Pickard County Atlas, by Chris Harding Thornton*****

What a way to start off the new year! Chris Harding Thornton has written one of those debut novels, the sort that makes an author reluctant to publish a second book, lest it fail to live up to the first. Lucky me, I read it free; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It’s for sale tomorrow, and those that love excellent working class fiction should get a copy right away.

The setting is rural Nebraska, for a single week in 1978. It’s one of those tiny towns where not only does everyone know everyone else, but also just about every single thing that has happened in the lives of everyone else. Or at least they think they do; gossip takes on a life of its own. We have three protagonists, and their points of view alternate, always in the third person omniscient. Harley Jensen, the deputy sheriff, opens the story; then we meet Pam Reddick, a miserable, trapped, 24 year old housewife living in a singlewide trailer with her baby and a husband who’s always working; and Rick, the man Pam is married to, who works for his father, buying and renovating old mobile homes. Now there’s a job for you.

Both of the men, Harley and Rick, are leading lives of avoidance. As a child, Harley found his mother on the kitchen floor after she blew her own face away with a shotgun. The table was set, and the gravy was just beginning to form a skin on top. Gravy boat; bare, dirty feet facing the door after she fell over; cane bottom chair, shotgun, and…yeah. So now Harley is middle aged, single, childless; he maintains a careful distance emotionally from everyone. He does his job, but he’s no Joe Friday. He maintains a stoic, lowkey demeanor most of the time, putting one foot in front of the other, so that people won’t look at him with pity, which is intolerable:

People evidently needed that. They needed to know that you could overcome a thing like what happened here and keep going. That or you were just broken—more broken than they’d ever be.  That worked fine, too. The one thing they couldn’t abide was that you just lived with it. You drank and slept and did laundry with it. You waited at the DMV and clocked in and out with it.

The opening scene in which we meet Harley finds him driving his usual patrol, eager to pass the last homestead he routinely checks for prowlers, vandals, or partiers. It is his parents’ home, now derelict and unsaleable. He prefers to zip past it, but he can’t today because there’s a truck down there. Turns out to be Paul Reddick, the wily, sociopathic brother of Rick, whom we’ve yet to meet. This scene is as tense and still as the air right before the tornado hits. It’s suffused with dread, and we don’t fully understand why yet. It sets the tone for the rest of the story.

Pam Reddick is too young to be so bitter, but it isn’t stopping her. She doesn’t love her husband, and if she ever did, we don’t see evidence of it. They are married because of Anna, their now-three-year-old daughter. This fact gives me pause, since Roe v. Wade came down in 1973; abortion is legal. But then I realize, first, that the Supreme Court made a ruling, but it didn’t furnish clinics, and an out-of-the-way place like Pickard County may never have had access. Pam and Rick have so little money that a trip to the nearest clinic and the payment for the procedure was about as likely as an all expense paid trip to Europe. No, she’d have that baby all right. And she has. But she has no enthusiasm for parenting or her daughter, who looks just like her daddy. Pam goes through the barest motions of motherhood, and only that much because her mother and her mother’s friends always seem to be watching.

 Rick, on the other hand, is a guy you can’t help but feel sorry for. The entire Reddick family is a mess. Their father, who is a shyster, has more or less abandoned their mother, who has mental health problems, the severity of which depends on who is talking. The whole town knows about the night when, following the murder of her eldest son, she was seen in the backyard, stark naked, burning clothing in a barrel. His younger brother, Paul, whom we met earlier with Harley, uses street drugs and steals his mother’s prescriptions; he’s been in and out of trouble most of his life. Worse still, perhaps, is the fact—and it isn’t spelled out for us, but as the narrative unfolds, it becomes evident—that Paul is smarter than Rick. Nobody tells us Rick is stupid; rather, his inner monologue fixates on the mundane and tends to turn in circles. And here, we can see also that poor Rick loves Pam and Anna deeply, and considers them the very best part of his young life; he counsels Paul to settle down, find someone like Pam so that he can have a good life, too. And while Rick knows that Pam is unhappy, he tells himself that she’s mad about nothing, that she’ll settle down. He’s working hard, and we can see that; the guy is a slob, but he’s industrious, on his back in the dirt ripping fiberglass out of an old trailer, stripping wallpaper, replacing pipes. And when he goes home, exhausted and reeking, his feet are sore and itching, and the thing he finds most soothing, and which makes Pam crazy, is rubbing his feet on the radiator until pieces of dead skin come off in strips, which he of course doesn’t clean up.

At this point, I’m ready to get my purse out and give Pam some get-away cash. I couldn’t live that way, either. The worst of it is that Rick is already doing his very best.

The plot unfolds like a burning tumbleweed descending a dry hillside, and it is masterfully written. Much of its brilliance lies in what is not said. There are probably half a dozen themes that bear study, for those so inclined. The violence and poverty are obvious, but more insidious is the way this county chews up the women that live there.

Another admirable aspect of the narrative is the restraint with which cultural artifacts are placed. We aren’t barraged with the headlines of 1978, or its music or movie actors. Thornton doesn’t take cheap shortcuts. Yet there are occasional subtle reminders: the television’s rabbit ears that have to be adjusted to get a decent picture; the Corelle casserole dish.

So, is this book worth your hard-earned money? If you haven’t figured that out by now, you’re no brighter than poor Rick. Go get this book now. Your own troubles will all look smaller when you’re done.

Life of a Klansman, by Edward Ball*

“White supremacy is not a marginal ideology. It is the early build of the country. It is a foundation on which the social edifice rises, bedrock of institutions. White supremacy also lies on the floor of our minds. Whiteness is not a deformation of thought, but a kind of thought itself…

‘The story that follows is not that a writer discovers a shameful family secret and turns to the public to confess it. The story here is that whiteness and its tribal nature are normal, everywhere, and seem as permanent as the sunrise.”

I read this book free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy.

Edward Ball writes about his ancestor, Constant Lecorgnes, known fondly within his family as “our Klansman.” The biography is noteworthy in that it is told without apology or moral judgement, as if Ball wants whites to feel okay about the racism, the rape, the exploitation, the murders, the terrorism that membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and any and all of the other white supremacist organizations have carried out, and will continue to carry out, in the United States. Relax, he tells us, it’s normal.

Well, let’s back up a moment. The “us” in the narrative is always Caucasians. It apparently hasn’t occurred to him that anybody else might read his book. In some ways, the “us” and the “our” used consistently and liberally throughout this biography are even worse than the explicit horrors detailed within its pages. It’s as if there is a huge, entitled club, and those that don’t belong are not invited to read. Further, it’s as if all white people are of a similar mind and share similar goals.

Not so much.

Ball won the National Book Award some years back for Slaves in the Family, a title currently adorning my shelves downstairs. I have begun it two or three times, but it didn’t hold me long enough for me to see what he does with it. And this book is the same, in that the late Lecorgnes is not particularly compelling as a subject, except within the framework of his terrorism. He was not, Ball tells us, a key player; he was just one more Caucasian foot soldier within the Klan. And so, the reading drones along, and then there are the key pronouns that capture my attention, those that give ownership to his terrible heritage, and a couple of paragraphs of the history of the period, particularly within Southern Louisiana, follow; lather, rinse, repeat.

As I read, I searched for accountability. As it happens, I have one of those relatives too; but my elders, though not beacons within the Civil Rights realm by a long shot, understood that such a membership brings shame upon us, and consequently I was not supposed to know about him at all. I overheard some words intended to be private, uttered quietly during a moment of profound grief following a sudden death. My mother spoke to someone—my father? I can’t recall—but she referred to her father’s horrifying activity, and I was so shocked that I left off lurking and spying, and burst into the room. I believe I was ten years old at the time. I was told that the man—who was never, and never will be referred to in the fond, familiar manner that Ball does—was not entirely right in the head. He truly believed he was helping to protect Southern Caucasian women, but he was wrong. It was awful, and now it’s over; let’s not talk about it anymore. In fact, this topic was so taboo that my own sister didn’t know. She is old now, and was shocked when I mentioned it last spring. She had no idea.

As I developed, I understood, from teachers and friends more enlightened than Mr. Ball, that the best way we can deal with ugly things in our background that we cannot change, is to contribute our own energies in the opposite direction. I’ve lived by it, and so I was waiting for Ball to say something similar, if not in the prologue, then surely somewhere near the end; but he never did. If Ball feels any duty whatsoever to balance the scales of his family’s terrible contribution, he doesn’t offer it up. There’s no call to action, no cry for social justice. Just the message that hey—it’s normal, and it’s fine.

I’m not sure if I want to read his other work anymore; but I know that what I cannot do, and will not do, is recommend this book to you.

The Grammarians, by Cathleen Schine*****

Oh hell yes. This charming little book had me on the first page, and when it was over, I was sorry to be done.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the review copy.  This is the first time I have read anything Schine has written, but it cannot possibly be the last. You can buy it now.

We start in the dark; we start behind bars. Happily, it’s because our protagonists are infants, and they’re in a crib. As light streams through the open door, we enter the lives of Daphne and Laurel, who are identical twins. They are brilliant, and they are in love with the written word from the get-go.

At the outset this story seems like a romp, but its success is in the details. As children we see the girls move in lock step; the first one out of the womb is the alpha, and they both understand this. But as they grow up and define their places in the world, there’s tension and at times, competition. In order to develop relationships and families separately, they have to pull away from each other, and when two people are very close, the only way they can become independent is through a hard break. Schine is absolutely consistent in the development of her characters, and this also includes their intellectual gifts.

One aspect of fiction that grates on my nerves is when I see a gifted child protagonist that’s developed in an amateurish way. Some writers want to use a child in their writing, but don’t have any clue about the qualities inherent in a child at the age they have chosen, and so they build giftedness into the character as an excuse, so that they can provide the child with adult-level dialogue and dodge the stages of childhood.  Schine doesn’t do that. Instead, she creates completely believable little geniuses that are nevertheless coping with the growing pains, developmental milestones, attitudes and frequent self-centeredness that characterize children and adolescents. Her care and skill result in characters that are entirely believable. I like the side characters a lot also.

The wit and sass shown by Daphne and Laurel as they indulge in their secret twin language as well as word play using standard English is original and makes me laugh out loud more than once, but as they grow older, both twins encounter broader philosophical issues that connect language with class, ethnicity, and other variables, and they must find their way through the ethical slough. They don’t choose the same paths, and their anger and pain toward one another is visceral. But in the end…well. You’ll have to find that out for yourself.

This book is highly recommended to those that have twins in their lives; those that love the English language; and those that want to howl with laughter. However, I don’t recommend it to anyone whose first language isn’t English.

I read several books at a time, and while I was reading this one, it became the reward for finishing a chapter in a less rewarding read. You, however, can reward yourself right now by ordering a copy.