Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Review: Over What Hill

Title: Over What Hill

Author: Effie Leland Wilder

Date: 1996

Publisher: Guideposts

ISBN: 1-56145-131-2

Length: 183 pages

Illustrations: drawings by Laurie Allen Klein

Quote: “If I were not so old I might have kept a careful list of all the dear people who furnished me with funny stories for this volume.”

What’s not to love about Effie Leland Wilder’s series of funny novels about retired people living in a retirement project? One thing, and let’s deal with it up front. The large clear type, the pictures, and even the gentle tone of the fiction make these novels look as if they were meant to entertain grandchildren. They were not. They won’t embarrass their intended audience if our grandchildren read them, but they’re about, and intended for, people over seventy. They’re meant to be easy for people from all backgrounds to read and relate to. This can produce an unpleasant feeling in the middle-aged or senior reader that Wilder was relegating readers to a sort of “second childhood.”

How long will “Sidney Metcalf, the unelected, but undisputed, Most Eligible widower” and “Henrietta Gooding” who “has kept her neck” delight all their fully postsexual friends with their slow, decorous courtship? Retta “crooked no finger; she winked no eye; she baked no tart. She made no effort to sit near him…Maybe that’s why he began to make an effort.”

Will Harriet McNair, the narrator and Retta’s lifelong friend, actually make money from the book she’s written?

And, er um…how long will it be possible for sweet old Mr. Eason to remember, when Mrs. Eason says “Don’t you think it’s about time we started talking about getting married?”, to say “Yes, sweetheart, I’ll speak to the minister”? Instead of, “We’ve only been married for fifty years, you senile old fool”? Or maybe, “I’m not ready to settle down”?

Already a few of these stories are out of date. In 1996, the conversation, “I havent seen you in a long time.”—“No, I’ve been out of it. I had trouble with a bad bug.”—“You had trouble with a bedbug!” was funny because we all knew that bedbugs no longer existed in North America. If it’s funny now, it’s funny in a different way, since some retirement communities in the U.S. have become infested with bedbugs.

Despite the niceness of the characters in this story—mostly active Christians—there are some things about life in a retirement project that can’t be ignored or airbrushed into niceness. “And yet, writing cards would mean opening my address book. That’s something I hate to do these days. At least every second name is crossed out.” Deleting the names of friends who’ve moved and lost touch with us is bad enough, but…

I would not expect the awareness of mortality that dominates any retirement project to do children any harm.

Y’know, sometimes I read posts from people who worry that a battle or hunting or deathbed scene should be kept away from children under age ten. The publishing industry seems to think that everything written for teenagers these days should be as grim and gruesome as possible; I’ve read highly touted “young adult novels” that made me wonder how, if the author really believed that things were all that bad, the author was able to go on living long enough to write these effusions of dysphoria. Oh, but shouldn’t children live in a sweet, cute, fluffy, pastel-rainbow-colored Raggedy Ann world? these young parents squeak. I want to ask these young parents if they remember the books they read, or the cartoons they watched, as children.

From what I’ve observed, a child who is in fact living with fear of something s/he can’t cope with in real life is likely to project that fear onto any unpleasant image or idea to which the child has been exposed. The children I’ve baby-sat were all living with some sort of family crisis. The one whose Mommy was very ill told me she had nightmares about horrible bunny slippers, “with eyes, and a mouth that talks and whispers horrible things.” The one who’d watched her grandparents’ house burn down suddenly developed a fear that something called “The Mark of the Beast” lived in the culvert below the road—for this child, the familiar sound of water gurgling in the pipe became frightening overnight, after reality became frightening. 

Once when my mother was particularly ill, when I was seven years old or so, I suddenly developed a morbid fear of a dull gray blob in a cartoon that was meant to represent a dead horse that some nineteenth century Western traveller was leaving behind. Of course there was nothing especially terrifying about the dead horse…except that anyone who got through Psych 101 ought to guess that, for me at age seven, that dead horse had (as briefly as suddenly) become a barely tolerable symbolic substitute for the much scarier thought of a dead mother. I remember, too, another nightmare I had, which felt really frightening at the time, in which an unrealistic Knickerbocker Toy stuffed animal—I never was sure what kind of animal it was meant to be, but it was bright blue—was flying around the house; I’m not sure what the toy was a symbol of, but what I was dealing with was the prodrome to my very first bout with Norwalk Flu.

Actually, reading the complete works of Sylvia Plath tipped me off to the possibility that the writers of those dystopia stories are coping with their own grown-up terrors. Plath wrote one very grim, depressing, long poem called “Berck-Plage,” about a hospital where she’d never even been for pity’s sake…because she had depression-as-a-disease? Well, no; according to her journals she seems to have been feeling chipper, optimistic about her marriage…partly because Ted Hughes was back with her and, instead of quarrelling, they were using up their emotional energy providing respite care for a dying neighbor. The ugly images of sick people came from the neighbor. The poem projected the ugliness onto the hospital to protect the old man’s privacy. Learning this kind of thing may help other people feel more charitable about depressing books.

But there’s no way to wrap a child’s world up snug enough to keep out all fear. Cute, fluffy things become threatening when children are developing fevers, or have been moved to a different “home,” or are worried about their parents’ health. Raggedy Ann’s grin and unconvincing love-and-candy image, which I remember as boring and unconvincing when I was five, could easily have come to symbolize all-the-bad-things-grown-ups-don’t-want-kids-to-talk-about during those weeks when Mother was ill when I was seven. It could have been Raggedy Ann instead of the poor old horse that haunted those nights. I don’t believe any amount of Positive Thinking and censorship can protect children from the discovery that sometimes life does not feel wonderful.

Children are protected to a considerable extent by their severely limited capacity for empathy. When I was seven, part of my mother’s bad time was that her dying mother had moved in with us. This was the real oldfashioned “Western” heroine of a grandmother, Texas Ruby, the show rider, sure shot, foster mother of twenty-some other children, juggler of half a dozen different jobs from a wheelchair. I admired her, loved her, enjoyed her—sometimes—and she did her best to be more of a help than a burden to my parents. But she was dying. We all knew she was dying; the only question was when. 

So one night I woke up and was told, “Grandmother has to go to the hospital; now go back to sleep,” and I did. No nightmares. No night terrors. Another day Grandmother came home, and there were some more story hours and good times. Then Grandmother went to the hospital again, and didn’t come home. Instead, one day it was, “Grandmother is dead. You don’t have to sit through the funeral, but you must sign the guest book and kiss her goodbye. She wanted you to kiss her goodbye, before she was buried, to make sure you knew not to be afraid of dead people or worry about her coming back as a ghost.” Charming old Texas custom. But I signed the book and kissed the cold old cheek, and didn’t feel afraid at all. Grandmother was supposed to die. Sometimes I missed her, in a nostalgic way, but it would be another ten years before I thought about how much pain and disability Grandmother had been living with even during her active years. All I was able to know, at seven, was that people who are old and ill are meant to die in the nature of things. I think it was a good thing that I’d read books, notably Bible Story books where dying elders gave out blessings, that had put that child-size idea into my child-size mind.

So I’d say that books like Effie Leland Wilder’s might, if anything, prepare a child to absorb the idea that grandparents grow old and die, in that sort of limited, ignorant, childish way. The characters are aware of mortality; the obscenity of illness and death stays off the scene. There are gentle hints that, when people have lost their friends and become ill, they themselves may look forward to the afterlife, and their families don’t need to beat themselves down with guilt about feeling relieved when those people are out of their misery at last. Wilder doesn’t go into the question of whether, if we as a society fully accept this idea, we can avoid the opposite temptation to hustle people who aren’t really all that old and ill out of this world prematurely.

I don’t like retirement projects, myself; I think of walking into one as an act of love, but, live in one? Well…when my father’s cataracts were aggravated by glaucoma instead of being cured by surgery, he moved into one, and I could see how a dim, bare little flat that all sighted people found depressing could become a comfort zone for a blind person. 

There are, however, seniors like Wilder’s characters who willingly move into retirement projects in order to stay close to their friends. They do actually have fun together, hosting movie or TV nights, organizing bingo games or “Seniors’ Proms” or fishing trips or any of the other diversions Wilder’s characters enjoy. They crave company more than privacy and, most of the time, prefer the company of friends their own age to the company of more energetic young people. That’s not the kind of elder I expect, want, or intend to be. I do everything possible to become, if I do live to grow all the way up, more like Grandma Bonnie Peters (still working as many hours as she can get at 81), or the great-uncle I’ve nicknamed “Vito” because he was still the active patriarch of the extended family, farming at home and giving advice, at 99.

Because our kind of old people exist, we need people like Wilder to speak up for the other kind and remind us that they exist too. We are one group of people who should read at least one of Wilder’s novels.

The other obvious group would, of course, be the grandparents who do want to move into retirement projects. They should buy these books, and share them, without hesitation, with their children and grandchildren.

A third group would be anyone in search of clean jokes and old songs; Wilder’s gentle stories contain more of those than of “plot” as such. They’re written in diary or blog form (I suspect they started out as cleaned-up, fictionalized versions of Wilder’s own diary) and there are lots of days when what Mrs. McNair writes in her diary is the joke, song, or beautiful thought someone shared at lunch or at some sort of social event that day.

Effie Leland Wilder started writing at the age of eighty-five and surprised everyone by finishing four novels in this series, plus contributing to another book. Her books aren't Fair Trade Books, and the four Chronicles of Fairacres might or might not fill one package without leaving room for a few Fair Trade Books as well. Anyway, to buy them here, send $5 per volume + $5 per package (+ $1 per online payment) to the appropriate address at the very bottom of the screen. If you bought all four Chronicles of Fairacres, you would thus send a total of $25 by U.S. postal order, or $26 by Paypal.