Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Literary Discovery

In 1864, in the northernmost action of the Civil War, two dozen Confederate soldiers rode hell-for-leather down over the Canadian border into Vermont and robbed the principal bank of the booming Vermont railroad town of St. Albans. After shooting up the main street, killing an elderly local citizen, and trying to set fire to the bank and several other buildings, the raiders galloped back off across the border with nearly $100,000. Legend has it that the loot was buried at the foot of the mountain across the road from my house, not far south of the border. Of course, the buried treasure is just a local myth. Yet more than once I have glanced up at the steep, wild mountainside holding our hamlet in its shadow and thought, what if . . . .

It’s the same with literature. What masterpieces may have burned to cinders when the library at Alexandria went up in flames? Another Iliad or Odyssey? What new gospels may yet be unearthed in an urn in Egypt? There are precedents. Boswell’s letters turned up in a stack of wrapping paper in a notions shop in the French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. In 1930, the original manuscript of The Life of Johnson was discovered in, of all things, a croquet box. Then there is the American novelist Walker Percy’s astonishing account of the barrage of phone calls that he received from a New Orleans resident whose son, now dead, had written a “great novel.” After putting her off as long as he politely could, Percy finally, with enormous reluctance, agreed to look at the manuscript of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

This said, I fear that the legends of undiscovered literary treasures accumulating dust in garrets and locked away in forgotten trunks are, for the most part, just that: legends, as fabulous as that of the purloined gold on our Vermont mountain. So it’s still something of a mystery to me that I actually asked to read Beverly Jensen’s manuscript. In April of 2006, Katrina Kenison, the long-time editor of Houghton Mifflin’s annual Best American Short Stories anthology, mentioned to me that she had recently read a wonderful manuscript by a writer who had died in 2003. Having just participated in a lengthy judging process as a member of a jury panel with Katrina, I had a very high regard for her critical acumen and taste. So while there are few surprises that I dread more than the discovery, in my mailbox, of a thick padded envelope almost certain to contain an unsolicited manuscript to read and comment on, I heard myself say, to my own great astonishment, “I’d be interested in taking a look at those stories.”

In due time, the manuscript arrived. With it was a kind note from Jay Silverman, Beverly Jensen’s husband, explaining that she had written the enclosed book while raising their two children. It had been edited, after Beverly’s death, by Jay and by her writing teacher, Jenifer Levin, author of the acclaimed Water Dancer and other novels. Jay said that he would appreciate any advice I might be able to offer toward the end of publishing the book.

I sat down with the manuscript and began to read. What struck me first is that I felt that I knew these characters. I knew them the way I knew my neighbors of decades, and even my own family. Beverly Jensen’s hard-bitten country folk seemed real to me in a way that I had only very rarely experienced before. Reading her manuscript was reminiscent of the day I discovered Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and read it in a sitting. I finished Beverly’s book about ten o’clock that evening. The Red Sox were playing the Yankees on television, and I am a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation. But I had entirely forgotten about the baseball game. Instead, I had read a literary masterwork.

The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay chronicles nearly seventy years in the lives of two families related by marriage, the Hillocks and the Jensens. It opens with the starkly-titled “Gone,” narrating a crisis in childbirth, in 1916, of the author’s maternal grandmother, Mary Emeline Hillock, in a remote corner of New Brunswick. Its climax comes in 1966 with the catastrophic funeral of Mary Emeline’s husband, “Wild Bill” Hillock. Many of the stories are set in rural Maine, where the main recurring character, Idella, Wild Bill’s eldest daughter and the author’s mother, lived most of her adult life. Among my favorite characters are Idella’s philandering husband, Edward, with his capacity to incite all kinds of uproarious family debacles; Edward’s Dickensian mother, Jessie, who temporarily disowns her own daughter; and Idella’s wild and irrepressible younger sister, Avis.

What I find most notable about Jensen’s tales is their astonishing variety. Some, like “Gone” and “Pomme de Terre,” are as harsh and bleak as the rugged Maritime countryside where they take place. Both hinge on secrets as grim as any you’d find in Annie Proulx’s darkest fiction. “Cherry Cider” uses humor to reveal the profound contradictions of what it means to be a human being. Most depict the cultural and social realities of life in rural New Brunswick and northern New England. For this reason Beverly Jensen’s work will be compared to that of Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett, with which it shares an appreciation for nature, highly independent-minded individualists, and the potential goodness of a world, however imperfect, that is still worth celebrating. Yet her fiction never veers too close to purely “regional” writing. There’s no hokey phonetic spelling to represent local dialect, not a drop of condescension or satire at the expense of colorful bucolic “characters.” Rather, like Faulkner and Frost, Beverly Jensen makes expert use of original images and sharply-drawn scenes to fix her people and their stories in our minds.

The book opens, for example, with an unforgettable image of Avis’s and Idella’s shoes hanging in a tree while the children scour the nearby woods for mayflowers to present to their pregnant mother. Bill’s worn-out workboots are “cracked like a broken chimney.” A cow “drawls” from the barn, and later in the book a treacherous frozen rain taps on a church like “thousands of little chickens picking on the floor and walls and windows.”

Stylistically, Jensen’s work is distinguished by the easy rhythms of good storytelling, reminiscent of, say, Joseph Mitchell and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Most of the chapters in The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay, Jay Silverman told me, went through multiple drafts and revisions. The result is easy to read, ever-so-hard to achieve. Consider the stately, simple prose of the following paragraph from “Wake”: “Idella closed the hymn book she’d held absently throughout the funeral and put it on the pew beside her. She’d done more watching than singing, absorbing the look of all the faces around her. They were simple faces with hard edges and lines like cracked cement across their foreheads and around their mouths and eyes. The lantern light made these crevices seem even deeper. These faces, tilted forward in song or bent down in prayer, had met storms and winds of one kind or another, head-on, all their lives. They worked fields that were best suited to brambles and wild grasses, struggling, Dad and Uncle Sam included, to unearth potatoes and carrots and turnips along with the rocks that seemed to multiply with every turn of a spade. These were the people she’d known as a little girl living up here so long ago. They hunted and fished and lived off the land and by their wits, which were more considerable and deep-rooted than their plantings, and hardier than an outsider might suspect.”

Beverly Jensen grew up hearing from her mother and aunt many of the stories that would make their way into The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay. Born in Westbrook, Maine, in 1953, Jensen graduated from the University of Maine and received an M.F.A. in drama from Southern Methodist. After a successful career as an actor, she left the stage to have her own family. In their home in New York, she would read her day’s writing to Jay, a professor at Nassau Community College, and a textbook author. Inspired by the contemporary fiction of Alice Munro, among others, she revised tirelessly. Yet Jay told me that Beverly wasn’t comfortable with self-promotion and networking. She was a writer, not a salesman, more like Idella than Edward in her ability to “recreate someone else’s thoughts and feelings.” As an actor, Jay recalls, Beverly studied her characters endlessly, determined to know every last detail about them. Her fiction illustrates the same capability to subsume her own personality to that of characters as diverse as Bill and Idella, Avis and Jessie.

For me, The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay defines character-driven fiction, and the characters at the heart of this splendid collection are Bill, Idella, and Avis Hillock. If Jessie Jensen, Idella’s damaged mother-in-law, is the weirdest member of the extended family, Wild Bill is the most complicated. A man of violent outbursts and “black moods,” often drunk, sometimes abusive, he is, of course, his own worst enemy. “God help me, I’ll try,” Bill says of the formidable task of raising his small daughters. He does try, but it’s too much for him. He urges Avis to drink whiskey with his poker-playing buddies. There are hints that he encourages her, as a little girl and teenager, to sleep with him. Avis, for her part, is irrepressible, anarchistic, earthy and defiant. After moving to New England, she winds up linked with Boston crime figures and spends a couple of years in jail.

It is Idella, caregiver and fixer extraordinaire, who stands at the moral center and the heart of Jensen’s collection. She has a marvelous, ironical appreciation of all the feckless Hillocks and Jensens, though at times she is also their unwitting enabler. At her father’s funeral, she reflects about the arc of her life.
“Idella had left this Canada far behind and gone to find a better life. It was just being a maid, after all, and a household cook, but it had led to meeting Edward and marrying and having the store and house in Westbrook. She felt rich by comparison, wrapped in her squirrel coat, knowing she had a nice house to go home to down in Maine and a grocery to run. She’d set out, launched herself forward as best she could, and felt both relieved and saddened to have done so.”

While Bill, Avis, and Edward don’t ever really redeem themselves, they are redeemed for me, at least, by Idella’s great empathy for them. Her love is matched only by Beverly Jensen’s, whose superb fiction is a gift to all of us fortunate enough to read her.

In the end, The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay is a greater treasure by far than any I could hope to find buried on a mountain. It is an artistic exploration of the capacity of even the most embattled of families to maintain its identity. “I’m stuck being a Hillock,” Idella’s drunken brother says bluntly in “Wake.” That each and every Hillock and Jensen in this collection should touch us so deeply is a tribute to Beverly Jensen, a writer of great humor, great compassion, and great knowledge of the human heart.

(For a full account of the remarkable story of how The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay came to be published, see Jay Silverman’s essay at