Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Every weekend, Evelyn Couch and her husband go to visit his mother in the nursing home; Evelyn and Mrs. Couch dislike one another, so Evelyn is almost relieved one day when she falls into the clasp of an eager storyteller, lonely for an audience. Ninny Threadgoode, having outlived all those who knew her to visit her now, is glad to have someone to chat with, and the two women grow closer over the next few months. Ninny (short for Virginia) tells Evelyn stories of the town of Whistle Stop, Georgia, where she grew up with the Threadgoode family after they took her in1, and Evelyn brings in food for Ninny, at first only store-bought sweets but as the relationship and her own self-confidence strengthen, she moves on to home-made barbecue and at last the eponymous ‘fried green tomatoes’.

Ninny’s tales of “then” center on the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama, and the Threadgoode family which took her in when young and needing a home, and more specifically their wayward daughter, Idgie. Idgie was always tempestuous and wild, but after her beloved brother, Buddy, was killed by a train, she (forgive the pun) went completely off the rails. It wasn’t until the demurely lady-like church school teacher Ruth came to town for the summer that Idgie proved willing to return to a more domesticated life. Despite Idgie’s pleading, Ruth fled home to her home and fiance as she wanted only to be ‘normal’. In the end, the husband proves no better than an abuser, and upon Ruth’s mother’s death, Ruth herself determines to flee if her friends in Whistle Stop will help her…and they do.

I’ll stop here, just in case anyone hasn’t read the book yet; I will add that both the “then” and the “now” stories have bittersweet middles and ends…and add that the “now” endings in the book and the movie diverge considerably.

Having slept on it, I confess that I now rather appreciate the fact that Flagg never says, in as many words, that Idgie and Ruth are a lesbian couple, though the relationship is quite clear to anyone capable of reading between the lines. When I first read the book, I was more than slightly disappointed: Idgie is described merely as “an irrepressible tomboy”, and Ruth the demurely docile, obediently religious girl who flees this person so desperately and wholeheartedly in love with her because she cannot face the fact that she reciprocates that love. I’d guess that’s due to a couple of issues. Not least, I’d bet that when Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was written, it wasn’t quite so acceptable to come out (figuratively speaking) in mainstream literature. Secondly, I’d ask readers to consider the audience that I think Flagg was aiming at: the chick-lit readers. This is no edgy Rita Mae Brown novel or Florence King memoir; I doubt it was a cutting-edge sexual orientation novel at the time, and it’s less so now.

I don’t think that’s really the point of the book, however; I’d say rather that the novel is about love and acceptance, overcoming prejudice and recognizing one another as worthy of love. Idgie’s father gives her seed money to start a restaurant when Ruth returns and proves to be pregnant, so that she may help support her growing family. No recrimination. No analysis. No cross-examination. This is a comfort read (at least if you’re a white female of the late twentieth century.)

Not surprisingly, given the book’s setting, place and time, racial relations are a part of the book, though I’d suggest that this is more for the melanin-challenged potential readers than otherwise. The KKK makes an appearance, when Idgie attracts attention for feeding African-americans out the back door of the restaurant. (No mention that she also feeds the hoboes.)

The structure of the novel is a bit skittery, alternating between Evelyn’s ‘now’ and Ninny’s ‘then’ fairly evenly, but the ‘then’ components jump around a bit. Readers do need to keep an at least moderately sharp eye on the times of the past anecdotes, though Flagg has them fairly clearly labeled.

What to read next? If you didn’t care for the race issues in Flagg’s book, but did like the relationships between women, try The Color Purple. If you liked the general tone and setting of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but don’t want anything terribly avant-garde, try Cold Sassy Tree, as they were written and popular about the same time as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, and touch on some of the same themes. Just brace yourself if you’ve seen the movie versions of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe or The Color Purple; the books are considerably different from the movies (and vice versa, of course). The Lemon Jelly Cake might be another option; though the writing style’s changed a bit in the decades intervening between the books, the two strike me as similar.

1Ninny married one of the Threadgoode boys later; she was not formally adopted, just as Ruth was not

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Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, by Tanith Lee

Just as a disclaimer at the beginning, Lee’s stories aren’t all based on the Grimm brothers’ collection of folk tales—the ballet Swan Lake is based (so far as I can tell) on several Russian folk tales, and Beauty and the Beast is French, first set down by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve—but in the main, she’s selected fairly well-known tales:

Original story/Tanith Lee’s tale:
     1. The Pied Piper/The Paid Piper
     2. Snow White/Red as Blood
     3. Rapunzel/The Golden Rope
     4. The Frog Prince/The Princess and her Future
     5. Sleeping Beauty/Thorns
     6. Cinderella/When the Clock Strikes
     7. Little Red Riding Hood/Wolfland
     8. Swan Lake/Black as Ink
     9. Beauty and the Beast/Beauty

There are hints of Hans Christian Anderson in some of the religious symbolism, and Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Chambers in the horror/supernatural aspects herein, but all filtered through a modern feminist sensibility and bedded in a vocabulary much lusher than the originals on which Lee’s based her tales. (Many of the fairy tales are disappointingly sparse in their terse setting down of the plotline.) Additionally, the stories diverge from the originals in their settings in locale and period; they’re arranged chronologically, according to Lee’s settings, from “The Paid Piper” set in Asia in the first (or last) century B.C. stretching forward to “Beauty”, set in an unspecified but fairly distant future and an unnamed but northern country.

In “The Paid Piper”, the titular character steals not the living children of Hamelin, but the as yet unborn in the town of Lime Tree, where the rat god Raur is worshiped. In “Red as Blood”, Snow White is the daughter of a witch, and her father has married a Christian woman, who drives out the evil witchcraft in her stepdaughter by arranging for her to be confirmed in this new religion. In “The Golden Rope”, Rapunzel is taken down to her betrothed in Hell…which is not the Hell her captor believes it to be but a beautiful haven for her. “Thorns” is a fairly straightforward take on “Sleeping Beauty”, until the prince realizes that despite having woken the princess, she and her court are still dreaming of their own time a century before. Well, think about it: would you really want to marry someone from 1913, who’d slept through the intervening century? Imagine explaining World Wars, mustard gas and nuclear weapons, iPads and flying to the moon! “When the Clock Strikes” always reminded me of “The King in Yellow” and “The Red Masque”, though it’s intended as a retelling of “Cinderella”, in which it is ‘Ashella’ who is the evil servant of the Nether Regions, and her stepmother and stepsisters truly good people who are ashamed that they cannot reach out to the girl who appears a mad simpleton. “Black as Ink” is a fairly straightforward (at least for this book) retelling of “Swan Lake”, in which the swan may is transformed into a beautiful and unaging girl, who must learn human ways but upon whom the human mannerisms rest uneasily

As with many collections of short stories, readers will inevitably prefer some stories to others; I’ve never been crazy about Lee’s take on Swan Lake, not least because I wasn’t familiar with the ballet when I first read the book. Of the seven, I’m inclined to like the two longest, “Wolfland” and “Beauty”. In “Wolfland”, a variant on “Red Riding Hood” (complete with red cape), the grandmother who lives within the deep dark woods is not threatened by the Big Bad Wolf…she IS the wolf; she has become a werewolf, with the aid of a liqueur derived from the yellow flower that grows only in these woods, in order to preserve herself from her brutally abusive husband. She recognizes in her granddaughter Lisel the one to replace her as mistress of the chateau and the wolves in the woods. “Beauty” is interesting in that it has a futuristic setting, combining the world of folk lore with that of science fiction; the Beast is one of an alien race, which came bearing benign gifts, and left members of its race on Earth. Unlike other tellings, it is not the Beast who transforms literally into human shape, but Beauty, here Estar, who finds that she is a figurative Beast.

What to read next? This time, I’ve got a suggestion, other than the obvious collections of Hans Christian Anderson, Grimm Brothers and Perrault. Angela Carter, specifically her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories. She’s the only author who, I think combines the fairy tale ambiance with modernization and feminism that is…twisted or kinky is too strong and too suggestive in a variety of ways, and indirect too subtle. Updating, perhaps.

Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George

At that, [Jesus’s mother] let out a laugh. “Wrong test!” she said, shaking her head. “The rabbis in Jerusalem know better.” She turned to her guests. “Last year, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem to probe the scribes and rabbis at the Temple about fine points of scripture. So I can appreciate how your parents feel, Mary, to have a child suddenly go of on his own. But no one wins a scripture contest with Jesus.”

Well, I suppose no one would, now could they? Never mind the fact that at the time to which Mary is referring, Jesus hadn’t yet had his bar mitzvah.

First the disclaimers. I hope my more secular readers and those from a non-Christian background will forgive me for the phrasing in this review; please keep in mind that, in this case, I’m reviewing the work of fiction by Margaret George, not the Bible itself. This does not constitute an endorsement of the religion, but simply a review of a book I found diverting. Also (with another round of apologies), I haven’t read any of the many other books about Mary Magdalene, and this review is not intended to be a survey of the literature. I would only hope that this novel might pique someone’s interest in reading more about her. Oh, and if you’re coming to this novel after having read The DaVinci Code, keep going. The two are completely different.

Mary Magdalene is one of the more prominent women in the New Testament, but none of the more widely accepted books of the Bible say much about her. Was she a prostitute? Mentally ill? Apostle to the apostles? The fact that she was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection should indicate something…but what1?

Mary, Called Magdalene is (surprise, surprise) primarily about Mary Magdalene, though necessarily includes a great deal about Jesus. The book begins with her childhood, in a particularly observant Jewish family, holding themselves apart from less strict families at home and while traveling. The first portion of the book, when Mary was a child, sets the stage for her later life: on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she not only befriends a girl from a more lenient family but in an escapade with Keziah, runs off to meet others en route to Jerusalem. It is here that Mary first meets Jesus, he a tween but even then a particularly eloquent and charismatic boy, as evidenced by his convincing the stern Nathan, Mary’s father, to permit her to stay overnight with a strange family.

As so many children do, she grew into an adult, married, and had a child…but unfortunately, she became plagued with demons2, and it is here that Jesus appears, again. The wedge was driven in with Mary’s filching an image of one of the gods of previous religions, rejected utterly by Jews of the time; in this case, it was a little ivory statuette of a goddess, which served as a channel directly between the deity herself and Mary. Over the years, other similar spirits came to Mary, to the point that she was no longer able to function as a wife, a mother, and a member of society. As this was regarded as a religious issue, she first went to a rabbi gifted in driving out such creatures for treatment; when he proved unsuccessful, Mary retreated out to a desert cave to wrestle alone with her possessors. Stumbling out of the isolation, crazed with her inner demons (and probably also things like dehydration, sunstroke, and hunger), she meets Jesus, who drives out the demons himself…and it’s here that Margaret George veers from conjecture about what the life of a woman at the time might have been back into what little we know of Mary from the New Testament.

Overall, I must confess I felt something lacking in this novel. It could just be that there is comparatively little written about Mary Magdalene, relative to some of the other women about whom George has written novels. Certainly, there’s comparatively little written about her, relative to the men mentioned in the Bible, contemporaneous with the protagonist here. But. But. And a very important But. This is a work (indirectly) about an important religious figure; I’d bet that novels about Mohammed, no matter how well written, no matter the doctrine followed in the text, would similarly redact off readers who belonged to Islam. Perhaps that’s the important thing to take away: I too found the first half or thereabouts of the book, when Mary Magdalene was a child and youth, then raising a family and battling her own demons, more interesting. After she became a follower of Jesus, what interest I had in the book dropped off, perhaps because it then became inevitably about him as much as her.

I do appreciate the little touches that humanize this figure, little less mythological than Helen of Troy. Her anguish at being ripped from her daughter. Her despair at being called a ‘loose woman’ and ‘harlot’ after spending forty days and forty nights alone unchaperoned in the desert with several of the men who similarly became followers of Jesus. Not so sure about some of the details surrounding Jesus himself–here, both Jesus and his mother doubted his mission/nature until the former’s final arrival in Jerusalem–but then this book isn’t, strictly speaking, about Jesus. Thankfully. Or it would be about four times the length, and that’s impracticable to bind.

Overall, though, I’d call it an interesting take on a footnote woman from the Bible, comparatively neutral…although that withstanding, I’m sure that someone out there’s redacted off about it from a doctrinal (however peripheral) standpoint. Writing comparatively non-denominational fiction about pretty much any religious fiction is going to cause people to react that way. It’s not purely about Mary Magdalene–I would have appreciated more of the detail that went into George’s first two books–but, perhaps necessarily, the second half is concerned as much with Jesus as with Mary.

As for what to read next….try Margaret George’s other books. There are several, and they’re all bricks; I think George is just shy of Gabaldon’s total page count by now. Her later books are similarly about historical women. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent may be another possibility; it’s not about Mary Magdalene, but rather a little-known daughter of Jacob.

Smithsonian article

1Yes, yes, I know. Scholars of the ‘official’ New Testament and the later works have talked this to death.
2Bear with the author here; she’s going by what the New Testament called it, not what actually happened or what modern medicine would have called it.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede

Cimorene, youngest daughter of the King of Linderwall, hates being a princess. Linderwall is too tranquil, court protocol is too restrictive, and worst of all, unlike her older sisters, Cimorene is not only black-haired rather than the preferred blonde as [insert shopworn metaphor] princesses abounding in the area, she is as tall as many of the princes who would pay suit to her, meaning that she is too tall to peep entrancingly UP at them through her lashes.

Her parents attempt to do right by her, arranging the best tutelage in all the skills necessary for a young woman of her stature in society: embroidery, dancing, drawing and etiquette in all its nuances for court, up to and including how loudly a princess may scream when abducted by giants, but to no avail. Shockingly, Cimorene attempts to arrange her own lessons in subjects which she finds more interesting–fencing, magic, economics, Latin, cooking and juggling with appropriate members of the family’s court, only to be informed at every turn that this is not proper behavior. At last, in frustration, she calls upon her fairy godmother, but this only leads to a kindly lecture about what’s properly done from the godmother and an ‘invitation’ accompany her parents to a joust in the neighboring kingdom…where she finds out that she’s to be betrothed to the prince of Sathem-by-the-mountains, Therandil.

Instead, she takes the advice of the frog living in the castle lilypond, and runs away to become a dragon’s princess. While this position is more commonly filled via abduction, the somewhat unconventional dragon Kazul accepts Cimorene, despite the voluntary nature of her servitude, and Cimorene sets to cooking, cleaning, and cataloguing the Latin scrolls in her dragon’s library. Things go well, aside from the stream of knights and princes who would insist on attempting to rescue Cimorene, despite her insistence that she doesn’t need rescuing. (The disapproval of two of the neighboring dragons’ princesses matters little, as she gets on well with the third, Woraug’s Alianora1.)

It becomes increasingly obvious that the wizards are up to something. As a rule, the dragon kingdom and the Society of Wizards have an agreement to stay out of one another’s territories, and abide by that. Zemenar, head of the Society, and his son Antorell come sniffing about Kazul’s cave, but it is not clear what the wizards’ plan is until Cimorene and Alianora discover Antorell picking a blue flower unfamiliar to them…which turns out to be dragons bane. Kazul identifies the plant but herself gets a whiff of it, rendering her ill enough to be unable to warn King Tokoz…who is himself poisoned by dragonsbane in his Turkish coffee the next morning.

The dragons set about selecting a new king through the usual competition: carry Colin’s Stone from the Ford of Whispering Snakes to the Whispering Mountain. Only the successful candidate will be able to carry the stone that distance without vibrating. Unfortunately, the wizards have plotted to throw the competition by ensorcelling the stone as their favorite, Woraug, is carrying it. Fortunately, Alianora and Cimorene, aided by the Stone Prince2 put paid to the wizards plotting in the shrubbery in a thoroughly traditional method.

The book ends happily for those who deserve it, with Kazul now king of the dragons, Cimorene still her princess, Alianora betrothed to the Stone Prince and Morwen off in search of a “less sloppy” way of dealing with wizards…and we’re off to the sequels.

The book mocks a number of the standard fairy tale tropes—the golden-haired princess, the brave knight, and so on. Specifically, there are a number of feminist touches I appreciate—aside from the basic one of Cimorene’s strong-willed determination to buck her own society’s strictures, the dragons themselves have a few twists. For one, “King of the Dragons” and “Queen of the Dragons” are job titles, not a reference to the holder’s gender. Alianora, like Cimorene, also flies in the face of many fairy tale tropes: the evil fairy godmother, necessarily invited to Alianora’s christening, had too much fun at the festivities to properly curse the infant, she cannot spin straw into gold but only linen, the fairy crone grateful for a morsel of cheese and bread granted her good teeth rather than diamonds and roses spilling from her mouth, and she broke one of the glass slippers she was to wear to her ball Cimorene, the pragmatic supportive friend, reassures her that glass slippers are more appropriate for merchants’ daughters and as for the diamonds and roses…what if you talked in your sleep?)

Published twenty-two years ago, there are now (thank heaven!) a number of newer additions to the subset of ‘feminist’ science fiction, though this one is still, I hope, an enjoyable one. Certainly it’s a lighter, more humorous addition to the genre, without much in the way of violence; while books such as Hunger Games and Girl of Fire and Thorns have garnered no more attention than they deserve, they’re not particularly ‘gentle reads’ and might not be appropriate for younger or nightmare-prone kids. Coraline might be a good answer to “what do I read next?”, though it’s a bit darker. Oddly, The Wednesdays might also be another good option, if you like humor in your books.

1a princess not unlike Cimorene in personality,
2further explained in a subplot I’ve left out for brevity

The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie by Jane Barrie

Ever wonder what it’s like to own your own business? Don’t, unless you’re prepared to do a lot more billing and personnel management than dealing with the projects of your dreams. Perhaps you’ve thought how much overlap there is between men’s and women’s spheres? More than many men would like to admit, even prior to the surge in Women’s Lib in the 1970s.

The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie is a more or less autobiographical work, published in 1952, about one woman’s stepping into the financial shoes of her husband’s assistant when he reveals that the lumberyard/building supplies business he owns and runs isn’t doing as well as he’s made out over the previous six years. In fact, it was foundering completely and on the verge of going out of business…a fact the husband was doing his best to keep from his wife despite her having invested $15,000 of her own money, almost all she had, in his business to keep it afloat.

It is not until the husband allows as how he’d better not take her to Paris on their second honeymoon because the business is a trifle shaky that she suspects there’s something seriously amiss. Her husband’s one of those charming but more than slightly happy-go-lucky people who can charm the socks of anyone he sets his sights on, but without a scrap of business sense, much less the heart of granite required to dun people who’ve fallen behind in their payments to him. It is perhaps a measure of his own charm that he has managed to cajole his own creditors into extending as much as they have…but even this much credit is coming to a rapid end. The wife comes in the next day to find two haphazard women in the office, one who does billing and one who does receipts, neither of whom have any idea what is owed in the other’s purview, and none of the clerks and suppliers who work the sales floor arrived, despite it being half an hour after the business is supposed to have opened.

Horrified, she takes the business in hand quite firmly. The two other women begin working together to sort out all the piles of paperwork into something a modern office would recognize as “organized”. The sales staff begin arriving on or before the store’s opening time. Trucks go out fully loaded each morning as soon as they’ve been filled with the previous day’s orders…and if they arrive back at the main store before the end of the day, they’re loaded with orders that have been received that day since the trucks’ departure for the next morning’s deliveries. Hardest, but perhaps most important of all, Mrs. Barrie then begins work on collecting the monies owed the business while negotiating terms of payment for the creditors on what they owe others.

When she started at the lumberyard, the scuttlebutt was that it had no more than a few weeks left to stay in business, and her threat of filing bankruptcy (and therefore allowing creditors only pennies on the dollar and not many pennies at that) if those selfsame creditors refused to accept her payment plans was all too believable. While the company had good cash flow, the overhead was too close to income for comfort and staffing was inefficient. However, she managed to collect something like 80% of the $110,000 worth of debts owed the company while paying down well over $200,000 in credit lines to them…all within two years. Indeed, she’d negotiated payment plans (and honored them!) well enough that within a year the wholesalers supplying them had gone from insisting on C.O.D. deliveries to accepting sixty-day payments on deliveries shipped on a regular schedule without having been ordered….and the bank had quit sending nastygrams within six months.

This is one of the books I picked up on the course of stocking an on-line bookstore; I’m not sure how widely it’s held these days so (with apologies) this may be something of a teaser entry for readers without access to a decent Interlibrary Loan system. (If you haven’t got a library card at all, much less any idea what this “interlibrary loan” is, shame on you. You know what to do!) For more avid readers, ‘Jane Barrie’ was a pseudonym for Mildred Savage, and I’m sure that the name of their home town, as well as of their chief competitor and their main clients, wase equally fictitious. I suspect that she had a bit more innate talent, not to mention training in business technique, than she let on; I think the book’s intended to be more a screwball comedy memoir than the account of a woman proud to be a strong-minded businesswoman.

What to read next? That depends on whether you liked the period piece aspects of the book or the descriptions of the wife’s perspective on working in what is, after all, even today largely a man’s world, that of home renovation and related fields, such as carpentry, plumbing, and bricklaying. If it’s the former, I’d suggest Betty MacDonald’s autobiographies, her sister’s books, or perhaps Jean Kerr’s collections of magazine articles. If it’s the latter, perhaps something along the lines of Helter Shelter or Dreaming in the Dust. All of these books have the same sort of light-hearted take on their various subjects, to varying degrees, though the writing styles have changed considerably in the thirty years between the two clusters’ publication.

The Seas Stand Watch by Helen Parker Mudgett

Imagine a time when Great Britain was enemy to the United States, when “western states” referred to Indiana and Ohio, when the new-found fragile union of states ever threatened to devolve into a rabble of squabbling territories…oh. Wait. That last’s a recurring theme in U.S. history.

That’s when this book is set: a span of thirty years covering the first years after the American Revolution to the conclusion of the War of 1812 with the Hartford Convention in 1814-15. The principal characters are members of the Noyes family, with John Noyes, sailor and later captain, privateer and China trader, at the center of the book’s plot and activities. The book deals with the aftermath of the U.S. Revolution on through the Napoleonic Era to the War of 1812, and how the United States struggled to establish itself as a nation in its own right, separate from Great Britain, and develop its own economic, legal and political individuality.

The book alternates between John’s experiences at sea trading abroad, largely in the Pacific, with the land-based experiences of Julia, John’s wife, and Caroline, his mother at home in New England. John and Julia are not entirely happy with each other; the years of separation necessitated by even a straightforward trip by sail across the Atlantic strained even the most loving and sound of relationships. The need to travel ’round the Cape of Good hope to India for cotton1 or Cape Horn to the Orient lent not only danger but time to the merchant sailors’ voyages, and worsened the strain on the wives at home. Caroline has proved herself a capable business manager after her husband’s death, and Julia a better one; this alleviates the boredom resulting from idleness, but present a difficulty when John returns home and their son Henry grows to manhood, assuming he will take on a greater role in the family business than the older members are prepared to allow him.

It’s easy for modern readers to forget that in the first years of this country’s existence, we were not only enemies with Great Britain but the country’s very continued existence was tenuous at best. The modern nation, extending from sea to sea and beyond into the Pacific, was hardly to be imagined! This was only a possibility even when the book was published; though at the time, Alaska and Hawaii were territories of the U.S., they had not yet been confirmed.

Published in 1944, this book’s interesting not least for a glimpse into how writing styles have changed in the intervening decades; the dialogue and description here seem not so much stiff as slightly archaic, and very definitely purple compared to modern standards. It’s fun to read a book that tends to the seafaring while including strong female characters determined to at least maintain their own finances. There is, however, a certain jingoistic feel about this book. Perhaps not surprising given when it was published! Keep in mind, if reading this book, that the War of 1812 was closer to readers at the time of the book’s publication than the U.S. Civil War is to us by about twenty years, and Mudgett is assuming a fair knowledge of American history, political structure and international relations.

1Eli Whitney had only just invented his version of the cotton gin, remember?

Split by Swati Avasthi

Split begins with Jace Witherspoon showing up, without a word of warning, on his brother’s doorstep in Albuquerque, nineteen hours of driving away from ‘home’ in Chicago. At this point, there’s no explanation of what’s going on, though readers get a hint when Christian asks Jace “Did he kill her yet?”

As the brothers talk over “breakfast for dinner”–eggs, pancakes, hash browns and the like at an all-night diner, readers find out more of the backstory. The boys’1 father, a judge in the notably corrupt Chicago court system, has been systematically and coolly abusing their mother for years; this ranges from verbal haranguing to physical beatings and up to nailing her hand to a wall of the garage and leaving her thus for twenty-four hours. As an eleven-year-old, Christian began intervening by provoking the father when he was working up to an attack on the mother, thus diverting the father’s attention from his wife to his son. After six years of injuries, many of which required trips to the emergency room2, Christian runs away from home with the help of his best friend at the time, Paul Costacos, and Paul’s family, who have suspected there was something wrong but hadn’t wanted to intervene. Five years later, after years of similarly diverting his father’s attention from his mother to himself, Jace enrages his father once too often; his father throws him out one evening, refusing him access to his own belongings in his house. His mother gives him what little cash she has, hidden in a tampon box, and Jace drives straight through to Albuquerque, arriving with only $3.84, a bruised face, and the desperate hope that Christian hasn’t moved from his last known address.

All his life, Jace has been told how much he resembles his father, but it is only as he matures in his late teens that he comes to realize that it’s not just a physical resemblance but an emotional and temperamental one, and, perhaps more importantly, this resemblance and this similarity is not necessarily a wholesome one. Compounding his fears for his mother’s treatment at the hands of his father, Jace has himself begun to exhibit abusive behavior: when his girlfriend in Chicago stepped out with another boy, Jace attacked her–slamming her into a wall, and strangling her to near-unconsciousness. It is in no small part this relationship and this fear he is fleeing: will he continue what his father has unwittingly taught him? is he fated to become an abuser in any future relationship? Fortunately, he takes the first step in his own recovery and breaking the cycle, by not only acknowledging that it is he who is at fault, not the girlfriend, but also refusing to allow the girlfriend to feel any shame or remorse for her own behavior. Instead, he insists she file a warrant for his arrest.

The five years of silence and separation, combined with the brothers’ attempts at coping with a horrific situation, both in their parents’ relationship with one another and in the parents’ relationship with the sons, by combining silence and repression of memories, makes for a difficult fall. They’re not talking even to each other, much less to the people who’ve become part of their lives in Albuquerque. Although they guess that there’s something terribly wrong, neither Christian’s lady friend or the girls Jace meets can understand why the two men are holding them all at arms’ length. Despite Christian’s doubts, Jace not only maintains contact with their mother but begins to hope she will break away from the relationship herself, coming to them for Thanksgiving. As readers familiar with the patterns of spouse abuse and controlling relationships will have guessed already, this does not happen, despite Christian and Jace showing up on her doorstep on the day of Thanksgiving, ready to take her away; she chooses to stay with the familiar patterns and the wealthy lifestyle rather than leave what she knows.

This is one of the best YA novels I’ve read for this blog; while nothing comes close to A Monster Calls in the category of issue-driven fiction, Split is well worth reading for anyone (teens and adults alike) who’ve just begun reading about the problems of spousal and child abuse. As a voracious and adult reader of some decades now, this doesn’t strike me as being particularly subtle, mind, but it’s a good introduction to a nightmarish problem. Getting out of an abusive situation is bad enough if the husband3 monitors the bank accounts, and prevents the wife from spending time with friends of her own choice, but what if the victim cannot conceive of escaping? I appreciate Avasthi’s decision to conclude the novel the way she did; it’s easy enough for people with intact self-esteem to wonder why the victim does not choose to leave a situation such as described in Avasthi’s novel. Surely the mother can recognize what’s happening? Well, no. That’s part of the cycle too, when the victim loses the ability to recognize she is free to go, that she is capable of making her own decisions on matters of friendships, finance, education, even clothing.

1with apologies to young persons everywhere–Christian is 22–this was simply the smoothest grammatical description
2with corresponding coverup stories
3with apologies to all the abused men out there–and it’s important to remember that the stereotypical pattern can be reversed