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The Tiger in the Grass by Harriet Doerr
By Ray Greenblatt
Harriet Doerr (1910-2002) grew up and married in California. For nearly twenty years she and her husband ran a mining company in Mexico. In 1984 at the age of 74 she published her first book Stones for Ibarra, which won the National Book Award. Her third and final book, a collection of short stories, The Tiger in the Grass was published in 1995. This review will be a discussion of how effectively she developed setting and character and the essence of her philosophy after such a long and fruitful life. And she used poetic prose to accomplish that.
In the story LIKE HEAVEN the major character Elizabeth has returned to a town she had summered in for years. She wondered if her memories matched the reality of the place. “Beyond Elizabeth, the pink stucco post office was closing for the night. A border of nasturtiums erupted against its side in hot reds and lemon yellows, the intense shades that figure more often in memory than in fact. Elizabeth turned to face the ocean.” Doerr’s use of color is always vivid and varied, often using flowers to represent a particular hue.
“Life on the hill had not been flawless. Elizabeth vaguely recalled the occasional tears of children and slammings of adult doors. But the immense peace of the place drowned out these events, leaving only a shimmering calm behind. Under its protection, summer days could scarcely be told apart and ran together. So that, even while being lived, they had seemed eternal.”
Mexico plays an important role in Doerr’s life and writing. In the story THE SEASONS now in Mexico, color again plays a major role. “Yellow is the color of fall. The cottonwoods burn with it, and only flowers that are yellow go on blooming. At the edges of fields, against unmortared stone boundaries, in roadside ditches, grow all the wild daisies in the world.”
Sudden though infrequent storms punctuate the landscape. “When there is a storm, the thunder rolls up the mountain and down the cobbled street. It stifles the backfire of the passing truck and silences the church bell ringing for vespers. It mutters imprecations in the distance.”
“The lightning forks into an ash tree, into the windmill tower, and finally into the transformer, causing a power failure that may last all night. In the flash there is a second’s eternity of total exposure, the plow left in the furrow, the dented pot on the fire, the woman’s face in the cracked mirror.”
Some women in these stories are angry and depressed because they have not found who they really are, or in trying to live through their husbands the wives always come up short. Doerr can be very insightful focusing on one individual. In CARNATIONS Ann “lives with herself. They no longer speak. She can’t remember being shut away. Life, like a subway train, simply began to recede, taking the people she knew out of earshot. Either they have stopped listening or she has forgotten the words. In the case of Elliot, her husband, she is out of sight and sound. His eyes focus behind her and his voice is directed to one side. His arms do not reach through the unseen walls.”
On a car trip through Italy with her husband she sees a flower seller who becomes a symbol of what she desires. “Ann supposes that their fragrance hangs about him like incense. He is hatless and wears sandals. They are about to pass him. She hasn’t had time to say ‘Stop.’
Then, in an impact as clear and sudden as the clash of cymbals, Ann’s eyes meet the eyes of the vendor. Their smiles meet and fuse. The second is held in timeless suspension, like a raindrop on a spiderweb.
His arms, lifting the carnations like lanterns, are open in an encompassing embrace. They hold the terraced vineyards and the twisted pines, they hold the marble figures in the tapestried palace walls, the tile on hillside houses and the stone on Roman roads.” This man is so much a Christ figure; and the brilliant flowers again are so important.
Doerr is also effective at handling multiple characters. The story THE EXTINGUISHING OF GREAT-AUNT ALICE offers us several. “Weeping. It seemed chronic rather than acute, a way of life rather than a trauma.” Alice is old and sad but still retains a vigorous imagination. She shares “the same crystal vision” with her great-niece, eleven-year-old Elizabeth.
“Elizabeth brought strange maps she had drawn of India, France, and Peru, striped with rivers, crocheted with mountains, shaded with forests, dotted with wheat, rice, and corn, red-circled with capitals, and all bounded by shores of a thousand parentheses.”
We meet a kaleidoscope of people, old and young and in between. Alice’s middle-aged son Theo has not found himself and is trying to fit in socially. “He had made a thorough search of the anniversary classes and encountered only eight alumni of his year, all so altered by time and varying levels of despair that none recognized the others.”
Among these uncertain souls stands a solid citizen. “The driver of the station wagon wore thick brown-rimmed glasses and a lime-green pantsuit. She had planted both feet on the ground when she was one and a half, and an aura of common sense hung about her like the aroma of wholesome food. Today she had realized at once that she must pilot the rudderless into safe waters, and set off with purpose and without surprise.” A few strokes by a skilled writer fully rounds a character.
Some Mexican characters are distant as in the story WAY STATIONS. “There was something in the old woman’s blackbird eyes, something about her slippered feet set parallel on the floor, that discouraged intimacy.”
Others are more outgoing as in SUN, PURE AIR, AND A VIEW. “’Consider this, senora,’ Carlos said, and from the edge of the terrace where they stood, he embraced the landscape, drawing to him the municipality of Santa Felicia, the presidencia, the cathedral, and the zoo, as well as all the plowed and wooded world beyond.”
And in what I think is the most shocking story in the collection, ironically SAINT’S DAY, we see tragic individuals. “Remembering the annoyances that have plagued his life, along with the great injustices, he allows rage to possess him, lets it burn hot and blind and pure, until at last he strikes the back of the bench and bloodies his good hand.”
His wife has been traumatized to near immobility. When her son Paco asks her for help, “she neither looked at him nor moved from where she sat on
the edge of the bed, her elbows on her knees, her thin fingers pressed to her eyes, rocking back and forth, as if the rocking itself might serve for something. As if it, more than tears, might speak for her.”
Paco is still a fanciful little boy. Strangely he reminds me of the little boy from John Updike’s short story You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You. Both boys love the thrill of the carnival. However, Updike’s character has the entire world ahead of him to look forward to. Paco is from a distressed environment without much hope for the future. His immediate goal is to ride on the carousel. “Now, for five minutes, Paco is a child without past. This interval contains his whole life. So his day ends almost as he had planned, riding a horse to music under stars.” Meanwhile, his sister is being raped by the father.
So many of these stories, and so many of these events that I believe actually happened to Harriet Doerr are involved with memories. Her five senses enable her to call up actions that occurred seventy-five years before. She remembers the walls of their house from A SLEEVE OF RAIN. “You knew them best by touching them, by moving along the half-finished wall, your hand sliding from one rough surface to the next. Dry, hard, complex, indifferent, they were the fiber of your world.”
She claims that she does not clearly know why these memories are dear to her, but I can guess that they recall when her family was close and solid.” Years later and possessing at last the long view, I cannot say whether I touched the wood to claim the house, to establish a connection, or simply for the sake of the shingles themselves, to feel their texture, to smell forest.”
It is an extreme advantage for a writer to have such vivid recall, especially of such positive moments in one’s life. From LOW TIDE AT FOUR: “Back on the beach, our heads under the umbrella, we lie at compass points like a four-pointed star. The sun hangs hot and high. Small gusts of wind lift the children’s corn-straw hair. We taste salt. Face down, arms wide, we cling to the revolving earth.”
The child sometimes feels the center of the universe, but an author can achieve great power of creativity with this feeling. “I call up my interior reserves and gather strength from my blood and bones. Exerting the full force of my will, I command the earth to leave off circling long enough to hold up the sun, hold back the wave. Long enough for me to paint and frame low tide.”
Harriet Doerr facetiously states that in a writing class she took “all we wanted was the perfect word in the perfect sentence that, when multiplied, would fill the pages of the perfect book.” It is what all writers hope. A symbol for her was THE TIGER IN THE GRASS. A writer must persist through all uncertainties, all fears to achieve the best writing that she can. “I think of what it is like to write stories. It is a completion. It is discovering something you didn’t know you’d lost. It is finding an answer to a question you never asked.” Through her writing Harriet Doerr found her true self. Considering her style I am surprised that she never wrote poetry.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Grass-Stories-Other-Inventions/dp/0140251480
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.
Submissions Are Open
Submissions are open at North of Oxford. For our guidelines please visit:
Submissions are Open
Submissions of book reviews, commentary, essays and poetry are open at North of Oxford. Our guidelines are here: https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/
Shoot the Messenger
The Matter of Empire – Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru
.Review by g emil reutter
Orlando Bentancor brings us The Matter of Empire- Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru at a time when the world is once again ignoring history, a history Bentancor brings to life in this excellent book on the conquest of the America’s by Spain. The philosophy of Francisco de Victoria rooted in Aristotelianism and Thomism. It is to Victoria that the Spanish crown turned to justify the conquest of the America’s and the treatment of the “Amerindians”. Victoria a founder of the School of Salamanca developed the philosophy of just war, freedom of commerce and the seas rooted in the belief of globalization and natural subordination. This is relevant in today’s world as the nations of the earth engage in globalization today on scale that Victoria who wrote in the 1500’s could only imagine.
Bentancor writes in great detail the emerging philosophy of Victoria that justified the rights of Spain to mine for gold and silver in South America in spite of any indigenous opposition. Victoria used Aristotle’s natural law, or natural subordination that people are born to lead or born to serve as the justification in the use of indigenous peoples to be forced to work in the mines as a right of Spain to free commerce. It was the right of Spain to impose its religion on the indigenous people, to mine their land and if resisted to conquer their territory in just war as a right of a superior people to impose their will on inferiors if resisted or attacked. Victoria rooted his theories in the western thought developed by Aristotelianism and Thomism. He used the foundation of Scholasticism and corrupted the teachings and philosophy of Thomas Aquinas as the basis for the brutal slaughter and enslavement of indigenous peoples during the Spanish conquest and globalization.
Natural subordination led to the great violence of the last millennium and millions of lost lives. Not only used by western culture but cultures around the globe to justify war, violence, slavery and man’s inhumanity to man no matter what mask it wears. In the beginning of this new millennium we continue to see the imposition of religious intolerance and suppression of people who are not in agreement with those who desire to impose their will on them, the forced global economy on the peoples of the world.
You can find the book here: https://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36661
Submissions Open For National Poetry Month
Submissions are open until March 31st for our April issue. It will be National Poetry Month and if you have that book you love or that has moved you and desire to review it, send it along for consideration of publication. Essays and commentary are also welcome.
Submissions of book reviews, essays, and commentary are welcome. Send your submission for consideration of publication in word doc with any images or photographs attached , Include a brief bio. All submissions are to be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org Please note in the subject line of the email- submission- your name. Our response time should be less than two weeks.
Review by g emil reutter
Rosalind Palermo Stevenson’s, The Absent, brings the reader on a forty nine year journey of the life of William Wright Martin. Stevenson’s research is outstanding as the book begins and ends in Philadelphia during the late 1800s with stops in the Wild West and Southwest territories of the United States. Martin and his wife Lucie are photographers, have their own studio yet live with his mother and aunt. Lucie and William are obsessed with the art. Lucie with portraits and what the images she creates reveal about people, he with structures and space.
…what silence speaks of…there is that apt gesture of silence, the hand closed in a gentle fist, the index finger raised and placed over the lips. It’s silly to stand there, the voice says, when you can lie down and rest. Yes rest. Enough time has passed—too many days. How many. Do you remember? You look worn. You look tired. It’s time. You agree that it’s time don’t you?
As a child, William Martin and his mother are taken west from Philadelphia by his father. There at a young age he is being taught to be man by his rough and tough father although the mother is always protective. His father hears danger and throws the boy into the bushes where Martin witnesses the brutal slaying of his father by a gang of men. His mother brings him home to Philadelphia and his life begins again. He matures into a man who lives two lives, one in the reality of who he is and the other dominated by hauntings of what he has seen. Sleep evades him although he and Lucie are close in their marriage there are somethings, as the author says, you don’t share. They work in a studio where Lucie spends most of her time as he walks and photographs Philadelphia. They spend the off time at their mother’s house where Aunt Lavina also lives. Spiritualism and bird watching dominate the house. Suddenly his marriage is broke asunder, he is at a loss for Lucie is gone. He is there but is not. A haunted man, Martin makes seamless transitions from his real life to his dream state while awake or asleep. Martin is a man of tragedy who listens to the voices that haunt him.
Stevenson has a unique ability to develop the supporting cast in this work. The ever present mother and aunt, The Fell family who work at the studio and the interactions the complex Martin has with others in Philadelphia. During his mourning for the broken marriage he travels to the Mid-West on a photographic journey to the place his father was murdered. Stevenson provides a wide cast of supporting characters both in his journey to the Mid-West and again when he is surveying the Southwest. Native Americans, cowboys, hunters even a hermaphrodite who Martin oddly bonds with. New hauntings come to him, yet when he is returning to Philadelphia from his first trip to the Mid-West he meets Dr. Stiles and his daughter Angeline at the depot. The three travel to Philadelphia on the train as the civil war breaks out. Fell continues to manage the studio and over time his daughter Lucie is assisting him. A courtship begins between Angeline and William and they soon marry and live with Dr. Stiles. The couple remain childless and the ever patient Angeline lives with his love of the ever present first wife, Lucie, in his mind. She accepts his long term physical absence from her during his trips and walks about the city, although they as a couple also walk and go on carriage rides. There is a closeness between the two that is as bonding as is the absence.
You look worn. You look tired. It’s time. You agree that it’s time don’t you?
Martin is a photographer of the era, always aware of the light and shadows. In The Absent, Stevenson has provided the reader with images of lights and shadows, of loss and love, of violence and peace. Of the complex nature of the mind and relationships. All of the characters come to life from the page in vivid detail in the haunted mind and life of William Wright Martin.
You can find the book here: http://rainmountainpress.com/books41.html
g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter