows like a calf from the bedroom and Millie has to go get him some more Seven-Up." When Roberta returns home, she is wakeful, and after watching TV for a while "She goes into the kitchen and is surprised to find Roxanne sitting at the table in her yellow terry robe." This mother and daughter talk about love, and marriage, and growing up, as Roxanne is about to graduate from High School:

"Mama, Danny and me are talking about getting married."

"...What's your hurry?" ...She wonders if Roxanne would be able to tell her if she were pregnant.

And later,

"Honey, what I'm trying to say is, things generally work out for the best, whichever way they go. Don't do something just because you think it's going to be your last chance in the world at being happy."
The story concludes at Thanksgiving,

Roberta imagines the army of women across the country marching into their kitchens with turkeys like this, preparing to pick the bones clean for sandwiches and soup stocks that will nourish their families halfway to Christmas.
"Islands on the Moon"

This mother and daughter is a little more unusual. Annemarie and Magda are apparently products of the sixties, Magda being of the Summer of Love generation (or even the Beat) and Annemarie a very early child:

Magda had Annemarie when she was sixteen and has been standing on tiptoe ever since to see over or around her difficult daughter to whatever is on the other side.

As this story begins, we discover that both Annemarie and Magda are pregnant.

"Bereaved Apartments"

A strange, moody story in which two unlikely acquaintances develop a sort of unhealthy interest in an old woman's home, and the things in it.


This story is a complicated weave of family involvement. On the surface, a mother takes her two boys on a rather long auto trip to her childhood home, to attend Easter services with her aged relatives. There are dark overtones of Southern fundamentalist mystery and guilt, and closeted insanity.

"Jump Up Day"

Set somewhere in the Caribbean, "Jump Up Day" places an orphan -- her parents were probably American -- within a maze of African magical mystique. She is contacted by a mysterious person, the Obeah Man, reputed to have supernatural powers, who commands her to meet him and take a trip into the jungle.

"Rose Johnny"

In small towns it is somehow even more difficult to be a member of a minority. This is about prejudice, and bigotry, mob violence, sexism, ignorance -- practically the gamut of Human Evil run in the confines of this little place, and what place love and respect can have in such a muddle.

"Why I Am A Danger to the Public"

I read this story elsewhere before reading this collection. According to the publisher it appeared "in somewhat different form" in New Times. I have no recollection of ever reading that journal, but it's certainly possible.

"Danger" is a first-person narrative by a woman who "was not going to support my kids in no little short skirt down at the Frosty King." Instead she gets a job at the mine. As a female in a non-traditional job, a latina, and Union member during a strike on the mine, "Mrs. Morales" has a lot on her plate. But as she says at the end of the story,

"...They say he is all in one piece.

"Well, I am too."


A quote from some Kingsolver advice to aspiring writers: "...breathe deeply and kill your television."

From HarperAcademic.com:
" Twelve short stories unified by Kingsolver's trademark themes of family ties and life choices."

Wikipedia article about Kingsolver.


Loren Sterling said...

Just a correction... The notes on "Jump-up Day" speculate that Jericha and her father are probably American, but in the first paragraph, the nuns 'reasoned, the father was not actually dead, but only gone home to convalesce in England..." Oddly, this was one of my favorite stories in the collection, and I have yet to fully grasp the ending. I may have to read it again.

Eric Lester said...

Thanks very much for your comment. Wow -- I hardly remember this book. I'm glad I wrote such a complete summary of the stories or I'd be really lost now. I suppose 7 years is a reasonable amount of time for forgetting, but I can do it a lot faster.

I have no doubt that you're correct. Perhaps one of these days I'll pick the book up and re-read it. I think I have a copy at home.