Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Book Report

Tony recommended that I read Doug Marlette’s novel The Bridge, saying that I would love it. He was right; it is an excellent story. The primary story takes place in the present day, but a secondary story—what the main character, Pickard, learns about his family heritage—takes place in the late 1920’s through the 30’s, the main character of which is Pickard’s grandmother, Mama Lucy.

This is a novel that can be read more than once, and the reader can explore different themes during each reading. I particularly enjoyed the little history lesson presented in the story, one that I had never really learned about in school. Mama Lucy grew up in the South working in the textile mills weaving cloth. Her story centers on the textile workers’ strikes during the 1920’s and 30’s and the workers’ attempts at unionizing and petitioning their bosses for better pay and working conditions. What Mama Lucy experiences during this time is fundamental in shaping her actions and attitudes later in life towards her family.

Family dynamics, particularly those of Southern families, forms a major theme in this novel. Mama Lucy is the cause of much friction in the family. When she is first introduced, she a frail but feisty old woman celebrating her ninetieth birthday and resisting being sent to a nursing home. She still does all she can to exercise control over her grown children and grandchildren. Her family consists of a very colorful bunch, very few of which made it past high school, and those who did (Pickard) are viewed with suspicion. Pickard describes his extended family in the scene leading up to his attendance at his grandmother’s birthday party and family reunion:

The Cantrells are a fiercely modest clan, not given to ostentatious displays of personal wealth, material possessions, or hubris of any kind. Any and all forms of “showin’ off,” “puttin’ on airs,” or “gittin’ above your raisin’” are generally frowned upon in my family, and whatever pride we might possess is religiously suppressed, except when it comes to our means of transportation. Any residual Cantrell strut and boast is channeled into the chrome and paint jobs or the horsepower per cubic inch under the hoods of our latest set of wheels. We Cantrells may not go far in the world, but we’ll get there in style. No wonder a number of my relatives made their livings working on and around combustible engines—as garage mechanics, car dealers, auto parts specialists, service station attendants. Ambition in my family was gauged by whether you wanted to pump hi-test.

Pickard’s cousin describes ambition as the “Southern Disease,” a virus that should be avoided at all costs because “nobody likes it when somebody breaks with the rest of the herd. It pressures the rest to do the same, and that’s risky.”

Despite their various feuds and alliances (which will likely remind readers of some of their own past and ongoing family dramas), the extended family is very protective of each other, not allowing anyone, including other family members, to speak negatively of the family in pubic. When a particularly “redneck” cousin decides to badmouth Pickard at the reunion, another cousin comes to Pickard’s defense with a threat that I found particularly hilarious: “I want you to apologize to Pick, ‘fore I rip you a new asshole and rearrange your digestive tract to where you don’t know whether to piss or fart.” If the offender had been someone outside the family, he likely would not have received fair warning before being subjected to such a procedure.

In his dealings with his family, the main character Pickard enters upon a journey of self-discovery. Along his journey, the novel explores many other themes such as loyalty, betrayal, resentment, and forgiveness, not only within the family dynamic, but in other venues as well. This is a novel that can be read and interpreted on many different levels, and readers certainly will see parallels to their own lives in this very engrossing story. I will definitely look for other titles by this author.

If you've read it, let's talk about it. (Do I get an A, Tony?)


Ayatollah Mugsy said...

Sounds interesting. I may have to look for this on my next trip to the library.

Tony Arnold said...

You definitely get an A. I too was greatly enthralled by the history lessons I received concerning the textile mills and the union wars in the South that few ever hear about, even us born and raised southerners.

This part was factual and most just think the Civil War was when the government waged a war against its own citizens. The textile stuff was worse because in the CW the gov't was fighting another gov't group of citizens that had rebeled against the Fed. gov't.

In the textile wars, the US Fed gov't and the State gov't used militia and the National Guard to forcibly put down Union Organization in the mill towns of the South. A dark blot of untaught history.

For those of us raised in the South, there are so many personal and family attributes and situations that directly mirror the character's in the book, that it makes the book very personal for many of us.

Glad you enjoyed it.