Have you noticed that your life is not like a book? I mean, in a book, there is always a moment when everything gets explained. A climax of the action occurs, someone gives a speech or has an epiphany and all the confusing, interlocking story lines get resolved. Life, on the other hand, is more like an avalanche. It just keeps coming, in wonderful, terrible rush. Eudora Welty takes my breath away, because her books are like life. In Delta Wedding, we are dropped right in the middle of a large, Southern family about to celebrate the wedding of their prettiest daughter to the overseer of the family plantation. We live a week in that house, observe the action through the eyes of various family members, and then we leave. Nobody explains much of anything, but there is a whole lot going on under the search for the perfect bridesmaid dresses: class warfare, racial tension, questions of inheritance, matriarchy vs. patriarchy, abuse, rape, theft, and of course, love in all its glorious varieties. You can be sure that Welty’s easy, descriptive prose is just the tip of an iceberg of meaning, but she expects us to bring as much to the story as she does.
Eudora Welty died just last year at the age of 92. She lived in Jackson, Mississippi; a shy, single woman who spent her life watching, listening, and writing about her own people. Her stories and novels were often criticized because they lacked the social themes of great contemporary literature. Why didn’t she speak out more about racial injustice, women’s rights, or any of the other ills that beset her generation? Though she wrote that “morality as shown through human relationships is the whole heart of fiction,” Welty stubbornly refused to “campaign,” as she called it, for any particular cause. She had a different objective:
“The writing of a novel is taking life as it already exists, not to report it but to make an object, toward the end that the finished work might contain this life inside it, and offer it to the reader. Inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.” (The Eye of the Story, 147, italics added.)
This “shared act of the imagination,” can be both exhilarating and frustrating. We are accustomed to texts with a definite plot, and you will be hard pressed to find one here, any more than you could find a “plot,” in the life of your family over the course of a week. There may be a central event (in this case, a wedding) but there is no real beginning, middle and end to the action. I found myself thinking, “Ah, now I know what the story is about, Dabney will cancel the wedding.” Then, “Oh, now I get it, it’s about George raping the girl in the woods.” Later, “Oh, here it is. It’s all about poor, retarded Maureen, who is actually the heir to the Marmion mansion.” Well, it wasn’t about any of those things, and it was about all of them. No possible plot line was followed to its conclusion. One of our book club members expressed her frustration in a recent note:
“Delta Wedding‘s unforgettable nature descriptions, such as the snakes cavorting just below the water surface, or the Dogwood Tree’s need for moisture, juxtapose against the apparent need of mine that seeks an answer as to the why of the book being written. Can anyone help with the “point” of the book, other than very entertaining reading?”
This is an excellent question. Why does this book exist? Certainly Welty can write; her descriptive powers are wonderful. With a few deft strokes she creates a living family – the teetering swagger of the four-year old Rannie, the superstitious fears of nine-year old cousin Laura, the speech impediment of the retarded Maureen, the blustering misogyny of Battle, the patriarch – each character emerges as a unique, unforgettable entity under her hand. Listen to her beautiful evocation of the Delta woods, as Ellen, mother to this roiling brood and expecting again, enters a world symbolic of the mysterious evils that crowd the boundaries of her existence:
“She noticed how many little paths crisscrossed and disappeared in here, the deeper she went. Who had made them? There had been more woods left standing here than she had remembered. The shade was nice. Moss from the cypresses hung deep overhead now, and by the water vines like pediments and arches reached from one tree to the next…The songs of the cotton pickers were far away, so were the hoofbeats of the horse the overseer rode (and once again, listening for them in spite of the quiet, she felt as if the cotton fields so solid to the sight had opened up and swallowed her daughter).” (89)
In Welty’s woods, everything is meaningful. The paths cross each other like the large extended Fairchild family, their overseer, and the girl that is just about to cross Ellen’s path and change their lives. Though her daughter is a day away from marrying him, her fiance is still “the overseer” to Ellen, forever separated by his class and station, and thus the cotton fields are swallowing her daughter rather than the home opening to welcome her new husband. You almost can’t read too much into this scene. By her refusal to interpret the actions of her characters, Welty seems to invite us to write the story with her. It takes a little getting used to, but you might love it. I did. Who knows, after a session in Welty’s world you may get a better understanding of your own.
Our November selection is The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Set in Italy in 1327, it’s the story of a brilliant friar who solves a series of murders in an abbey. Think medieval Sherlock Holmes. (Eco tips us off by naming him William of Baskerville!) If you like medieval history, libraries, or A. Conan Doyle, you’re bound to like this. But beware, reading about monks can be habit forming! (Sorry.)
Readers comment on: This House of Sky, by Ivan Doig
I have just finished reading the book THE HOUSE OF SKY. I love the author’s use of words to help you to feel, see, and hear what is going on in the book. It was a difficult book for me to get started with and I felt repulsed by his use of God and profanity . I would have felt more comfortable reading the book if I did not have to watch out for those words unwanted by me.
What would you like to read in 2003?
I would like to see a discussion on Moby Dick, my favorite, and Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. I would also like to get into a reading/discussion group on Britannica’s Great Books. I know, they are a little formidable. I also like poetry: Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Russia’s poets. Thanks. Dave
Samuel Johnson said in Boswell’s LIFE that the FABLE OF THE BEES by Bernard Mandeville “opened my views into real life very much”.
I would like to make this book part of my Wish List for 2003. Ruby
Our website: www.thebestbooksclub.com
I’m so grateful for this site! So many times I have made booklists for myself, hoping to break out of the rut of pure escapist literature. Here, there are those whose experience and love of reading can help me with my goals. Yay! Please keep up this wonderful work. Many thanks. Karen