Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Allusion in We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Matthew Thomas’ fine novel We Are Not Ourselves about three generations of disappointment and hope alludes to Shakespeare’s King Lear who says, “We are not ourselves / When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind / To suffer with the body” (2. 4. 100-102).

In light of Ed Leary’s death after years of suffering from the brain’s deterioration through early onset Alzheimer’s, the title, We Are Not Ourselves, certainly refers to Ed. Other characters endure emotional and intellectual suffering as well, however. Their suffering affects their physical well-being, too, as does Lear's whose torment seems self-inflicted.

Lear is a king who decides to transfer all care and woe to his children so that the head that once wore the crown may rest easy (Henry IV, Part ii. 2. 3). Unfortunately, Lear is a terrible judge of character and narcissistic. His older daughters, Goneril and Regan, make flowery speeches in order to gain his wealth and power while his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to declare her own father reigns supreme in her heart. She grants that a husband and perhaps her own children one day will claim the greatest share of her heart.

Wounded, his hubris inflamed, Lear disowns Cordelia and throws himself on the mercy of Goneril and Regan. They in turn cast him out. Betrayal and Nature’s harsh power infect Lear. He goes mad, finding solace in the company of Gloucester’s son, Edgar, himself betrayed by a bastard half-brother and a father incapable of discerning true character. The son, also cast out into a savage world, feigns madness to protect the old man, once king.

Matthew Thomas’ Ed is Ed Leary, a character name that invokes both Edgar and Lear. Ed is a promising scientist, capable of exacting research. He’s a teacher and guide for students less able to compete at university. He grows mad after tangled plaques disturb the synapses and connections in his once fine mind. His madness oppresses the mind and slowly destroys the body. Ed, like Lear, is at the mercy of Nature, and Nature defeats both men.

Disease and adversity alter the course of our lives as heavy rains
and droughts change the course of a stream.
Photo by Al Griffin 2015
Toronto Springs, Missouri
Ed’s wife, Eileen, and son, Connell, are also at the mercy of Nature. Ed’s slow deterioration costs the family a secure financial future, easy choices, and brilliant careers. Connell, in particular, suffers because like all children, he blames himself for some of his father’s suffering.

Without doubt, Connell deserves blame. He is impatient and neglects his duties, but he is also young, given to self-indulgence like old Lear and prone to giving up in spite of his father’s desperate attempts to make Connell believe in his own prowess, in a future in which Connell triumphs.

Readers must wonder whether Connell would have embraced love and life sooner, would have found his career more easily, if his father had not been lost to disease even as his heart beat on, insisting upon life in a body broken. Thomas seems to suggest that Ed’s suffering stalls Connell’s future, especially because Connell’s mother is distracted, at times overwhelmed by her role as caregiver.

We are not ourselves, in the end, refers to those life-changing, shape-shifting challenges that define a life in spite of all ambition, hard work, and right living. These forces inexorably change the course of our life rivers, and Eileen Leary realizes this. While reflecting upon the fine home she wanted so badly, Eileen thinks the home represents the ghost of her “former future life. . . . The ghost of the life I almost had” (Thomas, Matthew. We Are Not Ourselves. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014. Kindle File)

Reading Challenge:

Read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas.

Writing Challenge:


Narrate the story of a life force that shaped and changed you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: The Ways in Which We Make Our Peace

Among the many motifs and archetypes authors weigh are the ways in which we humans make our peace with terrible times. Matthew Thomas reveals the way in which protagonist Eileen Leary of We Are Not Ourselves makes her peace with the force of nature that was her father, her mother’s diseases, and her husband Ed's slow descent into Alzheimer’s horrors.

Eileen wrestles with her own conscience and the impossibly high expectations she sets for herself after her husband’s death. Ed had been her bridge to a better, economically secure, upper middle class life, but he obstinately refuses to cross that bridge.

Eileen cajoled, manipulated, and waited patiently for fate to persuade Ed to move to a better neighborhood, a finer home, and the future she imagined. When fate did intervene, that future still failed to emerge from dreams intact. Only when she learned the diagnosis--early onset Alzheimer’s--did Eileen surrender her future. It was now consigned to caregiver as it had been in her parent’s home and through her nursing career.

She would never enjoy the social life she imagined. She would never laugh as others without heavy cares did. She would never have the financial comfort others seemed to enjoy.

Eileen kept Ed at home as long as possible. She asked her son, Connell, to help, but the young have little experience with consequences. They don’t imagine unfavorable outcomes so they take safety for granted. Ed fell on hard tile. He broke a tooth that Connell carried--as a token of penance perhaps.

Indeed, Ed’s limbs began to seize, refusing to follow the brain’s advice. He couldn’t feed himself reliably, and he had little control over his bodily functions. Eileen admitted him to nursing care, at first telling herself he would return home, but Ed never came home to live again. Eileen visited every day after work. She befriended him. She was his advocate. She was his beloved.

Photography of a storm overhead that parallels the storms that steal
our sleep. Provided by Al Griffin.
After Ed finally dies, a gift to Ed, Eileen can’t sleep well. She tortures herself with guilt about admitting Ed to a nursing home until she tells herself that her entire life had been rehearsals for Ed’s care: slipping money into her father’s wallet so that he’d be able to pay for the drink he drank in neighborhood bars, facilitating her mother’s rehabilitation with the help of AA, nursing her mother as cancer claimed her, a career in nursing--all of this had prepared her for her greatest life’s work. 

Eileen realizes that the other careers of which she’d dreamed, the other lives she longed to don, and the ease in which she once needed to live were not her purpose or even her choice. She was born to care for others and tells herself caring for Ed “was his final gift to her: to silence her regrets about the paths she hadn’t taken” (Thomas, Matthew. We Are Not Ourselves. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014. Kindle File.)

In such ways do we all rationalize our life’s outcomes. In such ways do we all abide. 

 Reading Challenge:

Read “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas.

Writing Challenge:

Explain what you were born to do.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fine Moments in Go Set a Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel loved by millions. Its language and its characters delight readers. Go Set a Watchman provides some good passages--unevenly, to be sure, but Harper Lee’s talent is still evident and worth experiencing.

Jean Louise Finch’s love for Alabama and Maycomb in particular are evident in Lee’s ability to describe her hometown, fictionalized in both novels attributed to her. As Jean Louise’s love interest, Hank, drives the two of them to Finch’s Landing, the heat and humidity settle on the reader’s skin. When those characters tease and dare each other into a late-night swim in the river, we enjoy their abandon.

Aunt Alexandra berates Jean Louise for having become a topic of gossip, for scandalizing the Finch family yet again by taking that late-night swim. In that chapter, Lee gives Zandra language that rings true. We also see the Scout we know from To Kill a Mockingbird resent being bossed by someone like her aunt. Young and twenty-six year old Scout still prefer slacks and blouses to dresses and heels, short bobbed hair rather than styled, long hair. Jean Louise doesn’t hold her tongue, but speaks her mind, a mind that Aunt Alexandra doesn’t agree with or fancy most of the time.

The finest moments in Go Set a Watchman feature characters with values different from Jean Louise’s. They chose to stay in Maycomb, marry Maycomb boys, and raise Maycomb’s future. They care about homes, appliances, recipes, appearances, and Maycomb’s residents. They echo their husbands’ opinions and find Jean Louise exotic or strange. Jean Louise doesn’t care about any of the same things they care about and objects to the opinions voiced about race relations.

Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's Birthplace
Photo by Al Griffin. Taken in 2010.

In Chapter 13 about Aunt Alexandra’s coffee in honor of Jean Louise’s homecoming, Harper Lee shows her wit and talent for using dialogue, non-sequiter, and plays on words. While Jean Louise passes sandwiches among the women invited to attend--Magpies, according to Jean Louise--their conversations are mash-ups. One woman’s words are broken by another woman’s as Jean Louise moves from one to the other. We read:

“When he was christened, he grabbed Mr. Stone by the hair and Mr. Stone . . .”

“…wets the bed now. I broke her of that the same time I broke her of sucking her finger with…”

“…the cutest--absolutely the cutest sweatshirt you’ve ever seen. It’s got a little red elephant…

“…and it cost $5 to get it yanked out….” (Go Set a Watchman, Chapter 13, Audible edition)

Lee reveals the focus of these women’s lives to be domestic and personal. They are indeed birds positioned in a line, each one singing a piece of the whole song, a snippet of life’s detritus. Jean Louise fancies herself a woman of ideas, not domesticity. She has little in common with her guests, little in common with Maycomb, we realize.

Reading Challenge:

Read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Writing Challenge:

Write snipped dialogue, beginning with one speaker, then switching abruptly to another. Consider using contronyms as Tom Stoppard does in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Go Set a Watchman Opens a Window into History and Current Debates

I must confess. I read To Kill a Mockingbird annually, and I taught the novel to sophomores in high school for years. It was one of the few books that every student who didn’t avoid reading assignments enjoyed. The book is a fine coming-of-age story fraught with conflict, lightly seasoned with humor, and completed in loyalties and courage that heal hearts.

Having read about Harper Lee’s other novel, the one her older sister advised against publishing, I wasn’t sure what that other novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, could deliver. Having read that an agent advised Harper Lee to refocus the novel on the children and helped Lee write, revise and rewrite for approximately three years, I wondered if Go Set a Watchman would have the qualities that made To Kill a Mockingbird a prize -winning novel. And having read that Harper Lee’s sister watched Lee struggle to produce short stories and another novel until the sister finally gave Lee permission to stop trying, I doubted that Go Set a Watchman could rise to the level of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman has some of the qualities that made To Kill a Mockingbird a prize-winning novel, but Watchman does not rise to the level of Mockingbird. In this and a subsequent post, I’ll explain further. For today, however, I want to focus on Watchman’s place in history as an extended footnote explaining why Red state and Blue states are so different, why the matter of States’ rights is still at the heart of primary campaigns, and why South Carolinians were joined by Oklahomans and many others in protesting the retirement of the Confederate flag.

What you probably know by now if you listen to and read pundits, reviewers, and Facebook is that Atticus Finch held strong opinions about race--opinions that cast doubt upon his role as defense attorney for Tom Robinson--but let us not forget that Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird are two different novels with characters that happen to have the same name. In fact, those characters have roles in both novels, but Watchman is more a memoir than fiction while Mockingbird is more fiction than memoir. Watchman tells the story of Jean Louise, a twenty-six-year-old woman who has not realized her father has feet of clay. Watchman is the story of that woman’s initiation into adulthood by way of events that strip her father of his perfection and reveal him to be human. More important, Watchman shows Jean Louise standing on her own convictions, not her father’s. She suffers as adolescent characters do in initiation stories, and she resolves to embrace herself after suffering.

Alabama Capitol, Montgomery, Alabama
Photo provided by Al Griffin. Taken in 2010.

What we learn about Atticus is that he is a member of the Citizens’ Council and once attended a KKK meeting in order to see behind the masks, to know who in town was so full of racial and religious animosity that he swore allegiance to separatism and even violence. Atticus, we’re told, is more moderate. He’s not a rabid racist, but he is a man who does not believe African-Americans have evolved enough to govern, lead, vote, and self-determine. He defends the Tenth Amendment, hinting that it should weigh more heavily in Supreme Court decisions than the Fourteenth, and he resents the NAACP for trying to impose principles and policies from the outside upon those living inside the South.

Jean Louise, on the other hand, is color-blind and believes that white Southerners are entirely responsible for what will surely come their way. She foresees an inevitable reckoning because of what and who they are. She says of them in Chapter 13 (Audible edition):

“My aunt is a hostile stranger. . . . Why doesn’t their [white Southerners] flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do?”

Speeches written for Atticus could be speeches delivered today by candidates for office defending States against Big Government--candidates who believe as President Reagan believed: Government is the problem. State efforts to assert themselves in matters of the environment, education, and enterprise are direct descendents of the Tenth Amendment argument. State Attorneys General who decry the federal government’s role and now the Supreme Court’s authority in matters unrelated to the national defense are Atticus’ descendents. 

Atticus’ speeches about voting and voting rights could be used today to argue for gerrymandering and voter identification cards to insure that the best and right people have direct and easy access to the polls while others do not. Atticus merely argues in favor of white supremacy as the safer course for all, especially in elected leadership.

If you have a taste for political debate and a desire to understand the reasons the South still believes itself put upon, if you wish another point of view about current candidates calling for changes to or even eliminating the Supreme Court, then this novel offers a window into the minds of Red voters.

For that window into current events, the novel deserves to be read even though a full third of it is a polemic wherein Lee positions two characters across a desk or room talking at each other, giving each other sufficient time and words to explain, and countering the other's point of view. In life, such debates rarely occur so nicely--unless a moderator has established ground rules or a writer has superimposed order on a scene.

Literature demands verisimilitude and if it were present, Lee’s characters would interrupt each other, misunderstand each other, and shout at each other. In fact, Jean Louise does all of these while still managing to listen to Atticus. In a final bow to the love and regard the characters have for each other, they accept their differences and love each other more deeply.

Now that’s fiction--some would say! Others may not find it a fault, choosing instead to embrace the idealism.

Reading Challenge:

Read Go Set a Watchman, especially if you have a taste for polemics. I don’t--as I’ve confessed before.

Writing Challenge:


Rewrite the scene in which Atticus and Jean Louise confront each other across a desk in Atticus’ office. Make the Atticus and Jean Louise of your scene hold the same views as they did in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.