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Girls Move Broadly down the Avenueby Christine Schutt
But before the farm was sold to developers, when the barn still stood tilted, really as a place of high danger, and the bull was very much alive, I used to play with Tommy. We were very young, I think now, to be set loose on a farm, but this was before car seats, when every mother I knew held the door open to us and said, Go play. We played in the yard in a sandbox that dismayed my mother the cats use it! yet she let me play next door. Tommy's older sister watched us in passing. Don't go off to the barn, hear? I'm warning you, Tommy. But the barn! We took any chance to get to the barn with or without Tommy's older sister.
Were we scolded for taking off? I don't remember.
Once we found a floundering bird there, stunned or simply dying. We found a baby mouse, too, but the mouse died. Lots of newborn life in the barn died, and I didn't like the way the barn smelled cows and cow pies but the excitement of larger beasts heaving! The bull was in the last, largest stall in the back, and I had to see him, so I walked just close enough to see him. Wait here, Tommy said, and I did on the promise he would bring me something special. Kittens? He came back with a dead rat on a pitchfork, and he prodded me toward the bull with the threat of that gray sack. If you don't, he said, and he made the rat seem to wiggle, so I walked to the bull's stall, in horror, crying.
I remember Tommy's father, the old terrifier, once pulled Tommy off the tire swing and slapped him, shouting, What's this? I didn't stick around but ran to the lilac hedge, which was not so far I could not see, and I watched Mr. Reimer hit Tommy and say things that twisted up his face, the father's.
My own left home before I could speak, left permanently died. My mother said he was kind; she did not say that of her second husband, my stepfather, Jack. Jack was not kind. Jack wouldn't hesitate to slap a girl around, although his favorite trick was silence inexplicable silence. Why? I asked. What did I do wrong? Mother merely shrugged.
When I first read Henry James's short novel Washington Square, I was sure Dr. Sloper would kill his daughter in the Alps. The sunset's "suffusion of cold red light" amplifies the dark, desolate elevation Catherine and her father have reached in their clamber. Catherine rests on a stone; her father has left her for a better view; she is alone in a lonely landscape; and the man she means to marry seems very far away. The landscape threatens; the grim adjectives mount. The valley is "lonely"; the rocks, "hard-featured"; the sky, "glowing"; and the air, "cold and sharp." The joyless place adds to her own loneliness, and she wonders at her father's long absence, but he reappears and walks close and is abrupt. He asks if she has given him up, her impecunious, feckless suitor, the bounder after her inheritance, Morris Townsend. Has she? No, simply delivered. The doctor is angry. "(Y)ou ought to know what I am. I am not a very good man," he says. "I am very passionate and I assure you I can be very hard." Catherine wonders at his purpose, having brought her to this sad, dark place. Does he mean to frighten her? She feels unsafe, and although she does not entertain murder "hardly went so far as to say to herself" someone imagines his fine surgeon's hand hard against her throat and retreats a step. Push her off the cliff! I thought he would, he will. I understood the barren site and the father were alike.
"Dull" is often used in descriptions of Catherine; whereas "disappointment" attaches itself to Dr. Sloper when he thinks of his daughter. What the doctor does not guess is that the dull Catherine knows how he accounts her. Near the novel's climax, Catherine tells Morris Townsend they should expect nothing from her father. "(H)e is not very fond of me," she says to yet another disappointed man. Such is the romance between unequals, between fathers and daughters. In its crooked resolution, the daughter may move on with life, as they say, but she limps.
This unrequited love of a daughter for her father is a subject I have taken up before in stories, and an insensitive, dangerous father suavely moves through All Souls, too; only in this book I wanted a father who is disappointed in himself and not his daughter: hence, David Dell, father to the book's warm center, Astra Dell. David Dell feels the unfairness of things. He is helpless to comfort his sick daughter or retract his wife's death. His expectations are few; nevertheless, David Dell is not sour; he is capable of wonder and love. "He had the sensation that he was standing in the middle of a desolate summer road and that the heat waves, the watery kind a person sees from a distance, were really waves of love, and that he was standing in this water." A man loved and loving, David Dell says what any daughter would hope to hear: she is "his best, bright addition." Wendell Bliss is a father to a son and is not as central to Astra Dell's drama, but he is a compassionate father, nonetheless. He is an older version of David Dell; he appreciates and has great sympathy for the girls his son's age, 17: "To see the girls moving broadly down the avenue laughing was to see girls in love." I like these fathers, David Dell and Wendell Bliss; I liked being in their company, but I did not fully absorb the ramifications of my affection for them until just now, seeing, not for the first time but with new eyes, that All Souls opens and closes on quiet chapters written from a father's point of view in loving consideration of a young woman. In such ways writers heal themselves.
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Christine Schutt is the author of a short story collection, Nightwork, chosen by poet John Ashbery as the best book of 1996 for the Times Literary Supplement. Her first novel, Florida, was a National Book Award Finalist for Fiction in 2004. She is also the author of the story collection A Night, a Day, Another Night, Summer.