I’ve been dividing my free time this month between the election debates and a class on Chekhov, who famously said that if we introduce a gun in the first act, it must go off in the last. So I’m waiting for that metaphorical (or real) gunshot. I resorted to a sedative (well, two glasses of wine) to get through the first debate. It was like watching the football game my grandson recently lost: berating the agressive opponent, sighing over the errors made by my boy’s team.
A Middlebury College political science prof told us a month ago that debates don’t really matter. Or ads, or a goof here and there. Last week he reversed himself, admitting that in this particular election, a debate seems to have made a major impact. But for me, the debators (to date) have only skimmed the deep-down human issues: the poor, the disabled, the war on women, marriage equality, global warming, guns in schools–the list goes on.
Can a fiction writer fill in the gaps–make a difference? Is the written word more lasting than the spoken?
Back in the nineties Vermont farms were downsizing; a wholesale buyout ensued–a local farmer shot himself. Amazon was taking business away from my local bookshop and my favorite print and copy store was threatened by Staples. Farmers fretted about the high price of milk and were upset with the BST hormone used to increase milk production, and with additives to render crops more resistent to bugs.
Without these independents and the green fields of grazing cows, I worried, what was to become of our rural state?
When two elderly farmers were robbed and beaten in northern Vermont, I felt compelled to write about these concerns. My first mystery began with that attack. My fictional dairy farmer Ruth sets out to find the scoundrels, and like the author–and I hope, the reader–to bring some kind of order back into her world.
Encouraged by strong reviews and local farmers ordering copies of my book, I went on with the series–and the social issues. When poison entered a safe house for abused women, I dealt with the use of superwarfarin, sold as Killabird, designed to destroy unwanted birds at the feeder. When I read a news clipping about an apple orchard sprayed with Round Up, causing the apples to turn brown and rot, I had a plot for the third mystery. At the time I was living next door to an orchard, where Jamaicans come each fall to pick apples and sing in the trees. So I became that orchardist, trying to heal his life after a daughter’s death by a drunken driver–until the Round Up.
Perhaps the most devastating of all the issues I’ve dealt with was the eugenics project, begun in the thirties to sterilize so-called “degenerates” in order to “breed better Vermonters.” While I was writing the book, the signs for gender equality I’d stuck in my lawn were stolen on two consecutive nights So I added a lesbian professor who is strangled when she writes a controversial paper about the eugenics movement. Later I took on women’s issues in an 18th-century series featuring real-life Mary Wollstonecraft, who fought her whole short life for women’s rights, abolition of slaves, and freedoms of religion and press.
But I had to take care, I warned myself, not to hammer in the issues too heavily. Our writerly mission, after all, is to tell a good story! But I barely contained myself when my research discovered that Gilbert Imlay, a dashing American with (supposedly) abolitionist views, and with whom Wollstonecraft fell blindly in love, had actually invested money in a slave ship! And over half the kidnapped blacks died during that cruel voyage. Horrified, I wanted to bring Imlay to justice in my novel, but I couldn’t alter the historical facts. He got away with, yes, murder.
One way, perhaps, to right the wrongs in our books and “transform” the reader is to leave an open-ended question, resolve one issue but leave another to fester in the reader’s heart–and perhaps to add a little humor. In my current class on Chekhov, we watched a comical one act (1886) called The Evils of Tobacco, a monologue the playwright spent years revising. At first he wrote principally about the dangers of smoking, but through six revisions, the weed became a metaphor for the narrator’s unhappy marriage, his inability to do something meaningful in his life. In this way the comedy of the henpecked husband morphed into a drama of “broken dreams,” a “wasted life.”
And in the one act comedy, The Bear, Madame Popov, who swears that her love for her late husband will last “beyond the grave,” admits in the same sentence that “before my very eyes he made love to other women and deceived me, mocked at my feelings!” In the end, insulted by a man who comes to collect money, she fetches her late husband’s pistols: “What pleasure I shall have putting a bullet through your brazen head!” She challenges the impudent fellow to a duel–and though he feels a fool, “the shame,” he admires her spunk and offers marriage.
So it’s through our characters’ actions, perhaps, that we can best portray an injustice. For the moment Chekhov’s widow comes out on top, but what will happen after the kiss and the prospective lover’s masculine sense of shame at being bested by a woman? Chekhov doesn’t tell us–rather, he introduces the equality issue through action and dialogue, then leaves it for the audience, and the reader, to mull over.
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