Reviews and Comments
Jeanne Bryner was the judge who awarded my writing the Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Here is her review of my submission as sent to Michael Shay of the Wyoming Arts Council in January 2011. Posted with permission of Michael Shay and Jeanne Bryner.
War is hell, and Edith Cook labels her story "A Cold Day in Hell" as the introductory story of her envisioned collection. With this installment a very capable writer explores the themes of interpersonal wars, consequences of otherness, card game oflanguage/sound and the importance of narrator and back story. These are merely a handful of the tools Cook has used to hone such a well crafted story, but exploring them, this reader believes, will provide access to the heart's attic and some of its many trunks. You may recall the fable about the lion and mouse. Rest assured, Cook has not forgotten, and demonstrates a skillful use of its template. A man comes home from work to find his wife holding a kitten.• (He's the lion.) Why I have to be my family's bully might be engraved on the tie clip of Cook's irritable narrator husband, Bradley, and Why I can't grow a backbone might serve as a necklace for his pretty German-born wife, Ingrid. (She's the mouse.) But in this story the kitten seems to be the metaphor for Ingrid. I find Cook's little shell game with language gutsy and good-natured.
Narrators set the tone for stories, and hungry for attention, even negative attention, crippled-missile-builder-engineer-turned-Iawyer Bradley rants and roars through most of the story's text. We count Bradley's because I say so reasons the kitten can't be given to the couple's children (five-year old Bruce, eight-year-old Nikki). Unbalanced by the kitten, this man is a volcano, ready to blow "my face turning red ... My intestines rumble. My stomach hurts." ... "my body needs a drink." Readers nod in understanding because it's a challenge to carry rivers of molten lava inside. Carrying your life's crap too long makes you feel just like crap. Please notice the children's names: how they resemble their parents. From the get-go, readers shake hands with a master craftswoman who understands syntax and creates a flow of steady, beautiful sentences. Her fine choice of motifs, use of symbols and foreshadowing show how verbal bullets hit and hit; they show how the numbed are easily taken prisoner. Make no mistake; nearly every character here can be labeled as prisoner upon close inspection.
Throughout the story, the motif of fabrics and patterns suggest the many threads linking us to our past. Ingrid and Bradley missed their chances with first-choice love interests. Ingrid's lieutenant turned to another German girl. Bradley's librarian fell into the arms of "Rumanian German who'd fled the Soviets ... " Lonely and hungry, Bradley and Ingrid settled. For any warmth is better than freezing. Ingrid mothered/helped Bradley to stand above his able-bodied brothers "She helped with the reading- ... even typed my outlines for the bar exam." Ingrid seems to be the mother he never had.
Cook has a keen sensibility of language/sound and otherness. There's a fencing match between the couple with German phrases/words. We see how our tongues may shape similar words differently. And bully for Cook. She straps us in on page one's discourse roller coaster to hear Bradley's interior voice, followed by Ingrid's begging voice, leading us to Bradley's shouting voice, curving back around to Ingrid's begging voice, to finally teeter on the sheer drop off of Bradley's first murderous demanding threat: "I'll wring its (the kitten's) neck and flush it down the toilet."
On edge, the reader follows Cook's story through twelve pages of grand rounds where she makes us sit still and become Bradley's active listeners.
The radio plays something from a musical we recently saw, Fiddler on the Roof Ingrid loved that show. It reminded her, she said, of Eastern refugees in her settlement back in West Germany. There was this violin my uncle gave me when I was eight, I guess he understood that growing up crippled and loveless was bad news. Quite a nice sound it had, "timbre" by uncle called it. Mom was furious when she learned she was pregnant with me, my brothers were fifteen and seven, she'd done her duty, she said. After the doctors sent me home from the hospital at age six, spine bent and leg atrophied, I'd hear her at night, laying the guilt trip on Dad ....
The back story is very carefully constructed. Notice the word timbre, the mirror for timber. Bradley's the tree that fell on his mother's imagined freedom. He's born and his mom's locked in. Special needs children require extra medicine, time and love. Siblings, even older ones, feel the weight of fetch and carry, serving all the time, helping parents, helping the ill child. Inside the flurry of caring, roles blur; people become invisible. "It didn't take long for my brothers to pick up on her mood." The world of families holds many closets and after Bradley's polio, his dad seems to also be taken prisoner, "By then Dad was long into the assembly line at Linkbelt, for when I got ill he had to sell the garage."
Cook has given us plenty of time and the lion's courage it will surely take to bear witness in this unforgettable scene as she pulls back the curtain to examine a brother's otherness using both words and deeds.
Harold, though married by then, helped Kenny tie me to a chair. "Free yourself, cripple, or we'll kill you," they said, setting me up at the edge of the stairs to the basement. I believed them; I struggled with the ropes like a maniac. Once when Kenny came home from work and I'd eaten the slice of pie Mom saved for him, he baked an apple pie with an entire pound of brown sugar on top. Then he forced me to eat the whole thing. I gagged but he wouldn't let off, not until I threw up all over the kitchen and he made me clean it up.
With this passage Bradley's mother's prophesy of "You'll never be more than a janitor," seems to come true, however briefly. Sublimation's a powerful motivator and many an overachiever could tell his 1 had it rough back story as they await the country club's dessert menu. Here the boy lion's trapped and we are to decide if the brothers shoved him into the abyss or mercifully freed him. But this is not a story about sweetness, though sweetness (Nougat, apple pie, brown sugar) is mentioned.
The goodness, the sweetness of this story are as illusive as Cook's sprinkled words like Kissinger and olives briefly visiting her sentences, words that could mean peace. Because Cook's deft hand implies peace is the white dot where we nap. With words or fists, the rest of it means slugging it out, feeling our back hit the ropes, and our faces smack the mats. Cook knows all of this and she takes us into love's ring that we may be fully cognizant to what "would be the death of me."
In contrast to what may consume, Cook's second story examines what sustains. Many of Cook's same tools are used to create "What Remains with Us," but the repetitive spell of Cook's opening here seems a Siren's song. She knows the use of patterns creates familiarity (like our mothers calling us to supper), and willingly we fall into love's well where "I thought I'd never catch myself again; fell, gasping and stammering I love you- I love you--I love you-until I thought I would die of shame; ... until I tumbled into grace ... so life-giving, I could scarcely believe that it was happening to me." Both stories take place in California (home of the San Andreas fault), the sixties, during the groundswell of revolution: against the Vietnam War, racism, marriage, gender roles, and formalized religion. Cook's well is surely deep and wide.
Unlike the war story, Cook chooses a woman narrator to lead us to this symbolic well. Though the female voice is never named, this reader believes she's the same pretty German-born wife we've just met in "A Cold Day in Hell." And the wife's narration weaves epic themes of quest, a journey to find the big love, our past as the well we can never climb out of, and how we learn to be a true citizen of the world.
From the outside our narrator looks okay. She's married to missile-building-engineer-studying-to-become-a lawyer Darold. She's the mother of two small boys. She lives in the Bay Area of California, but Cook wants us to see where she (the narrator) really lives: "house featured a living room of lawn chairs and plastic coffee tables. When the kids were asleep I would read to my man, either from his law books or else stories from the book of Humor I'd brought from Germany, translating as I went, Darold begging to hear the stories over and over." Cook shows us a mother abandoned by her family. Surrounded by children, this woman's making due with imitation. We read to children and those who are blind. Cook shows us a house where all inside are non-seers. It's a land where the sleepwalkers need to wake up.
Ever so skillfully, Cook unravels the symbol that wakes our narrator to conscienceness:
In the dream I'm not the toddler who caught glimpses of a father in uniform nor the small child peering out a window at houses going up in flames in neighboring Radefeld. Dreaming, I am a thirteen-year-old bereft of family, huddling in a cellar amidst unknown adults. It appears we are waiting for the air-raid sirens to repeat their howling .... tell us it's safe to come up. Nothing happens .... someone decides to climb the stairs and have a look around .... we realize that no attack is in progress. All is quiet. Soon the adults go about their business and disappear.
And we are not expecting the dream to wake its sleeper for that asks quite a lot of the dream. Dreams, for the most part, happen in darkness, and this one is no exception for "There hangs an airplane so huge, so gray, it obliterates sky and horizon. Not a patch of blue is to be seen." The teenager in the dream wants to leave the bicycle she's taken up and go back to the cellar, "But my legs are like lead .... the belly of the airplane opens and a flock of smaller planes issues forth .... what's the use, trying to escape? This thing is so big, it'll find me no matter where I try to hide."
Another connector inside this story is negative space. Consider the nameless wife narrator. The many images of mothering, nurturing and birth are devices Cook employs with an artist's hand seasoned by many a stroke. Who comforts us when night's cough and fever,shake our crib? Who strips us down for our bath? That face. That voice. We should give thanks and eternal praise, but what if she's not present?
A woman in the group was describing a scene of Russian soldiers in a motion-picture adaptation of Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago. As she spoke, a picture arose in my mind, familiar yet unvisited all these years, in which I'm a three-year-old clinging to my one-year-old brother. We are hungry. We're cold on our pallets of straw. No coal in the chute, the electricity is off, and the dark is fearsome: our mother has abandoned us. Russian soldiers clomp through the house, candles flickering in their hands .... Fathers, grandfathers, uncles are absent; they're dead or imprisoned. It is cold. It is dark. We are hungry.
The trinity of childhood's sorrow becomes the narrator's angst carried into adulthood. This weight becomes unbearable, but how does the survivor cast out such demons? Just as the dream wakes the narrator's past, her reading of Victor Frankl's The Doctor and the Soul wakes her to the present. A Nazi death camp survivor, Dr. Frankl's writing speaks to our narrator's heart. Another survivor! How her heart must have jumped up and clapped even as Frankl's words stirred painful memories. Memories that would bring her mother to mind, a mind deeply scarred and so psychologically crippled when she tried to speak her own hurts instead she "uttered my mother's refrain, now applied to myself: 'I won't get old. I'll die young. I'll die of cancer like my mother before me.'" The self tries to rise up and be heard, but is drowned by the past, by the mother's unfulfilled life.
Cook suggests Frankl as a savior when the woman's preacher's loans her not one, but two of Frankl's books. A psychiatrist, Frankl ministers to fellow prisoners inside the death camps. His mother, father and pregnant wife all die in the camps. His past, present and future are wiped out, but he remains sane and caring. No wonder our narrator grabs on, falls in love with Frankl's description of hunger and cold and little hope for rescue. His books must have read like a clutch of letters from home. Under that spell, she fell and fell into the arms of the familiar. It didn't matter that Frankl was married and lived an ocean away. That he was almost forty years her senior didn't figure into the equation. The writer's (Frankl's) mother tongue speaks to her heart. For Frankl she writes a poem inside a letter of adoration.
How I desire
To stroll toward you with joy, stand before you, a queen.
And here I come in rags; I kneel in shame.
After reaching out into the world's cupboard of self-help women's groups, couple's analysis therapy, who knew her answers might be found in books? Might be found in a concentration camp where Frankl convinces himself the bird he's watching is his beloved wife.
. . . He imagines the bird a sign from his spouse, incarcerated somewhere in that brutal camp, letting him know that he is in her thoughts. In another scene he is in bitter despair over the uselessness of his suffering; then he bargains with God or Fate that uncomplaining acceptance of his suffering might gain his aged parents a swift and easy death. His writing reveals an empathy with the erring, warring human congress that comes close to forgiveness.
Not all have read Frankl, but he "gets personal on the page." His words fill the silence, speak for masses of the missing. For that, it is right to give him thanks and praise. We see how our narrator fell in love with his honest pen, with his voice of witness saying, "The best among us did not return." To hear, we must listen, to speak, the whole self must be awake, and to love we must have the grit to live deeply and well. And through Cook's insight, we see how knowledge of others' suffering becomes our own bread.
Edith Cook worked as a Foster Grandparent in my classroom at Anderson Elementary School from 2008 – 2010. During this time period, I was fortunate enough to get to know this talented author and individual. Edith worked with many children in cross grade levels in several capacities. She worked with small groups and demonstrated an understanding of working with students in need. Together we shared the challenges and struggles of working with “at –risk” populations. Edith shared in my passion to help students in need as I have worked with children on the Navajo reservation while in comparison she has had experience working with inner city children in the past. Edith not only worked with our most “at-risk” students as a foster grandparent, she also shared her writing and life experiences with my Honors Reading group when she appeared as our guest speaker in the spring of 2010. Edith is a dynamic and strong leader in our community; we are privileged to have had her presence at Anderson Elementary School.
6th Grade Teacher
Anderson Elementary School
Posted with permission from Stan Ivester