I pick up today where I left off yesterday.
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Across the Ironic Distance: Negotiating the Narrative Gaps
Each of the ten stories in Where Nothing Is Long Ago deals with the protagonist’s (Budge’s) efforts to negotiate her way into this awareness and through or into some aspect of life in a tight-knit, largely orthodox Mormon community and with the narrator’s attempts to bring order to her younger self’s experience and to mediate between this experience, her continuing participation in/observation of this community, and the reader’s world. The title story–the sequence’s opening narrative–centers on a fictionalized murder over water rights as committed by Brother Tolsen, one of the early twentieth century Danish Mormon village’s most respectable and orthodox men. The story opens with the narrator quoting from something her “mother wrote [her] recently”: “You’ll probably remember Brother Tolsen and that awful thing that happened when you were a little girl.” Then the narrator offers this exposition, “Her fat script traveled the whole way around the photograph and obituary she had clipped from our Mormon newspaper,” and another statement from her mother: “The killing wasn’t even mentioned at his funeral. All the speakers just said what a good man he always was” (3) This interaction between the narrator, her community (through her mother’s “script,” which is “fat” with implications), and her past frames not just the story, prompting wonder over who Brother Tolsen is and what awful thing he may have been involved in, but the entire sequence of stories, episodes that ripple outward from this fundamental interface (between narrator, community, and memory) and that embody the semiotic systems of this community, especially its maintenance and perpetuation through the acts of remembering, including story-telling and ritual.
From here the narrator slips into reminiscence, recalling where she was “the morning the Tolsen trouble happened” and her “absolute[. . .] certain[ty] for years” (3) after the event that, in her words, the “two piles of bloody rabbit ears I saw on the courthouse lawn at the time of Brother Tolsen’s trial had something to do with the killing he was being tried for.” “They hadn’t,” she continues, slipping, it seems, into the protagonist’s voice as she tries to convince herself that these “tokens” of the currents of passion and violence flowing beneath humanity’s communal experience were “merely” symbols that “the annual county rabbit hunt had gone off according to schedule” (4). However, her repeated reference to these signs (they come up twice in the story) and the detail with which she lingers on their presence (the second time she mentions them, they are “being counted” “on the courthouse lawn” , the center of community justice and activity) suggests that the community’s efforts to rewrite the tale into a more favorable telling have failed.
But that the narrator sees the triumph of voice over silence as a means to community healing is apparent in the story’s final scene: “One other memory [of this experience] remains,” the narrator says. “I recall an evening months after the trial was over, when my parents and I were driving along the road where [Brother Tolsen’s] fields lay and saw [him] working with the little streams [of irrigated water] that were running among his young corn. Dad and Mother waved and called to him,” gesturing their inherent connection to and compassion for the man. “He lifted an arm to answer and I saw that he held a shovel in the other hand. “˜I wonder if he bought a new shovel,’ I said suddenly,” referring to the fact that he had killed the water-thief, another member of this community, with a shovel to the head. Then she offers this: “For a minute, the air seemed to have gone dead about us, in the peculiar way it sometimes can, which is so puzzling to a child. Then Mother,” the representative voice of decorum, “turned to me angrily. “˜Don’t you ever let me hear you say a thing like that again!’ she said. “˜Brother Tolsen is a good, kind man!'” And the narrator rounds the story out with this: “So until this very hour I never have” (14). This short statement, coming as it does from an experienced narrator looking back on the means through which she has gained that experience, implies that the act of remembering is ultimately incomplete without moments of critical reflection–times when we question our community’s weaknesses, the language we use to interrogate and to expose those weaknesses, and the motives underlying those interrogative and expository attempts.
She continues this participant/observer critique through the remaining nine stories of Where Nothing Is Long Ago as she negotiates the ironic distance between her younger and older selves, between narrative past and narrative present, and between her narrative of community and the modern world. In “The Darling Lady” she considers her community’s ostracism of a one-time polygamous wife, a woman “left alone after the [Mormon church’s] 1890 Manifesto ostensibly banned such marriages” (Howe xii), relegating second- and third-wives to community borderlands. Here, the Darling Lady–so-named by Budge and her sister, Helen, because, with her “deliberately oversweet” voice (16), “[s]he called [them] “˜darlings’ in almost every sentence she spoke to [them]” (17)–lives by herself in the backroom of the corner store, though the “small shed perched at the corner of [the] block” (16) can hardly be called either a store or a home. When called upon, the lone woman emerges “through a dark-curtain hanging over a door behind the counter” (17) to ceremoniously trade her wares with customers. “[H]er mysterious existence there troubled us, sometimes,” the narrator comments, “and we asked each other, “˜Where are her folks?” (18), suggesting that they sensed her imposed solitude at the corner of town could be remedied if someone–“her folks,” her people by tradition and ritual–would invite her into this Mormon community’s still vibrant way of life. And the story ends with this subtly reproachful realization–reproachful for both the narrator and for her community–as Budge and Helen pretend to invite the Darling Lady into their room where they watch her “rocking and sipping [hot milk] and getting her feet dry, with her slippers by the stove” (28), an act of compassion and community that can never happen here because the Darling Lady has disappeared, almost unnoticed.
In “The White Horse,” Sorensen’s narrator takes a different tact, negotiating the hard realities of World War I by engaging the tenuous relationship she once had with the white stallion of a soldier who never came home. This “wonderful creature,” “wild as he could be,” “seemed to be forever fighting a war of his own” (29) even as the war raged on the other side of the world, she relates, a negotiation she tried to assuage by “stamp[ing]” the horse for luck: “You wet the forefinger of your right hand on the tip of your tongue and set the spot of wet on your left palm for a second. Then, quickly, you stamp the place [on your hand] with your right fist. It’s rather like wishing on a first star,” she observes, and is meant here to convey the connection between an individual and the interdependent network of persons (human and non-human) of which she is an integral part. To deny this connection, the narrator implies by focusing on the absence created in the community and in the horse’s existence by a soldier’s death (the horse becomes increasingly angry due to a lack of interpersonal bonds and must be sold), is to sow the seeds of violence in increasingly destructive relationships with one another and with the non-human world.
“The Apostate” engages this failure to connect in human terms by exploring the relationship between Budge, her maternal grandmother, and their religion, an imposing and sometimes dogmatic patriarchal system from which Grandmother considers herself apostate and with which Budge must learn to reckon as she matures into increasingly critical reflections on the world. This maturation process is furthered here with her negotiation of her grandmother’s falling away from Mormonism–something that shakes Budge’s naÃ¯ve and impressionable soul because she sees it as deeply self-contradictory for a deeply spiritual woman to deny her religion–and her grandmother’s death.
“First Love” returns to the ecology of human/non-human interactions stirred up in “The White Horse,” though this narrative deepens the engagement by focusing on Budge’s increasing stewardships at home and in the community. After she gets a cat she calls “Jiggs” (75)–a name representative of the cat’s growing discontent and the dance Budge must learn in her negotiation of community ties and an explicit relationship with the non-human world–she must learn to balance her new responsibilities as pet-owner, sister, daughter, student, and member of community that expects her active engagement in community rituals. Yet, when she’s asked to perform in a community pageant, her balance tips to one side and Jiggs falls victim to the relational failure: he runs away and, as the story ends, we learn of his unfortunate death.
The remaining five stories of the sequence–“The Ghost,” “The Other Lady,” “The Face,” “The Vision of Uncle Lars,” and “The Secret Summer”–continue the engagement deepened in “First Love” as Budge learns to negotiate a place for herself as a participant/observer in her community and in the modern world at large. In “The Ghost” she confronts her community’s racism, exploring the allure of the Other as she longs to bridge the gap between her experience and, first, the life of a black waiter she encounters on a train ride from Manti to Salt Lake, then in the experience of “a black family from Tennessee, directed to Manti by one of the town’s missionaries” (Howe xii). Because this family’s father’s voice brings such resonance to the Mormon choir, Budge senses that their presence could resonate deeply with the come one, come all underpinnings of her faith; but this desire is frustrated when the family leaves town, though not without opening space in Budge–and by extension, the story’s narrator–for the expansive otherness of the world.
“The Other Lady” and “The Face” explore the painful and far-reaching effects of breaching social contracts, the first as Budge’s family learns of “the other lady” in their paternal grandfather’s life, the one he divorces his wife for and marries just before he dies, and the second as Budge deals with the violence of a voyeur who peaks in the bathroom window as she steps out of the bath. Yet, there is even the possibility of redemption here as, in “The Other Lady,” Budge’s mother moves to comfort Grandfather’s new wife, to “s[i]t down and cr[y]” with her after his funeral as the family boards the train that will carry them home (142).
“The Vision of Uncle Lars” takes up the supernatural connections between community members and their origins as the narrator relates, in her Great-Aunt Anegrethe’s words, the “strange story” of how she and Uncle Lars met (161): While in Denmark, as he was approaching a family cottage, he saw a vision of her walking down the front steps. Later, when Lars and Anegrethe met for the first time, Lars understood this vision as a preternatural token of a relationship to come.
To round off the sequence, Sorensen offers “The Secret Summer,” a narrative in which Budge comes of age, negotiating the difficulties of pre-adolescent longing in games played across the neighborhood on summer nights, in secret notes passed between best friends, through participation in a community pageant, in bickering between girls who are chasing the same boy and then between girls and the boy once the boy gives up the chase, and in the longing stirred by her first kiss. Here Sorensen revisits many of the themes carried throughout the book, most significantly by focusing on the semiotic layers of this community and in showing how Budge–and the narrator of the sequence–settles into this system, centering the world within and without this narrative of community through a restorative commitment to community, a redemptive movement reflected in the book’s final words: Having spent the night performing in the town’s pioneer story-focused pageant (a nod to the depth of the town’s collective past) and then playing with her friends in the pageant’s carnival, in the narrator’s words, Kirk, her first crush,
lean[s] toward me and I [feel] the brush of his lips on my cheek. Dozens of times I had been kissed at parties, nobody thought anything about it; everybody watched and laughed and counted the forfeits. Yet this [i]s the first time in my life [I’ve been kissed with feeling] and the moon seem[s] to swell in the sky. (212)
Amidst her family’s smiles, she enters the house and makes her way to her room where, looking out the window, she notices that “even the Lady in the Moon [is] smil[ing at her] through the screen,” “center[ed]” in the “magic cross” of her window’s lattice (213), holding this narrative of community together with her vision of collective life and the restorative gravity of human connection and continuity as manifest through Sorensen’s critical engagement of memory.
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Harde, Roxanne. Acknowledgments. Narratives of Community: Womens Short Story Sequences. Ed. Harde. New Castle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. vii-ix. Print.
Howe, Susan Elizabeth. Foreword. Where Nothing is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood. By Virginia Sorensen. Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1999. v-xiv. Print.
Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction between Text and Reader.” The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 106-19. Print.
——. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” The Critical Tradition. 3rd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 1002-14. Print.
Sorensen, Virginia. Where Nothing is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood. Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1999. Print.
Zagarell, Sandra A. “Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre.” Signs 13.3 (1988): 498-527. Print.