I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! From my twitter feed, I know for some that means being as far away from relatives as possible 😉 If Christmas advertising were to be believed, we should all have families like this:
Whereas in fact the reality may be closer to this:
In which case I would say well done you, because I’m the only person alive who doesn’t like It’s a Wonderful Life *ducks for cover* whereas the Addams Family are awesome. Whether you spent Christmas with George Bailey or Uncle Fester, I thought this week might be a good time to look at families that are found in unexpected places.
Firstly, Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999) which I picked up after loving Our Souls at Night so much and many bloggers recommended I start the Plainsong trilogy. All the things I enjoyed about Our Souls at Night were here: a gentle, unshowy voice, believable idiosyncratic characters, ordinary lives shown to have a delicate beauty.
Set in the fictional prairie community of Holt, Colorado, Plainsong focusses on a pregnant schoolgirl, Victoria Roubideaux, and one of her teachers, Tom Guthrie, who is splitting up with his wife. After Victoria is thrown out by her mother, another teacher, Maggie Jones, suggests to a pair of elderly brothers, Harold and Raymond McPheron, that they take her in.
“ You’re getting goddamn stubborn and hard to live with. That’s all I’ll say. Raymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.
This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.
No it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.”
They offer Victoria a home, and the portrayal of their developing relationship with the young woman is just lovely. The brothers are set in their ways and unused to female company. Victoria is shy and unsure. The tentative gestures they make towards one another pay off and a tender, mutually nurturing affection develops.
“The brothers were watching her closely, a little desperately, sitting at the table, their faces sober and weathered but still kindly, still well meaning, with their smooth white foreheads shining like polished marble under the dining room light. I wouldn’t know, she said. I couldn’t say about that. I don’t know anything about it. Maybe you could explain it to me.
Well sure, Harold said. I reckon we could try.”
Meanwhile, Tom’s sons Ike and Bobby are struggling to come to terms with their mother’s depression and subsequent leave-taking. A similarly unexpected yet gentle cross-generational relationship develops between the boys and elderly, isolated Mrs Stearns who they know from their paper round.
“The timer dinged on the stove. They took the first oatmeal cookies out of the oven and now there was the smell of cinnamon and fresh baking in the dark little room. The boys sat at the table and ate the cookies together with the milk Mrs Stearns had poured out into blue glasses. She stood at the counter watching them and sipped a cup of hot tea and ate a small piece of cookie, but she wasn’t hungry. After a while she smoked a cigarette and tapped ashes in the sink.
You boys don’t say very much, she said. I wonder what you’re thinking all the time.
About anything. About the cookies you made.
They’re good, Ike said.”
Plainsong is a gentle tale about all that human beings can give and be to one another, but it is not remotely sentimental or rose-tinted. Haruf shows, he doesn’t tell, with a restraint and subtlety that is easy to underestimate but is absolutely masterful. I find his writing incredibly moving. It’s going to be a real strain on my 2018 book buying ban not to rush out and buy the novels of his I don’t yet own.
Secondly, Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (2013, trans. Alison Watts, 2017). Again, this is a simply told tale of ordinary people, and it is truly heartwarming. The main protagonist is the decidedly unheroic Sentaro. He has a criminal record and is employed by people he owes money to. He sells dorayaki – pancakes filled with the titular paste – with no pride in or commitment to his work. One day Tokue, an elderly lady with distorted hands and a disfigured face arrives in the shop:
“ ‘I had one of your dorayaki the other day. The pancake wasn’t too bad, I thought, but the bean paste, well…’
‘The bean paste?’
‘Yes. I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.’
‘You couldn’t? That’s strange.’ Sentaro made a face as if to show how regrettable that was, though he knew full well his bean paste could to reveal no such thing.”
Sentaro employs Tokue on the understanding that she will not interact with the customers who he thinks will be put-off by her disability. Tokue’s delicious bean paste brings more customers to the shop and business begins to boom. As Sentaro and Tokue’s relationship develops, he begins to understand that she has survived Hansen’s disease (leprosy) but is still subject to significant stigma around the disease. One of the schoolgirl customers, Wakana, becomes very attached to Tokue, and they visit her at the asylum she continues to live in although the government has passed an act which means those with Hansen’s disease are no longer kept in isolation.
“Nevertheless human lives had been swallowed up by this place and for a hundred years, continually spurned. It felt to Sentaro as if the singular silence rose from the very earth beneath their feet, steeped as it was in sighs and regrets.”
Sweet Bean Paste is about living life to the full even when society is circumscribing it in cruel ways. It is about friendship’s power to heal and to empower. It is also about opening ourselves to experience the world in new and surprising ways, no matter our age. Tokue has an almost mystical relationship with her cooking, which enriches both her and those who consume her food.
“When I make sweet bean paste I observe closely the colour of the adzuki beans faces. I take in their voices. That might mean imagining a rainy day or the beautiful fine weather they have witnessed. I listen to their stories of the winds that blew on their journey to me.”
And so in the end, I think Sweet Bean Paste is about nourishment in all its forms; it is there for the taking if we have the wisdom to see it and the open hearts to embrace it.
To end, never let it be said that I shy away from the obvious: