Showing posts with label family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family. Show all posts

Thursday, August 3

Resilience











A child can develop resilience despite domestic violence, neglect and abandonment, poverty and inequality.

In Hang the Moon by Jeannette Walls, Sallie Kincaid is born into a comfortable life in a small, early 20th century Virginia town that is run by her father, known as the Duke, and his sheriff brother-in-law. Soon after her mother dies, the Duke marries a woman who resents Sallie, especially after she has a son who prefers music and education to fishing, hunting, risk-taking and rough-housing.  

Tough and matter-of-fact, never bitter, Sallie adores her father and accepts that he wants a strong son to resume control of the family business – a general store that organizes county moonshine sales. After the death of her mother, the Duke's second wife, all Sallie wants is to be part of a tight family. So she respects and gets along with her half-brother, Eddie. She follows her father’s orders to mentor Eddie on toughness, and the two have a wagon accident that nearly kills him. Her father sends Sallie away to live with her mother’s sister, providing minimal support. The child assumes the move is temporary, helping her aunt scrub wash to get by. 

Education is an afterthought in the poor community, though a teacher takes a liking to the intelligent girl and relies on her to help with younger students and offering advice that Sallie remembers years later: “teachers don’t know everything, but as long as they stay a step ahead of the students, the students think they do.”

The father sends for Sallie a decade later after the stepmother’s death. Teenaged Sallie is resourceful and loyal, but the father envisions one path for girls, and that is marriage. He expects her to tutor the brother, but Eddie knows far more than she does. She takes advantage of his lessons, but also worries about his values, once asking, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, is it always smart to let everyone know it?” The boy replies, “Absolutely. Nothing is more important than the truth.”  

The father marries a third time. Eddie adores the new stepmother and a baseball player friend, and Sallie longs for a “paycheck job,” one where she showed up, worked the hours, and collected a paycheck, allowing her to send money to her struggling aunt. Sallie convinces her father to let the stepmother tutor the brother and make Sallie wheelman – collecting payments from the many land tenants. 

As an adult, Sallie learns her father kept many secrets. A black tenant is another half-brother. Her aunt resorted to prostitution after losing the wash business and is mother of half-sister/cousin, a long-time servant. Her father shot her mother after a domestic dispute.  

After the Duke’s death, the stepmother quickly remarries the baseball player and agrees that Sallie invite the maternal aunt, a “fallen woman,” into the family home. Eddie and the Duke’s sister protest, and Sadie argues for forgiveness. “People who’ve never gone without find it easy to pass judgment on those who’ve struggled.” 

The Duke’s sister and her sheriff husband take control of the business, battling with the stepmother, regarded as an outsider, for guardianship over Eddie. The aunt makes the stepmother’s life unbearable, prompting the woman to flee and Eddie to commit suicide. 

Next, an older half-sister and preacher husband take control of the family business, insisting on enforcing Prohibition rules and hiring a ruthless security officer to end moonshine production. Profits plummet and tenants become desperate, testing Sallie’s conscience as wheelman. “It’s when the boss asks you to do something you know to be wrong and you do it anyways. That sort of work whittles away at the soul.” 

The sister dies of cancer and Sallie takes control of a failing enterprise, remembering old lessons as she struggles to learn who to trust. She recalls trying to save up for a gun when leaving with her impoverished aunt and a schoolmate offering to let her help his family harvest and sell chestnuts for six cents a basket. “The frost had knocked the nuts out of the trees and the ground was thick with them. Mr. Webb told us we had to make haste, seeing as how bear, deer, boar, and people would all be fighting over these chestnuts and in a couple of days they’d be gone.“ She needs thirty-four large baskets to buy the gun, but comes up a bit short.

Sallie visits the family to collect her share, fulling expecting them to avoid payment. The quiet, stern man advises that the price of chestnuts was not what he had expected, with a blight killing off trees to the north and chestnuts in short supply. The shortage means chestnut prices went up, and he pays her seven cents per basket. “Some folks say they hate to be proved wrong, but I was never happier to be mistaken.” 

Based on such experiences – at times, the novel reads as though a series of short stories – Sallie develops her own moral code, running the illegal business but discouraging lies, corruption and long-time disputes. She is quick to forgive and move on, and that policy applies to the paternal aunt who long made life difficult for Sallie, her mother and her aunt. Sallie leads the family and tenants on producing and running moonshine into nearby Roanoke. “Outlaw. Rumrunner. Bootlegger. Blockader. I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up. Ask a former slave.” She adds: “Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”  

She maintains the operation doesn’t involve stealing or coercion. “Just helping out the people of Claiborne County who through no fault of their own are in an awful bind. Obey the law and starve. Or break the law and eat. Not a lot to ponder there.”  

For Sallie, family is sacred, and she realizes her father “whose approval I so craved” did not feel the same. The Duke “loved being loved, but he never truly loved anyone back. He took what he wanted from people, then once he got it, cast them aside.” 

The historical novel is bittersweet, optimistic and certainly idealistic about bootlegging and a woman running a business in the 1920s. Sallie succeeds by embracing all members of her family and community, wayward in so many ways, as long as they get along and work to love and protect the whole.  

Friday, December 16

Hell within

 











The Ghetto Within by Santiago H. Amigorena describes a carefree man leaving Poland to start a new home in Buenos Aires in 1928. His mother expects weekly updates about his new life, but Vicente scoffs, and despite his Jewish heritage, Vicente and friends scoff at the old-fashioned ways of their Jewish parents. Early on, Vicente makes halfhearted attempts to convince his mother and other family members to flee Warsaw, and as the decade progresses, he mostly stops writing. By 1938, her letters stop, too.   

Vincente’s indifference and scoffing soon transform into despair as news about the war in Europe and atrocities gradually filter through. He receives two final letters from his mother, in 1940 and the other in 1941, describing deteriorating conditions and an uncertain future with Germans herding Jews into a ghetto, treating them worse than animals. In what would otherwise be an ordinary, peaceful life, Vicente’s spirit is crushed, tormented over his mother’s last communications, obsessing if she went hungry or still wore a favorite shawl. 

Vicente sinks into a deep depression, spending some time with family and friends but no longer speaking, instead mostly gambling to confirm his own failure as a human being. His wife and her family are understanding, trying to accommodate him. Rosita and Vincente, both with “the hesitant, pale, mute fragility that revealed they had been much loved as children,” simply cannot comprehend the full extent of cruelty.

He describes scanning the newspapers for any bit of news before receiving his mother’s last letter – “for signs, for cluses, for hints that might help him understand – and searching, like everyone else, for reasons not to understand…. Like every human being, Vicente had wanted to know and, at the same time, had preferred not to know.” He longs for ignorance and the ability to erase his memory. “It is perhaps one of the most singular traits of a human being: just as the body, when it has endured too much suffering, or has grown too weak, temporarily lapses into unconsciousness… so that it can survive, or rather so that something can survive – something that is at once still human and already less than human, something that is still ourselves and is already no one.” 

Forgetting is impossible though. Every morning is the same for Vicente, “the same memories, the same guilt, the same longing to forget.” He waned to forget words and sentences and meaning, longing for "a silence so powerful, so constant, so insistent, so relentless that all things would become remote, invisible, inaudible." He walks miles to be alone, hoping to escape his fears, but silence brings no relief. "[U]nfortunately, though stillness is the opposite of motion, there is no opposite to thought, nothing that counters the workings of the mind: not thinking is merely another form of thinking."  

Most of all, he hopes to flee the voice of his conscience, even as he tortures himself about his inaction. “Something must be done to counter the nothing that I can do. I can do nothing. I cannot do anything. I have never understood the difference.” 

One account of the camps describes an inmate who asked why after being given an order an the guard pushing the man and retorting: Hier ist Kein warum. Here there is no why: “these words summed up the determination of the Nazis in the camps to create a space that was utterly different, a space in which there was no why.” Vicente determines his life is worthless, also lacks “a why,” and so, “He became another, another devoid of meaning, devoid of hope, devoid of a future.”  He describes feeling alone, sinking, heading only toward a grave. He becomes a shell, neglecting wife, children, job and friends.

Later Vicente’s grandson assumes that his grandfather must have wrestled with the notion that escape made him a traitor. Amigorena himself fled dictatorship in Argentina for Europe: “I was not where I should have been.” 

But the grandson does not complain or accepts the life given to him. “I do not know whether, before he died, Vicente realized that remaining silent was not a solution,” Amigorena concludes. Instead, language is intertwined with memory, providing guidance as guilt and despair pass to subsequent generations. To avoid being complicit, survivors and their descendants must reject attempts to forget or deny the evil. 

Thursday, January 8

Free speech

Terrorism starts at home, so suggests the tale of Fear of Beauty. The petty resentments, the irrationality, the scapegoating and complaints, the displays of anger, the bullying, fear of competition, marginalization, abuse and more.

Police quickly identified the three suspects accused of bursting into the offices of a satirical newspaper in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, and killing 12 with assault rifles. News reports describe them as two brothers and a brother-in-law. The case bears similarities to the bombing of a crowd at the Boston Marathon - with two Tsarnaev brothers named as suspects.

The three in Paris will not slow satire in the West. All they accomplished was to ignite interest in a struggling publication and unite diverse citizens to stand up for freedom of speech and embrace satire and other forms of scrutiny. The killers revealed their fears and have shown that ideas and pens wield power.

The Arab League and Al-Azhar have condemned the murders. Leaders of many organizations recognize, as we have said on this pages before, a faith is unsustainable if it cannot endure such scrutiny and tests.

By evening, the news reported the two brothers in the France killings were orphans.