Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wanna Be a Member?

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In carrying forth my solemn vow to read everything Carson McCullers has written, I nabbed The Member of the Wedding at the library right before Christmas. I finished it the other day -- it's very short -- and enjoyed it.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie "Stranger than Fiction" is where Dustin Hoffman advises Will Farrell's character to spend a day alone in his apartment doing nothing, absolutely nothing at all, in order to determine whether his story is plot-driven or character-driven. Those who have seen the movie remember that while he's earnestly doing nothing (having fallen asleep on the couch the night before to a television channel he'd pre-selected as one he could stand to watch all day), a bulldozer takes out the exterior wall of his apartment before the crew could realize that they were demolishing the wrong building. The Member of the Wedding is as aggressively character-driven as Farrell's story was plot-driven.

The story concerns three people in the World War II-era South. Frankie, who has recently adopted the appelation F. Jasmine, is a white twelve-year-old girl. Berenice is about 40. She's black, she's the survivor of one wonderful marriage and three abusive ones, and she is the housekeeper for Frankie and her dad. John Henry is Frankie's six-year-old cousin.

Just from the thumbnail descriptions, it's obvious that these three are not terribly appropriate companions for one another. Berenice is too old to be hanging out with a bunch of little kids, and I'm not sure I'd exactly call her a mother figure. Frankie and John Henry, too, should be with kids their own age instead of hanging out inside all summer with the housekeeper.

But there is the real crux of the story. Like many of the characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, these three fit in nowhere, not really even with one another. This is where the title of the story comes from. Frankie has a much-older brother who had returned home from Alaska to get married. Frankie, like Mick, is a dreamer and a seeker, with an active fantasy life. Seeking her place in the world, or "the we of me," as she so beautifully puts it, she decides that she will run away with her brother and his new bride. A member of no club, no friendship, and not particularly noticed by her own family, Frankie seeks to become...a member of the wedding.

That's it. That's really the entire plot. I enjoyed this book a lot, though not as much as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It, too, is unlike anything much you see written today. It's extremely short, which is a good thing as I'm not sure it would have held up if it were stretched out. Frankie is a little hard to take. She can be mean. In fact, the 'girls' club' in her neighborhood turfed her out for being too mean. She's difficult to get a handle on, girly in some aspects, tomboyish in others.

One reviewer was inclined to take a psychological approach to the story, noting the death (in childbirth) of Frankie's mom, the fact that she had slept in the same bed as her father for most of her life, and that her cousin spends the night in Frankie's bed during the course of the book. I don't agree with that, personally. For much of American history, and in varying subsets of American culture, sharing a bed wasn't anything even remotely sexual. Poor families did it when there was only one bed. Pioneer families did it when there was only one room. Guests to the home did it as most people didn't have the means to provide a separate sleeping space. It may look weird or pervy today, but it wasn't sixty years ago.

For me, this book brought back vividly what it was like to be that age. A twelve-year-old may fancy herself a mature adult, but no one else does. It's not an easy time. McCullers brings it to life vividly. Read the book, if nothing else, you'll remember too.

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