Last year I thoroughly enjoyed my first McNally Editions title – Winter Love by Han Suyin – and was keen to explore more from their catalogue. I settled on Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone which reminded me a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks’ wonderful Maud Martha, although the two books are very different in terms of style and presentation. My verdict? I absolutely loved Rattlebone and its characters who will linger in my mind for a long time.
Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone is a gorgeously written, heartbreaking compilation of eleven interlinked stories that capture slices of life of an African American community in 1950s Kansas City. It sensitively depicts the journey of Irene Wilson our protagonist from when she is eight years old to her last days in high school; she and her friends traverse a particularly rough terrain of tumultuous family life, challenges and heartaches of growing up, and the blight of occasional violence. Irene is often the central feature in each story, at other times she is on the periphery – the points of view sometimes shift and there are stories where the focus zooms on other members of her family or the black neighbourhood of Rattlebone where she resides.
For this review, I have deliberately refrained from writing on all eleven stories but will give a flavour of some of them followed by my overall impressions of the collection as a whole.
Irene is our narrator in the first story “October Brown”, a beautifully rendered tale of an eight-year-old trying to make sense of the complicated grown-up world of adults, the tenacity of familial bonds, and the sweet taste for revenge. We learn of Irene’s mother Pearl who is pregnant with a second child, her father James Wilson, and Irene’s sophisticated, fiery schoolteacher October Brown (“she became our grown-woman schoolteacher, the burnt brown of her left cheek was marked by a wavery spot of white: a brand, a Devil’s kiss”). Through Irene’s eyes, we witness the tumultuous relationship between her parents…
They were on opposite ends of the same track, and I knew from time and again that they would both speed up, bear down until they had only inches left between them, then they would both fall back and rumble until silence prevailed. Later my father would bring home orange sherbet and my mother would rub his back and they would both be laughing.
James and Pearl are fond of one another and yet James embarks on an extra-marital affair with October Brown during Pearl’s pregnancy (another married woman in one of the later stories will remark, “Some men act a fool when their wife is carrying a child“). Things are never quite the same after that but while a perceptible shift in the atmosphere at home is evident to Irene along with its cause, she can’t quite grasp the full meaning of it (“a no-name, invisible something had settled on us”). Afraid of her family breaking apart for good and the loss of quality time with her dad, Irene sniffs an opportunity to make her teacher pay for her actions.
The next story “Lemonade” is about music, differing religious views and beliefs, miracles, and the simple, unfettered gaze of children vis-à-vis complex perceptions of adults. The story begins with a subtle hint at the segregation prevalent in 1950s Kansas City; the neighbourhood of Rattlebone has only five to six inhabitants who are white. One day as Irene and her friends are enjoying their game of Lemonade out on the street, they are greeted by a white woman who preaches to them about the birth of Jesus and the holiness of his mother Mary. Calling herself Sister Joan, there’s a sense that she’s maybe trying to convert them to Roman Catholicism, but while the children don’t shun her, they are aware of where to draw the line. However, Sister Joan’s presence frightens a child of special needs called Puddin (Irene’s friend Wanda’s brother), and during one such encounter, she gifts him a necklace of beads; a gift that has forbidden written all over it and screams black magic to Irene. Meanwhile, we learn of Irene’s budding talent for music, and with the encouragement of their music teacher, she begins to learn and practice piano at Wanda’s home. But then the two girls witness a miracle that not only stuns them but also the community. The occurrence of this miracle culminates in a fierce debate on religious views in which Sister Joan finds herself embroiled – she is maligned by the adults, but the children are more forgiving.
In “Water Seeks Its Own Level”, the focus shifts to Irene’s father James Wilson, who has just lost a well-paying job in a construction project for daring to protest about the differing treatment of the blacks as compared to the whites. James does not have it in him to head home yet and explain himself to Pearl. Instead, with ample time on his hands, he decides to stroll around the city. Meanwhile, floods have caused the Missouri river to swell dangerously, and while Rattlebone has been lucky to escape nature’s fury, some of the other low-lying areas have been completely inundated. While ambling along the town, James is restless, besieged by thoughts of living an unencumbered life, a life of action and adventure, and a non-paying physical job to sandbank the river offers that window of freedom for a brief period.
“Cherry Bomb” is a piercing, poignant tale of loss, the possibility of love, and growing up. A third-person account, it brims with the whiff of scorching summers, those languid carefree breaks between school terms infused with new friendships and budding romances. During one such summer vacation, Irene gets her first taste of young love, pursued by a boy called Nick who has taken a fancy to her. Nick’s attentions, not always welcome, often torment Irene, but when Nick gifts her cherry bomb, a firecracker that has already caused her cousin to lose an eye in a freak accident, Irene stores it in her secret box of keepsakes. It’s also a summer when Irene has taken to diary writing, and she laments at the fact that Wanda possesses a diary identical to hers, a diary that Wanda seems to have effortlessly purchased, while Irene had to save up to buy hers. When a tragedy subsequently occurs and fuels in Irene a searing sense of loss, her secret box of distilled memories causes her to wonder about things that could have been.
Another fine story is “The Roomers”, a first-person account by a new character called Mrs Pemberton whose husband Thomas Pemberton was introduced to the reader in an earlier story. When this story opens we learn that Mr and Mrs Pemberton have been running a boarding house for a long time, and the type of roomers they select has also changed significantly over the years. The Pembertons, especially Mrs Pemberton, are quite conservative and strict about the decorum to be maintained by their roomers. For this reason, the profile of their roomers is largely made up of teachers who are single, responsible, and not likely to engage in unsavoury behaviour. But the arrival of October Brown changes all that, at least in Mrs Pemberton’s eyes. October Brown is the embodiment of sophistication and elegance, and she has aspirations that are quite at odds with Mrs Pemberton’s traditional viewpoints. But when October Brown starts going out with a married man (“she wasn’t no more to him than a piece of poontang on a Saturday night”), its consequences unexpectedly cause a clash of principles between Mr and Mrs Pemberton – compassion versus keeping up appearances. But could this difference of opinion also be attributed to Mrs Pemberton’s jealousy and Thomas Pemberton’s yearning to be something that fate has denied him?
“A Most Serene Girl” is one of those stories that begins in a certain fashion and ends up in a different place, not what the reader expected. The story begins with a hard-hitting paragraph of violence – a man kills his wife with a knife, a gruesome act that clearly traumatizes his daughter Dorla, the witness to this horrific crime.
Dorla Wooten was the most serene girl in all of Lincoln Junior High. I never saw her talk behind anyone’s back. She never got loud in the lunchroom, or ran wildly when we changed classes. In the halls she glided along close to the walk with her head up and eyes straining forward as though something in the distance had caught her attention. And if you said anything to her, she looked down.
Psychologically scarred, Dorla has retreated into a shell, and out of sympathy Irene tries to befriend her but hits a stone wall. Meanwhile, Irene makes a new friend Geraldine, although the latter is reluctant to invite Irene into her home. The reason is soon clear – Geraldine resides with her mother in a basement flat of a building called a “tourist home” where rooms are rented for couples to have sex. Shame is what makes Geraldine hesitant to invite Irene into their home at first, and Irene is sympathetic. Irene’s feelings of sympathy for both Dorla and Geraldine possibly stems from a sense that she comes from a secure place, a relatively happier home. But then Irene makes a shocking discovery at the tourist home that upends this perceived security and causes her to look at Dorla and Geraldine in an altered light.
“The Great War” is a short piece on Irene’s mother Pearl, a woman who has always “been waiting”, her mounting frustration with her life pretty evident as she ponders on the elusive meaning of love. “Secret Love” is a finely crafted story on the stigma of mental illness, the breakdown of family life, the angst of separation, and how shared family troubles can become a catalyst for deeper friendships.
Rattlebone, then, is a simmering cauldron of myriad characters whose lives and actions enhance the richness and beauty of this collection and brings to the fore the complex dynamics of communities. The milieu of Rattlebone may appear small and inconsequential but the range of feelings, emotions, and experiences of its inhabitants is universal. Death, trauma, and violence co-exist with kindness and compassion. Wives grapple with their husbands’ wayward ways. Unwed mothers bear the burden of patriarchal thinking and struggle to be accepted. Some children suffer alienation and isolation, others a sense of shame often a consequence of their parent’s actions. But a feeling of community spirit is also palpable – tragedies often bring families together as do wondrous miracles. At the centre of it, is our protagonist Irene Wilson whose personal experiences and relationships will mold her character and influence how she sees the world.
I hated that. I hated to hear her say women have needs. I hated that dark sea of mysterious passions women were supposed to have, that apparently made them behave in uncontrollable ways, like in all those magazines. Some women. I was never going to dip into it.
These are beautiful, sharply-observed stories with their tender portrayal of characters who display a quiet strength, an inner reserve that compels them to dream big and carry on despite obstacles and hardships.
There’s such a variety of themes explored – the meaning of love, the yearning for a stable family life, the excitement of new friendships, the sorrows of growing up, the power of dreams and aspirations, the disappointment of thwarted hopes and desires, the clash between modern and traditional values, the pain of adultery, cheating and shame, death and random violence, and so on. Ever present is the stain of racism and segregation – it does not always form the focal point of the stories but it does seep in, stubbornly lingering in the background and occasionally coming to the fore.
In terms of structure, every story introduces a new character while familiar characters introduced in the earlier stories reappear in the later ones thereby adding much depth to each of them, and while Irene’s story unfolds linearly, each story feels complete by itself. The writing style is clear and uncluttered, but what also stands out is the musicality of the language – a wonderful symphony of poetic prose and colloquial diction, a singular manner of expression that perfectly captures the thoughts, conversations, and views of a community and makes its characters feel intensely real.
Spring was unraveling everywhere. Summer was coming when I would go hunting for wild greens with my father, when we would be up in the warm, damp mornings taking his gunnysack with us along the railroad tracks all the way to the woods. Summer was coming when he would show me which was dandelion and which was dock, which was pokeberry and which was nettle. We would bring back morels and truffles for my mother to dip in egg and crackers and fry them crispy brown. Summer was coming and maybe my father would come back.
Profound, gentle, wise, and laced with empathy, Rattlebone is a superb collection of vibrant, bittersweet sketches of small-town life that deserves a much wider audience. Highly recommended!