Thursday, July 12, 2007

We are women, hear us roar


The two books I read in the last couple weeks have a lot in common, although their plots really aren't similar at all. However, both books feature female protaganists who have to overcome insurmountable odds to survive. In both situations, their men have shamefully disappeared, leaving their wives and daughters to fend for themselves. Not only do they manage everything themselves, but they do it with strength, courage and old-fashioned hard work.
Berg's novel features a trio of heroines: Paige Dunn, a young mother who has been paralyzed by polio; Diana Dunn, her teenage daughter; and Peacie, the family's sharp-tongued black caretaker. The men in the book are not all losers, but they definitely lurk in the background while the women take center stage.
The story unfolds in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964. Civil Rights rallies are raging across the state, but Diana is only dimly aware of them. She's got enough problems of her own. There's her mother, for one. Although they have Peacie (another of Diana's problems) during the day, they can't afford to pay a night caretaker, so Diana has to take up the slack, then lie about it to the social worker. Then there's the money issue; no matter how many donations they receive from neighbors, there's never enough cash to go around. Then, Peacie's gentle husband gets caught up in the dangerous Civil Rights movement, Diana's best friend betrays her, and Paige gets a respiratory infection. It's enough to sink anyone, but Diana is determined to hold it all together, even as she resents the whole impossible situation.

What results is a compelling story of triumph over adversity. It also brings up this important, but sticky question: Should a woman who cannot even hold a child be allowed to raise one? The issue of freedom is also central to this novel: Is anyone really free? Who had more freedom in 1964 - a paralyzed polio victim or a black man in the South? It's a fascinating story, although the ending is a little too serendipitous to be believable.
Stormy Weather was less impressive to me, although it was still a decent read. The story revolves around the Stoddard family - a mother and her 3 daughters - who are struggling to survive after their husband/father's ignominious death. Although Jack Stoddard hadn't given them much of a life to begin with, the women miss the meager paychecks he managed to bring in on occasion. After Jack's death, the Stoddards move back to their family's crumbling farm. Not only is the house falling down, but the land itself is difficult to farm after suffering from drought and the severe dust storms that plague Texas in the 1930s. Through sheer determination and a lot of hard work, Jeanine Stoddard (the middle daughter) rebuilds the farm, but it's not enough. Finally, the family places their last hopes and cash on a wildcat oil well and Jeanine's temperamental racehorse.
Although I enjoyed the characters in this novel, I thought the plot dragged too much. This, coupled with Jiles' cold writing style, made the book a long, laborious read for me. The only reason I stuck with it is because the characters were interesting and I wanted to see what happened to the indomitable Jeanine. Of course, she triumphed, but again it was all a little too serendipitous for my taste.

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