You gotta admit that’s one groovy book cover.
So this book was our selection for the previous book club, which was at an actual house instead of the apartments and condos we tend to make our residences in. The house was pretty groovy, too, and the polenta with ragu sauce was the perfect meal for my sore tooth–I just had a cavity filled. It was my second cavity, and it was embarrassing to have, but the procedure was remarkably quick. I was in and out of there in less than thirty. And because of the wallet escapade, I had no cards of my own to pay with, so I’d brought Husband’s–and they didn’t even bat an eye. I’d say that was an all-around good trip to the dentist. Except, as I said, for the cavity part.
This book won out over Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld and Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson. I wanted Prep to win, and The Member of the Wedding really didn’t excite me–especially after realizing that Carson McCullers was the same author as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which made me want to kill myself, too. God, that book is bleak! And I had to listen to it on audiobook, so the misery dragged out for days. I’m not saying it wasn’t good, but I did not want to read something like that again, especially after having pinned my hopes on a book about mean teenagers. What was noteworthy about the book club meeting (besides the house–this house has a small flight of stairs to enter the shower, one wall of which is made of glass so you can see the backyard! Or at least the part of the backyard that is enclosed by a privacy screen with a garden area. Showering outside is my dream, you know.)… what was noteworthy was that we talked and talked about this book.
We were pretty evenly split over whether or not we liked it. (I liked it.) We all agreed that it was an amazing portrait of a pre-teen girl caught up in her own misery. Not all of us agreed that it made good literature to read that much from the viewpoint of a pre-teen girl caught up in her own misery. I couldn’t believe how fully realized those few days were in Frankie/F. Jasmine/Francis’s life. I believed every word. I believed every reaction–to her and by her–and it was fascinating to watch. This, Gentle Readers, is reality TV how it ought to be done.
The general themes of the book–loneliness, coming of age, family–are sort of obvious. I don’t really feel like harping on them now. Frankie was a typical frustrated pre-teen, but she was smart. She lost control of her emotions, I think, but she was definitely a sensitive person. She understood, however much she didn’t like it, why the big girls excluded her from their games (although she was incredibly sexually naive, beyond the typical twelve-year-old, I think). I think she was still angry and hurt that her father kicked her out of her bed, and didn’t really get that she was growing up. For all that he’s a widower, I don’t think her father was doing anything weird. I also don’t think that her sleeping with John Henry was anything weird, either. She was just so lonely. Her panic at what happened in the barn with that boy (I think it was a case of I’ll show you mine–I don’t think they did anything, well, penetrative) illuminates her naivete. She absolutely does not make the connection between what she did with him and what she has done in bed with her male relatives. What I think is interesting is how this sexual alertness lurks just beneath her interest in going out on a date with that soldier. She isn’t facing up to it–but of course that would have knocked her out of her father’s bed sooner. I feel a thesis coming on, but I can’t get it together. OK. She is deliberately sexually naive in order to remain as close to her father and cousin as long as possible, having no mother and having a father who is very busy and having a brother out of the house and having a nursemaid (Berenice is basically her nursemaid) with a social life of her own. Her disgust and fright about her sexual game with her peer is because it brings her to the brink of acknowledging that she will have to separate herself forever from her male relatives.
I’m putting that train of thought on the siding before it crashes into the barn.
So she’s also very sensitive to the real problems that people have, especially the problems the black people she knows have. She feels marginalized herself, so it’s no wonder that she can understand why other people feel marginalized (even before Berenice outright says so), but I was impressed by the kinds of ideas she had. Honey (was he Berenice’s brother? I can’t remember) in particular. It was probably unbelievably offensive for a white girl to suggest to a black man that he solve all his problems by passing for white, but he did have the right attributes to make a new identity for himself. It’s what Frankie wanted to do. It was a legitimate, sincere suggestion, and considering her age and her level of worldliness, I think it was a very mature response. I know passing is not something you would just decide you are going to do, and it probably was for many people who passed the same as passing from life to the friends and family left behind, but there is something to be said for a fresh start when you’ve had a life of people deciding they already know everything about you. I thought the conversation about gender and heaven was very interesting too, as well as the characterization of the people in the book pushing back against gender expectations. Was it Lily Mae who adopted completely the identity of female? It was in one of Berenice’s stories. There was explanation regarding this person, but no judgment. None. It’s just what Lily Mae had to do. John Henry dresses up in Frankie’s outfits and wanders around town. No one bats an eye (true, he is just a little boy). Frankie slips readily between organdy dresses and crew cut and tank tops, and that’s just something that Frankie does. I’m not sure if these aspects of the character and the narrative voice (in that there’s no judgment about the gender flexibility) reflect more about the author or the time period. Perhaps the mid-Twentieth Century Small Southern Town was far more tolerant of deviation than we like to think today. Of course, in small towns, everyone knows you as a person first. You’re all already individuals. The degree to which your quirks are tolerated probably comes down to matters of personality rather than social dicta.
Frankie’s fantasy about the wedding was almost insignificant to the book. Should she have known better that it was a crazy idea and that her brother and his wife were never going to take her into their home? Maybe. Probably. She probably knew, but was letting the dream take her as far as it could. She really only spent a week or less on the dream–perfectly normal for a girl her age. I’ve had sillier fantasies that entertained me for much longer.
Speaking of silly fantasies… you know what was really cool? Having Frankie completely dubious of the vague and open-ended “predictions” she heard at Psychic Grandma’s. The littlest Southern Gothic Skeptic does well.
The coda of the book–after the wedding, when time has passed and she’s back in school–is something I haven’t fully figured out yet. The doorbell that interrupts her exhilarated state of mind was probably her new girlfriend coming for a visit. She’s so glad to have a peer in real life again that having a guest easily trumps news about her brother, especially if she was sharing it with someone who already likely knew it. It’s the John Henry sudden death part that I don’t understand. It’s realism, OK. It’s shocking and awful, and a horrible death for that character (for anyone, of course), and I’m not sure what the author is trying to say. Surely it’s more than the fickle hand of fate. He gets sick the same time that Honey is convicted or arrested (I don’t have the book to check facts here), and Berenice takes responsibility for everything. It’s interesting that her response is to marry the slow and steady TT–I don’t know if that’s a sign of self-loathing or clear thinking. She’s been waiting an awful long time for true passionate love again, but she keeps getting bad men when she tries to replace her first husband. Maybe she’s rewarding herself. Hard to say, juxtaposed as it is against tragedy. I don’t think John Henry is being punished for having gender ambiguity thoughts, and I don’t think he needed to die for Frankie/Frances to move on to her next phase of life. Maybe it really just is to remind people that life is short and hard. Maybe it reminded Berenice that life is short and hard, and to be happy when you can. Perhaps Frances–intelligent, sensitive Frances–took that lesson, too, even if she isn’t shown reflecting on it in the last few pages of the book.
I knew in advance (I think from an Amazon review) that John Henry was going to die, but I didn’t expect meningitis. There’s this scene towards the beginning of the book where Frankie is crabby and flinging knives around the house. Berenice says that one of these days someone is going to surprise Frankie by coming around a corner, and the implications are sort of left hanging. I honestly expected John Henry to get a knife in the chest or something. It’s like that rule about showing a gun in Act I and making sure it goes off by Act III (or whatever act). But nothing was ever made of the knives. It’s probably not an author oversight. This is where I will let my Gentle Student Readers go looking for the relevance of knife flinging to the other elements of the book.
I will wonder about the significance of the name John Henry, too. I know at least the rudiments of the John Henry story, but I’m not sure how it might fit into this novel. That could be a coincidence. He is the least like a steel driving man of all the men I have ever read stories about.
I don’t think John Henry’s hammer was his penis. But I would like Nathan Fillion to know that I also do the weird stuff.