|Coming Undone (M.A. Reilly, 2010)|
"I HAD THE STORY, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story."
Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome.
Since I first drew in the margins of Alice with thick wax crayons as I listened to my mom read to me each night, I've loved the spoken and the written word. I've kept close to the heart a handful of characters who have humbled me, made me question and laugh, and most often made me worry.
And so it was not too unusual that a few weeks ago I was standing in a classroom at the close of day only to hear Ethan Frome mentioned. A teacher was saying how her teenage daughter recently read Wharton's slim novel about impossible choices and even grimmer endings and this prompted her to reread the novel too. As I listened, two entwined memories came to mind.
The first is when I was 15 and reading a novel my mom thought I might enjoy. Ethan Frome. I can still see my teenage self stretched out on top of the off white bedspread reading the book--the one at the time that had no fancy cover, just plain brown with the title and author embossed--as stark as Starkfield. I didn't know then that this was one of two books I'd read in early high school that would allow me to understand that I entered into and out of texts in ways that could be unsettling, in ways that remained with me in the bits of prose I could recall and in the language that fit my mouth like no other. I was in the throes of first love and it was too unsettling to even consider the doubts about marriage and love that Wharton raises--doubts I would not be able to say aloud for more than a decade.
The other memory is nearly 15 years later when I had the pleasure of teaching that novel to 12th graders. I took the time to carefully write a letter to each student about the power of literature and sledding and how slim love sometimes feels so full and yet is so empty. I wished for them that they too might experience reading the novel as a profound act, not merely as a high school assignment.
It was February and the certainty of winter had settled about us when we first opened the book. Decades later some of those discussions that began in February and continued through to June graduation still come to mind.
"Were they justified?"
"Are most marriages so loveless?"
"Were they selfish?"
"What's up with the pickle dish? Is that a phallic symbol?"
Oh how we cheered the first blushes of love that Mattie and Ethan show during the dinner scene and we grew ever so quiet as we watched Mattie leave the house, and stood alongside the two on that fateful evening listening to the plan hatch--the one they thought might spare them from sure separation.
"Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again."
"The coast. Right off," she panted. "So 't we'll never come up any more."
"Matt! What on earth do you mean?"
She put her lips close against his ear to say: "Right into the big elm. You said you could. So 't we'd never have to leave any more."
"Why, what are you talking of? You're crazy!"
"I'm not crazy; but I will be if I leave you."
"Oh Matt, Matt--" he groaned.
Some books stay with us. These are the ones that are never really finished. The ones we carry with us in our gestures , our actions, and our thoughts.
They help us to utter the unspeakable.