Tuesday, July 12, 2011
book review:: Life Among the Savages
If you are sick (or just tired) of the many shrill, perfect mama voices out there in the digital landscape, you can retreat back in time with Shirley Jackson and her frank, unsentimental and pretty hilarious memoir of raising her 3 (and then 4) children in a huge, old house in Connecticut.
She perfectly captures the complexity of day to day life with small children in a relaxed and pragmatic way. Helicopter parenting was not the primary mode of parenting in the 1950's. Her kids ran and roamed and lived lives of their own. Whether she is describing a raucous trip to the department store downtown, learning how to drive, or when her child was hit by a car (not by her), her matter of fact storytelling is comforting and true. She seems like the sort mama friend that could come over and have a drink with you in the afternoon and never mention the Himalayan piles of laundry laying at the foot of the stairs.
She opens the book with:
"Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we have fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and - as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I have had to make a good many compromises, all told."
Jackson offers a great snapshot of mothering in a different era. She does all the housework as well as writes, without complaining about having more time or how hard it all is. Certain things might seem a bit strange to modern ears; like how she drinks and smokes (maybe instead of the afore mentioned complaining) while pregnant and takes a cab to the hospital to have her fourth child. But much of her book ring true. Her description of the lively family discussion about when it would be convenient for her to leave and have the newest sibling is priceless and a good representation to how everything becomes a negotiation in a house with more than a few kids.
I read this book quickly, and was sad when I was finished. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Jackson each evening when my kids had gone to bed. Whether she writes about a mother's brain scramble and reliance on lists or the bittersweet moment that you see, for the first time, yourself in your own child, she nails it, with compassion and humor.