Saturday, October 31, 2009

Songs in Ordinary Time

It's a funny thing how this book had its way with me. Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris. It took me longer to read it than it should--it's about 740 pages, but the pages fly--because of my horrid error last week leaving the book in Manhattan over the weekend. I ended up not getting it back into my hands till Tuesday night so didn't get back to reading it till Wednesday morning on the way in to work. But it stayed on my mind. And I re-entered the story easily. All of which, how it pulled me in and held me, is a little surprising. Because, on the surface at least, it doesn't seem to be the sort of book that would enthrall me so.

Now that I've finished it, and the end was very satisfying indeed, I'm thinking about why--why it had its way with me and why I wouldn't have expected this. I'm not a snob of the variety who turn their noses up at any Oprah Book Club pick, an attitude I find ridiculous. I'm not against what are generally thought of as women's books--by which I don't mean chick lit but rather quality fiction, usually by women writers, that focuses on family relationships and especially women's lives and women's roles. I've read plenty such books. But, especially in recent years, I have less and less patience for stories that are so exclusively focused on this kind of stuff, novels I think of as kitchen-table books, stories that consist so wholly of dissecting familial relationships and their dysfunction that they become, from my viewpoint, irrelevant and therefore uninteresting, boring. Familial relationships, women's lives especially, interest me if--only if--they're presented in the context of the society in which they're formed. If, and only if, these stories have something to say about this society and what it does to women and their children and their relationships and the work they do in and out of the home.

This novel does that, and more. The central characters are one woman and her family in a small New England town in the summer of 1960, and it's also about the whole town and the social dynamics at play. Poverty. Racism. Deep, clear class divisions. Women's oppression. The damage done by religious hypocrisy and the social strictures of the time, damage to women especially. We readers sweat through the wrenching, excruciating lives of Marie and her kids day by day. We become deeply involved, caring, stomachs churning, biting our nails, bracing ourselves for the awful climax we're afraid is inevitable. It's a mark of Morris's skill that, while the readers are most centrally focused on the Fermoyle household, we also engage with the big cast of more peripheral characters too. There's not a type or stick figure in the bunch.

There is a lot of pain. Ultimately, I was relieved to find, there is also some hope. Both of which, the pain and the hope, ring true.* This is a very good book. It was published well over a decade ago and has been sitting on my shelf for who knows how long and who knows why I finally picked it up but I'm glad I did.

*Only one thing, a tiny, minor thing on a page or two, bothered me. A tiny, minor flaw in verisimilitude: a reference to somebody driving a Mustang. The Ford Mustang did not exist in the summer of 1960. See, I'm from Detroit. We know these things. I know this specific thing because one of the most memorable days of my elementary school life was our fifth-grade field trip to the River Rouge plant in 1964. At River Rouge, Ford had the biggest industrial production plant in the world. It had everything and did everything necessary to build a car, from start to finish. There was a steel mill right there--I'll never forget what a fiery hell it was--and the milled steel then rolled on to the main assembly line where the cars were made. On that day we visited, it happened that the first Mustangs were rolling down the line. It might sound hokey now, but wow that car looked to us like it was from outer space, the design was so fresh, so different--and the colors! Orange! Metallic greens and blues! Colors never before seen on a car. Anyway, as you can see, when I got to the paragraphs that had a Mustang driving through, a Mustang that I know didn't exist in 1960, it broke my concentration and sent me off into reminiscence about when I watched Mustangs being built ... and then about my uncle Sam Saad who worked at another Ford plant and was for many years a UAW committeeman and later, when I was a bus driver in Ann Arbor and we went on strike was the only person in my family who was supportive and encouraging to me ... and then about Detroit, the ruined city of Detroit, the most impoverished, wiped out city in this country, and how the auto industry sucked billions of dollars in profit out of the workers of Detroit, how Big Auto sucked the lifeblood out of Detroit and then shut it down, just jettisoned the workers and the city and for that were awarded a zillion-dollar bailout of tax dollars from the federal government. ... But that's another book for another time.