The Observations – Jane Harris

More thoughts from 2007:

The Observations by Jane Harris is many things, funny, gripping, tender and an overall delight. Beneath the skillful use of clever, vernacular dialogue and mysterious goings on are shades of complex relationships and a twinship of longing and belonging.

Bessy Buckley is a worldly fifteen year old, running from a sickly unsavory family member who drives her from 19th century Glasgow into the countryside where she happens upon a run down mansion with a mistress in want of a lady’s maid. She enlists and discovers that her employer, Arabella, is a writer- of sorts. Arabella’s literary secrets and the unknowns surrounding them form the top layer of the novel. This alone makes for an enjoyable read. But there’s more than meets the eye in every way for readers of The Observations. The friendship between Arabella and her young maid carries a whiff of sexual infatuation and the mix of chemistries that can only be awakened when women become close. Jealousies, slights, outright confrontations and misunderstandings pervade the relationship between Arabella and Bessy while they shape the household concoctions of both women.

My fondness for Bessy began as she goes to bed hungry on her first night at Castle Haivers, a handful of parma violets from her pocket meager repast as she falls asleep. She is both child and woman, her shortcomings equally charming as her strengths. Bessy and Arabella become ghost hunters, each searching for a loved friend, Bessy amidst the living and Arabella the dead. The supernatural slice – if it can be called such- of The Observations is more a peek into the power of longing as it casts about for someone who can’t be found, an apparition that might be recognizable to anyone. The device is written lightly and adds an exotic dimension to the story without derailing it. This novel brings to mind two other reads, Alias Grace and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Harris’ use of Glaswegian dialect brings Bessy to life with a cache of humor and dignity. And a knapsack of sorrow which she keeps hidden and only slowly reveals to the reader.

My read of The Observations coincided with a trip escorting my mother to homecoming at our shared alma mater. I was in the last pages by the time we crossed into memory land, and I’ll always associate that weekend with the book and its theme of friends loved and lost. At my mother’s class banquet, the salads contained dandelion greens and pansies; I thought of Bessy’s parma violets as I ate the flowers and watched my mother basking in the company of her friends. The next day I stepped from the warm October sunshine into the cool of the old college dormitory, emptied by a late afternoon football game. Standing in the silent hallway before the door to my old room, number 123, I listened for voices from the past, yearning for laughter that would dispel the years and gather old friends close by once more. Their ghosts were all around. Like Bessy and her mistress, I struggled to make them stay.

Willa Cather – My Antonia

A few thoughts from 2009…

Some years ago, there was a gangly young woman living in Kansas City, careening towards marriage to a sophisticated young man. Only, the young woman was really in love with reading, with the vast prairie, with the lowly redwing blackbird and scrub flowers.On a warm weekend in June, the man gathered his bachelor brethren for a large party at a local residence inn. Here they would drink, cavort with some topless women, and break each other’s ribs (!) in making merry for the man to marry.

The woman (thinking it possible she had not yet truly met her match) fled to Willa Cather’s home town, Red Cloud, Nebraska, for a bachelorette weekend of her own. She basked in the dry prairie grass, dusty gravel, and a greater sense of not knowing exactly where she was going or if she would make it there. She was struggling to pioneer her own life, coming to the middle of nowhere a bit as the Europeans who subdued the Midwest came, knowing only that, for some, striking out for the unknown is bred in the bone.

Of course this is not the story, and yet it is. My Ántonia is a novel of remembrance and great spirit, the recollection of a man who loves a woman he can possess only in the memory of their shared childhood. It’s a story of settlers and hardship, leaving and homesickness, sprinkled with glory, written in a spare, youthful tone. It is all about reaching out for the cherished unknown. This much I can tell you. But I’m unable to go further as I’ve absorbed this work so that it runs in my pulse, and to display it further would feel akin to opening a vein.

My Ántonia is more lovely, sweeter, and wilder than any novel I’ve read. It’s the story I think about on those occasions when I hop an outbound plane, knowing that I’m never more American than when setting out, leaving the familiar for adventures and points which can only be reckoned on some internal compass.

Self indulgent thoughts? Yeah, baby.

I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is.

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