The happy chlidhood is hardly worth writing about
Note: A version of this post was originally posted at Books and Movies. With Mother’s Day approaching, it’s a fun topic to re-visit.
In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, the late Frank McCourt wrote that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood.”
Is it the same for mothers—as in, the fictionalized Mommie Dearest character we write about? Is the nurturing or benign mother “hardly worth your while?”
And by extension, is the profane or violent mother worthy of a book or movie?
At least, if my 2011 novel, Dance Lessons, is anything to go by.
A little explanation: D.L. was my second novel, but my first published in the U.S. of A. So Dance Lessons was supposed to be my grand American project. After 25 years of living here, after publishing lots of Irish-based short stories, this was supposed to be the book in which I took a stab at writing the American sensibility.
So I created Ellen Boisvert, a 39-year-old American widow. In the opening chapter, a year after her husband’s death, Ellen discovers that her Irish-immigrant husband was not, after all, an orphan. So she sets off to find the truth about his family and comes face-to-face with the realities of his childhood and their transatlantic marriage.
In each draft of the book (and there were many), I worked hard to get Ellen’s New England voice just right. In the re-drafts, I hunted down all my in-born, natural Irish-isms (“fringe,” “footpath,”) and replaced them with their counterpart American-isms (“bangs,” “sidewalk”). I wanted Ellen to be real.
Ellen would be the character that readers would talk about.
And they did–sort of.
Since the book was published, I’ve had a year of book-club visits and readings and blog posts. It’s been nothing short of magical.
Most people asked and argued about Jo, not Ellen. Jo Dowd is the 84-year-old Irish mother-in-law that Ellen accidentally discovers. Jo is the mother that Ellen’s husband said was already dead.
Readers hated her. They damned her. They defended and vilified her. They asked me how, as a seemingly “nice” author, I could pen such a horrible mother.
One critic wrote about Jo’s “Titanic rage.” Another kind and careful reader wrote, “As a reader, I never thought you could make me like someone who beats her own child, but somehow you do .” (I’m paraphrasing.)
The thing is, I believe that the very word “mother” –even in literature or film–carries all kinds of expectations and associations.
Mothers are loving providers. Mothers stop in the street to coo at other mothers’ babies. Mothers will bail you out of jail and declare that, bank robberies/child molestations/embezzlements aside, they will always defend and love you.
In my day job with a Massachusetts behavioral health agency, I’ve interviewed recovering heroin addicts who declare that, if it hadn’t been for their mother’s steadfast belief in them, they would have kept shooting and/or selling dope.
So we expect mothers to be loving providers–to have a immutable, tiger’s protectiveness toward their own children.
But what about when this is not so? What happens when the instigator, the birth-source of all ensuing fallout? What then?
What then? Well, in ficiotn-land, we have the ultimate whodunnit, the ultimate conflict between what’s supposed to be and what actually is. “What happened to the maternal instinct?” we ask. “What went wrong?”
In her novel, The Light of Evening, Irish author Edna O’Brien wrote: “Such is the wrath of the mothers, such is the cry of the mothers, such is the lamentation of the mothers, on and on until the last day, the last bluish tinge, the pismires, the gloaming, and the dying dust.”
When I read news stories about child abuse, my dander rises and I want to right this wrong against this child and all children. I believe deeply that the act of hitting a child reduces the punisher to the savage. I believe that slapping a child un-spools our human evolution from primordial to civilized.
So in my novel, why is the Irish mother character so evil?
I didn’t create Jo Dowd as a storyteller’s narrative stunt. Nor as as a social commentary on child abuse.
Truthfully, this fictional “wrath of mothers” came striding onto the page all by herself. She emerged fully formed as the tall, plain, stoic, resentful and lonely woman that she is. And yes, cruel. The cruel, abusive mother. The Mom that readers want to talk about.
Love Irish fiction? To celebrate Mother’s Day, I will send a signed copy of my novel, Dance Lessons to the reader who identifies these fictional Irish mothers.
In which novel or story do these Irish mothers appear? Simpy leave a comment and your email with your answer(s). If more than one respondent has the same number of correct answers, the names will be entered into random.com to choose a winner.
2. Annabel Hogan
3. Agnes Brown
4. Mrs. Mooney
5. Mrs. Lacey