Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oprah Picks The Road? She Should Read The Long Winter

The Road ?!!!!!!!!

Wha? Oprah selects ZOMBIE GORE?

Hmmm… okay, yeah, I guess Cormac McCarthy writes lit-worthy passages, sentences of stone cold poetry where you slow down to walk with each word . . . IN BETWEEN THE PAGES OF ZOMBIE GORE! ! !

Seriously. This is the kind of book you tell your friends about but don't recommend. You tell them “Don’t read it, it will haunt you.” You can't shake it, you can't stop thinking of it AND ITS ZOMBIE GORE!!!

My husband gently corrects me, “they’re not zombies.” This only reminds me that a horror movie at least offers us the comfort of being no more than a fantasy.

Randy and I both read The Road in the fall. A few pages in, I had to skip to the end and read the last pages, just to avert the feeling of general disaster that extended off the page, just to make sure there wasn’t a big jagged black hole left there instead of black print on white paper.

What makes this book’s nihilism almost unbearable for me? The main character is a father. To teach his son to survive, he must teach him to kill feeling, emotion, care. Oh yeah, people will talk about the ZOMBIE, excuse me, the human cannibal gore, but the conversations the father has with his son after they witness the unbearable are what will keep you up at night.

Here's a companion piece I would offer Oprah. Or perhaps it is an antidote: Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter.

Catherine Newman in her very funny and wise blog turned me on to this book that I first read when I was a young girl. Thinking I might read some of the Little House series to my four year old, I picked up The Long Winter again.

Not since Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” have I seen such a subtext of hidden agony. The Ingalls family is trapped from October through May in their tiny wooden house in a speck of a town called De Smet on the Dakota prairie. Blizzards blast their home. The train can’t get through. The food reserves, lamp kerosene and coal run out. They cobble together meals of tea and bread made from seed wheat they must grind by the handful in their coffee grinder. In the dim winter light, they twist hay to burn in the stove all day long.

Yet when I read this as a child, I never saw the situation as dire. All through what I only now recognize is a parent’s nightmare, the Ingalls remain outwardly stalwart and upbeat, singing songs to overpower the shrieks of the blizzards outside. Ma calls the snow drifts that have buried them alive “a blessing” for keeping out the cold and the sound of the wind. When I first read Laura Wilder’s description of the family becoming slow-witted and dull, my teenage self probably chalked it up to boredom, not slow starvation.

The chapter “For Our Daily Bread,” tells the story of two 19-year-olds who ride out of De Smet with nothing but their teams, empty sleighs and the clothes on their backs, out on the prairie in 10 below cold, chasing a rumor of a homesteader who may have a store of wheat. Laura Wilder describes their harrowing and heroic journey in understated language. As night approaches, the returning boys see another blinding blizzard bearing down on them fast:

“Stars shown in the sky overhead and to the south and the east, but low in the north and the west the sky was black. And the blackness rose, blotting out the stars above it one by one.

‘We’re in for it, I guess,’ Cap said.”

I think of Cormac McCarthy’s reticent cowboys in All the Pretty Horses, of soldiers cracking jokes under fire. I think nineteenth century homesteaders had a necessary steeliness that is foreign to us now. I think about survival as a way of daily life rather than a Thursday night scripted reality show. I think I may have constructed my own modern day anxieties (Which preschool for Nora? Oh no! My IRA! Oh my! The neighbors use pesticides! Oh oh!) to keep me on edge.

“Under the quilts, Laura and Mary silently said their prayers, and Mary whispered, ‘Laura.’
‘What?’ Laura whispered.
‘Did you pray for them?’
‘Yes,’ Laura answered. ‘Do you think we ought to?’
‘It isn’t like asking for anything for ourselves,’ Mary replied. ‘I didn’t say anything about the wheat. I only said please to save their lives if it’s God’s will.’”

I think this is a conversation I never want my children to have.

1 comment:

Mrs. Homebody said...

I haven't read "The Road." Thanks for the warning! I usually agree with Oprah's picks, but every now and then she comes up with something that makes me go, "Ewww, what was she thinking?!"

Here's a link to a post I wrote on my blog about The Long Winter, if you should ever care to pay me a visit (hint, hint.)