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A Gracious Plenty, by Sheri Reynolds –book review

Finch Nobles, who as a child was badly burned in a kitchen accident–“widowed by her own skin” (13)–has elected a living death rather than face the rejection of others. She has lived with death all her life, after all–her father was caretaker for the town cemetery–and when he died, she took over.  She lives alone in a house on the grounds, isolated from most human contact. She has no friends except for the Dead, who come to the cemetery “heavy” with secrets. They control the weather and the seasons, “coaxing the natural world along” (34).

When Finch is forced to spend more time than usual among the townsfolk, she gradually comes to understand that she is like them. Each of them has his or her own struggles or pain, but not the obvious scars.  Finch’s awakening to this truth is slow but inevitable when she gets to know the cemetery’s newest resident, Lucy Armour, who had been the town’s reigning beauty queen before she committed suicide.  Indeed, this is the only way Finch can learn that she’s no different from anyone else, for the Dead are the only ones she will listen to, and it’s their stories of secret pain that open her eyes.

As Finch and the surrounding Dead “lighten,” Finch loses the ability to communicate with them because she no longer needs them.  She emerges from her own crypt and joins the living, where she lives with clarity, instead of the haziness she inhabited that permitted her communication with the Dead. A Gracious Plenty illustrates that, despite our outward appearances, we are all the same in our pain, in our avoidance of that pain, and in our need to be loved and accepted.

Finch is crabby and prickly because she is conscious of the ugliness of her scars. She has endured stares and taunts all her life, so she opts to reside in the in-between place where the Dead go immediately after they die.  The result is that Finch is half-dead herself, numb to life. She would be stuck here, except she’s made friends with Lucy Armour, the town’s beauty queen who ran away and got involved in drugs and prostitution, and changed her name to Lucy “Armageddon” to become more authentic. It’s this name change that captures Finch’s interest, and subsequently her discovery of Lucy’s self-inflicted cuts.

Finch states, “I liked the part of her…that changed her name and sliced her beautiful body so it would be more than just beautiful. What binds us is the scars. Mine from burns, hers from a knife, and both of us numbed by it” (22).  They have both run from life, and they’re both heavy with pain.  Lucy’s suicide is still a secret–her mother, Lois,  refuses to acknowledge it–so Lucy enlists the aid of Finch in forcing Lois into admitting the Lucy committed suicide.

Finch’s acceptance of the task is an act of love that results in self-evolution: through confronting Lois with the truth, Finch sees where she has been blind to reality.  M. Scott Peck writes, “…the act of loving is an act of self-evolution even when the purpose of the act is someone else’s growth” (Road Less Traveled 82). Finch does this act of love even though she longs to be with the Dead completely so her meanness will be carried away on the wind.

When William Blott, the town drunk, joins the Dead at the cemetery, the Mediator (a guide who teaches the Dead how to “lighten,”) tells Blott, “If you want to know real enlightenment, you’ve got to lose the weight…. We’re talking about burdens and secrets…. In this place you’ve moved beyond experience. now it’s your stories that keep you down” (Reynolds 34). Blott is much like Leonard, the town sheriff, who is a blot on his father’s good name and has stifled his pain with food, where Blott retreated into alcoholism and transvestism.

Blott’s penchant for dressing up in women’s clothing proves to be handy in the cemetery because he is able to quiet baby Marcus, who’s been wailing for a dozen years, by “nursing” him with false “ninnies.” For the first time, Marcus is comforted, nurtured as he should have been by the mother who smothered him in his sleep. When Blott’s secret life is revealed after his death, local youths spray-paint his headstone with defamatory words, and Blott is devastated to discover that he was not genuinely loved and respected.

A storm is building because Blott and Lucy are enraged by the living world’s refusal to accept their truths, and they summon up a powerful storm of rage and pain, called up to “wipe out a bad memory” (153).  The storm is a catharsis that leaves the air sweet and clear because directly before and during the storm, truths are fully revealed.  Lucy’s mother finally faces that her daughter committed suicide; the chief church lady, Reba, accepts that Blott was worthwhile; Marcus’ mother admits she smothered him; the sheriff stands up to his father; and Finch finally releases her grudges against the townspeople.  Each character understands that “the idea of the person and the heart of the person–those are wholly different landscapes” (133).

Each person had her own story, but until it was told, understanding between people remained elusive.  In the words of Collective Soul: “The walls came up as the thoughts went down to the hush of disparity. I’m sure we know the problem lies with some insecurities. We’ll never see eye-to-eye as long as our tongues are tied…. In a moment, it could happen–we could wake up…. In a moment we could change” (*”In a Moment“).

We are all the same. We want to belong; we fear rejection; we have secret pain. Reynolds deftly illustrates that sameness–and the disparity–in humanity, and points to the universal need for compassion.

As some **unknown wise soul said, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

 

 

*From their album, Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid

**Various sources are credited with this quote. No one knows who said it first.

 

 

Edited: August 22nd, 2013

Wrestling with the story

For the past few years I’ve struggled with what I –and others–have perceived to be a gaping hole in my memoir.  Today I realized that the gaping hole is actually the end of that part of my story; I think I need to focus on excavating what I already have and delete what comes after.

I have wanted to fill the hole with my years as a mom, since I learned to understand my mother as I learned to understand myself.

But I have resisted this, and now I get why:  those years are not about Mama and me. They are part of another story.

Such a freeing revelation.

I realized this as I was reading Emma BrockesShe Left me the Gun at 2am this morning.  She writes,

It is a virtue, we are told, to face things, although given the chance I would go for denial every time–if denying a thing meant not knowing it. But the choice, it turns out, is not between knowing a thing and not knowing it, but between knowing and half-knowing it, which is no choice at all.  (I don’t know the page number, only that it is location 99 on my Kindle.)

I half-knew my mother was dying, but it felt like not knowing because every time I re-read a letter from her, I re-discovered that she had cancer.  I, too, choose denial.

So as I’m reading Brockes’ story, I’m inserting myself into the text and peripherally excavating and then I read this:

If the landscape that eventually emerged can be visualized as the bleakest thing I know–a British beach in winter–she stood around me like a windbreak so that all I saw was colors. A therapist once described my mother’s background…as the elephant in the room….” (location 122/Kindle)

Did Mama windbreak for me?  I see that I have been resting in that choiceless place of half-knowing.

Resting. Resisting.

Because I’m afraid of what I’ll find in the excavation. Not about Mama, but about me.

I relate to both the author and her mother–I see myself in both roles because my childhood experience is similar to her mother’s.
So I am excavating my own childhood, too, and evaluating my role as mother, since I severed ties in an attempt to protect my children from the poison of my past.

 

About the book:

Buy it.
My favorite thing right now, a third through, is the way Brockes keeps the reader at her side on the journey. I have an idea of what she will discover about her mother, but I am hoping for more details (which, by the way, reminds me that memoir IS story, and suspense is delightful).  The story–and the way she tells it–will make you reflect on your own relationship with your mother, which to me is the mark of a terrific storyteller.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited: July 14th, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Writer: What Makes a Good Story?

A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Yeah, thanks.
Knew that, right?

Check out this TED talk from Karen Thompson Walker, and consider using your own fears to write well-developed stories.  Those fears ARE stories, after all, complete with characters and horrible things happening and an aftermath.  Don’t we create stories all the time?

Pema Chödrön states, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” Of course we must use our fears…. That’s where the truth is.

 

Edited: January 28th, 2013

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