Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Thrice-Told Tales

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Thrice-Told Tales

Article excerpt

To say three novels dealing with murder and mayhem are like the synoptic gospels seems, at best, an odd comparison. But, like Matthew, Mark, and Luke, these novelists reveal how, for good or for ill, our lives are shaped by the stories we live.

Socked in by ice storms and blizzards, I spent much of the past winter curled up with three novels, working my way through Michael Dorris' Cloud Chamber (S&S Trade, 1997), Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1996), and Jane Hamilton's The Book of Ruth (Anchor/Doubleday, 1990). Curiously enough, reading these books back-to-back reminded me of another winter--a quarter century previously--when the confinement of novitiate and a New Year's resolution led me to read all three synoptic gospels over a single weekend.

It wasn't that the style or content of these three novels reminded me of the differing accounts of Jesus' life found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Cloud Chamber, Alias Grace, and The Book of Ruth are largely women's stories, tales told by voices usually heard only in whispers in the Bible. And they certainly don't provide uplifting accounts of heroic redeemers coming to the rescue.

Instead, in Dorris', Atwood's and Hamilton's gritty and dark tales of intergenerational dysfunctions and family tragedies, the characters--whether they're doctors, social workers, or clergy--who try slipping on the mantle of heroic rescuer are largely ridiculed for their feeble efforts.

The stories of Rose, Grace, and Ruth remind me of the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke because--like the three synoptic gospels--they resemble one another so much. Reading them in quick sequence, the similarities were unmistakable. It as if Dorris, Atwood, and Hamilton had each fashioned their own modern narrative out of the bare bones of a common story--some ancient myth of Everywoman handed down for countless generations, continuously reshaping itself in an endless variety of forms.

And in spite of distinctive plots and protagonists Cloud Chamber, Alias Grace, and The Book of Ruth each revolved around a murder and its punishment. Grappled with were issues of family ties, betrayal, abuse, and abandonment. The books tried to make sense of the ways we are fashioned or fractured by our memories and the stories we tell.

Along with these similarities, the thing that struck me about the narratives of Rose, Grace, and Ruth and the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that they are all stories about storytellers, and the creative--sometimes destructive--power of our stories.

The murder in Cloud Chamber occurs at the very beginning of the story, over and done in a matter of pages. The punishment stretches out for generations.

Rose Mannion is an Irish lass (and black widow spider) who in an icy rage has her true love executed for betraying "the cause" and then spends the rest of her life manipulating and belittling the men she marries.

Exiled to Kentucky with a softhearted young man who dreams vainly of winning her love, or even begrudging respect, Rose is the chilly matriarch of a family that must bear the weight of her guilt and stony abuse, a family that must work out its redemption in the wake of her tales--both the ones she has lived and the ones she has told. Her sons, dominated and defeated by their mother's thorny shadow and crippled by an ambitious wife (Bridle) who hungers after one and betrays the other, are not up to the task. Instead the sons end up abandoning their dreams and families in a way that sets the stage for a whole new generation of victims.

But Rose's grand-daughters are made of different stuff. Though nearly strangled in the tangled web of memories, secrets, and resentments that tie them to their mother and grandmother's past, Marcella and Edna manage to forge something of a path to freedom. In a midnight escape from a 1930s tuberculosis sanitarium, Edna delivers Marcella into the arms of a black grocer with whom Marcella will elope, have a son, and--at least for a while--take her away from her troubles. …

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