Friday, May 7, 2010

Fictional Mothers #2

I meant to get this up yesterday. But I'm afraid actual motherhood trumps fictional motherhood. Now I'm sneaking a break from AP tests and service projects and the making of a Civil War dress (don't ask) to get my second book inspiration posted.

I issue a challenge with it: Name a book in which a mother tells her own story.

If you can name more than four off the top of your head, than you're obviously reading different books than me. I imagine there's a sub-genre--probably of literary fiction--that has mothers as POV characters. But that sub-genre and I haven't crossed paths much. Mostly, mothers are secondary characters and seen through the eyes of others.

But one of my favorite books of the last ten years is a little different. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver actually opens with the voice of Orleanna Price. (Of course, apart from five or six brief sections, Orleanna takes a back seat in the story to the POVs of her four daughters.) Still, here's a mother setting the scene for a powerful and heartbreaking story.

In 1959, Baptist preacher Nathan Price takes his wife and daughters to the Belgian Congo. He's there to spread the word. The rest of them are tag-alongs, but with wicked insights into their father and their own compelling stories. Against the backdrop of the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of their first elected prime minister and the CIA's back-curtain deals that circumvent democracy, the Price family works out their own place in a foreign society and in the complications of their family relationships. Like I said, one of my top, oh, twenty books of the hundreds I've read in the last ten years.

Here's why it came to mind when I was thinking about fictional motherhood: there's a scene in the book where a tragedy has happened. (No, I'm not going to tell you--my point is to encourage you to read the book.) In the aftermath, the African women of the village come to the Price household. Kingsolver writes: "They fell down at the edge of our yard when they came, and walked on their knees to the table . . . Our suffering now was no greater than theirs had been, no more real or tragic. No different."

Women, in my opinion, are predisposed to find common ground with other women. And nowhere is that more evident than in the tribe of mothers. When my son was sick two years ago, on the nights we spent in the hospital while he had chemotherapy, I would walk the halls late at night. Once he was asleep and likely to stay that way for a bit, I would escape the room and wander the quiet corridors of the children's hospital. I remember one night in particular passing two women in short succession. One was clearly, from her dress and hairstyle, from a polygamous community. One was Muslim, also clear from her dress and hair covering.

My first thought was, "How different they are from me." My second thought was, "They are also mothers." And that's when it hit me--a flood of common ground, of common suffering, of common love. It didn't matter in that moment the differences in our dress or beliefs or lifestyles. What mattered was that we each had a child ill or in pain and there was precious little we could do about it. But we could understand one another on that point.

And that is why I love books in general: because they give me an experience and an insight in other lives that I would not otherwise have. Guess what? Being a mother, ideally, also gives insight into other lives. I, for one, could not be nearly the writer I am if I weren't also a mother.

Now a promise--my final post on fictional motherhood will not have cancer, or death, or suffering in any form. It's all about one of my favorite mothers in all fiction, one who most decidedly tells her own story. And no, I'm not going to hint. You'll just have to come back to find out.

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