Friday, February 11, 2011

Fox-color eyes

The author Carolyn Chute was so outraged at the response to her 1985 novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, that she "finished" it ten years later -- changing it slightly and then writing a lengthy afterword that explained why she had to. Essentially, readers misinterpreted her book -- believing that it included father-daughter incest, rape, violence and backwoods ignorance -- and she felt she had to set the record straight. Which begs the question: Are you writing a novel or a political polemic? I heard Chute's afterword upon completing the "finished" version, and now I know: It's a polemic. Those of us who don't like her novel hate the poor. We as readers aren't supposed to bring our own experiences or opinions to a novel, I guess.

The author (who seems to live off the grid) doesn't have a website, but here are two articles about her: from 1985 and 2009.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine are a sprawling family of backwoodsmen, the women who love (endure?) them, and the many children engendered from that love (there are so many mentions of fox-color eyes in this novel that I wondered if orange irises are a sign of inbreeding). They construct fungible family units, squabble with various levels of violence, work at low-paying, dangerous jobs, vaguely threaten their neighbors; but they live proudly without public interference -- education, welfare, etc.

One of the women is earth-mother Roberta -- who seems to have a baby annually while never revealing their father(s). Except for that baby she has by her nephew, Beal Bean. Roberta's babies are contentedly dirty and Roberta tends a sumptuous garden. Another woman is Earlene Pomerleau (the girl who may or may not have had an incestuous relationship with her father ... I ask you: If you put a father and daughter ambiguously napping in bed together in the very first scene of your novel are you surprised that readers think it's incest? Really?). Earlene's family lives across the dirt road from the Beans, and she is raised to believe that the Pomerleaus are morally and intellectually superior. Teenage Earlene escapes her home after a bitter fight with her father (he washes her mouth out with soap after he's caught her smoking) and takes refuge in Roberta's house. Where Beal forces (?) her to have sex with him. (Another scene that Chute takes her readers to task over: Earlene never says no, she points out.) Against her will, Earlene has become a Bean herself, to her everlasting self-hatred.

OK, so maybe I don't like to read novels about poor people (I concede, all that squalor depresses me). But I really don't like to read novels where women are forced to have sex, threatened with violence, or unable to take advantage of social services that might save their or their children's lives because the men in their lives physically and emotionally intimidate them. I didn't like the book, yes. But I didn't think the author (who is, of course, entitled to write whatever she likes) was being deliberately provocative until she demanded that I interpret the book her way. Then, it felt like she was creating the most outlandish characters and situations in order to shock me, and then insisting that my shock stems from my tiresome middle-class values.

I'm tempted to give her a virtual finger, but instead I'll move on to the audiobook.

Chute tells her story -- saga-like, about 20 years pass in short episodic chapters -- in first person narrative from Earlene and an omniscient (pro-Bean) third person. Joyce Bean reads Earlene's sections and William Dufris is the other narrator. I've heard Dufris read three children's books (find the links at Audiobook Jukebox!) and Joyce Bean (referring to her by her last name only is confusing) is new to me. Dufris is a revelation -- his reading persona is completely different from the goofy, squeaky way I've heard him read before. He's mature, sonorous even and there's a slight edge as he tells us about the Beans that's a wee bit disturbing. Joyce Bean is also good -- she takes Earlene from gawky tween (sleeping -- just sleeping! -- with her beloved daddy) to catatonic teen mother to a tired, yet slightly flirtatious adult at the book's conclusion.

Both narrators tie on a Maine accent -- easily, consistently, and without caricature. I particularly liked how everyone pronounced Earlene -- more like Ere-lean. Somehow, it made the name less pedestrian to me.

The novel is an excellent candidate for audio (I know I'd have abandoned it if I'd been reading) for the most part. At the very beginning of Dufris' narration (not the beginning of the book), I could have used a genealogical chart: character names were flying around fast and furious and my head was spinning as I tried to keep track. Most of the characters are abandoned as the novel proceeds, so I guess Chute is trying to give a flavor of the chaos of a Bean family gathering. Once it's clear that we're following Roberta and her brood, Beal, and Earlene, the listening is easy. Well, except for all that poverty. And then that lecture that comes afterwards.

I wonder why it took another 13 years for the audio version to be published.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute
Narrated by Joyce Bean and William Dufris
Brilliance Audio, 2008. 7:00

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