Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Novel for Our TIme

Louise, Winifred and Olivia are cousins in Ellen Gilchrist's novel A Dangerous Age. The period of the novel is 2001 - 2005 and during that time each of these women marries an American soldier as the Iraq war rages on.

The novel is relatively short which constrains the development of any one of the characters, much less three women, but by far the most interesting of the three is Olivia, the editor of the (fictional) newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As limited as it is, the glimpse that we get of the life of a newspaper editor is revealing. Olivia struggles to balance the demands of her conscience, the politics of her readers and the interests of her advertisers. When Lynndie England is sentenced for her role in Abu Ghraib, Olivia writes an editorial that should have appeared in every real paper in this country. I don't remember reading anything like it - it is very powerful.

Olivia is also part Cherokee Indian. This gives Gilchrist the opportunity to include descriptions of certain Cherokee rituals around birth, marriage and death. They make so much sense and are quite moving. You have to ask yourself: have we really made any progress with our so-called advanced urban societies? Maybe simpler would be better.

I have to admit that I wasn't very enthusiastic about the book for the first few chapters which deal with Louise. But a woman whose mantra is "Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens," is not without some appeal. And how can you not like a book with chapter headings like "The Dazzling Return of the Real Earth in Spring When New Leaves are Enough to Drive a Man to Wonder and Small Birds are Learning to Fly."?

To my knowledge ( and some limited research) there has not yet been any significant amount of Iraq war fiction. If you know of any, let us know in the Comments. This book is a view of the war not from the battlefields but from the homefronts of the wives and families "left behind" as it were. If you don't have a family member in the military, this book is a window into an unfamiliar world. And it is a celebration of an extended family of women who draw closer to each other as they find love and loss.

Every time I rearrange my bookshelves I come across my unread copy of Gilchrist's first book In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, a collection of stories published in 1981. Between then and now - 27 years - Gilchrist has published an additional 20 books. I want to go back and read that first work. Has her writing style changed in any way that I can recognize? Was she always so accomplished a writer?

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