I seem especially to like work by writers who began serious writing in their mid-60s, that is, after reaching what traditionally was “retirement age.” It’s not that I identify with those who were silent until then, honing their memories. Some of it may be the burnished, lucid prose they tend to write. The best single example is Norman MacLean who was in his 70s when A River Runs Through It seemed to burst out of nowhere. (He followed it with burrowing into the firefighter disaster in Young Men and Fire.) The writer who produced a stream of novels about pasts not her own as well as her own past was Penelope Fitzgerald.. The Tiger in the Grass is more akin to the gleanings into a very slender volume of short stories of Fitzgerald’s last book The Means of Escape.
Harriet Doerr (née Harriet Green Huntington: yes, those Huntingtons: her paternal grandfather’s estate is now the Huntington Library and Gardens, though she does not mention that) left her studies at Stanford University to marry in 1930, and accompanied her husband to Mexico, where they moved to live fulltime during the 1950s. After his death, she returned to complete her degree. Forty-plus years older than other creative writing students, her work silenced any questions about her place in the (highly competitive) program. I suspect that she also silenced the young woman who asked if she had been happy throughout the forty-two years of her marriage: “I never heard of anyone being happy for forty-two years. And would a person who was happy for forty-two years write a book?”
Her first novel, The Stones of Ibarra published when she was 84, was a best-seller, won the National Book Award, and was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame production. Stones is more a collection of stories based on her experiences with her husband who ran a mine in Mexico than a novel, but Cosider This, Seora, her second book, is novelistic in structure, interweaving the stories of four American expatriated to rural Mexico.
The central collection of fragments of fictionalized memoir, or bits not included in from the autobiographical fiction of The Stones of Ibarra, A Tiger in the Grass, have the lyrical but unsentimental recalling of sights, sounds, smells, and characters of her Mexican life — I mean of Sara Everton’s… These most directly repeat the magic of her earlier books.
Despite my interest in (and experience of) Mexico, it is the two longer pieces that begin and end the book that make me shiver in admiration. (Knocking readers out was not her intention. She may make readers cry, but her narrators can convey heartbreaking details without seeming to flinch, let alone cry. Like “Big, two-hearted river.”)
The title story (or essay) juxtaposes Doerr’s experiences of growing up in Pasadena , going to Smith College for a year, then to Stanford, meeting her future husband, an engineering student, going to Mexico, returning to Stanford and hesitatingly starting to write juxtaposed with shards of a son Michael’s experience with cancer. The concluding story is a memoir (or in the form of a memoir) of a nanny who came from England to raise twins whose birth caused their mother’s death and two older daughters. Edie stayed on in California, relatively neglected by those she raised until on her deathbed.
In choosing precise details that establish character in these two nonfiction summaries of long lives, Doerr shares Penelope Fitzgerald’s strength. This is also the case for a story (seemingly written in the Stanford creative writing program) that seems the least autobiographically based, “The extinguishing of Great Aunt Alice.” It is the most comic piece in the volume, though the comedy is quite dark.
My favorite pair of the six Mexican pieces, “Way stations” and “The watchman at the gate” also have slivers of dark humor and, like “Aunt Alive” are more plot-driven than the rest of the contents of the book. There is a lot of pain and loss , a lot of death and cancer, in the book, but the tone is not bleak. There is no self-pity. Doerr exults experiences from her long life (she was 85 when the book was published in 1995; she died last year; glaucoma prevented her maintaining her sentence-a-day pace after the death, also in 1995, of the son for whom she wrote), precisely detailed memories of sleeves of rain, low tide on a long-ago summer day, the walls of the sleeping porch in her childhood home, etc.)
Although there is not really enough material to fill even a small-sized book, the best parts are so luminous that it would be a shame not to have them gathered together. The first two pieces of the section “First Work” and the wispy first two pieces of “Memory” strike me as padding (the reason my overall rating is four stars, but the pieces I’ve mentioned definitely rate with five stars). However, the title (nonfiction) story delivers more than most long novels do, without telling the reader what to think or what to feel. “Edie,” the last tale would, I think, have satisfied Flaubert and is less sentimental than his “A Simple Heart.”
Doerr did not write sentimentally about any of the deaths of those she remembered. I began reading the book the night before my mother’s funeral and it helped me focus away from the deathbed at which I had been sitting, helpless, to the memories of my mother’s childhood that I elicited a few years before her death (also at 92). From admiration for Stones of Ibarra, which I read at a less fraught time, I’m confident that the best parts of The Tiger in the Grass would have impressed me at any time, but it is an especially good book for those on or just coming off death vigils.
©2003,2018, Steohen O. Murray
OI’ll get back to northern Slavs soon!)