August 2012

Kerri Arsenault

Locus Pocus

A Town Big Enough for Both of Em

There is no place more personal to me than Mexico, Maine. It's where I grew up and where Monica Wood, author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, grew up too. Mexico, improbably, is also the focus of the book I am writing, the one I have been working on for seven years. Naturally, I was curious. So I heeded the advice I often give to other authors: one writer's success is every writer's success. Be generous, not jealous. I tore through her book in an afternoon.

Although we are a generation apart and I never knew Wood, she grew up on the street that T-bones the street of my childhood home. She was a communicant of St. Theresa's church, as was I. Her sister and my aunt were chums. Our fathers (all fathers) worked in the paper mill. We shopped at the same local stores (Nery's, Sampson's, Doris's Dress shop -- Doris happens to also be my ninety-seven-year-old aunt), and went on the same vacations (StoryLand, Santa's Village). Our heartstrings pulled at the same tokens of our complicated affections: the "Welcome to Mexico" sign with its un-Maine sombrero, meat pies, the Chicken Coop ("Good Eatin' That's Our Greetin'"), The Rumford Times, Prince Edward Island ancestry, the smell of freshly made paper, the mill. My book-in-progress even touches upon the same themes of inheritance, returning home, family. And on it goes, as does the familiarity and shared memories of a small town. But that is where our stories diverge.

The cornerstone of Wood's story pivots upon her father's death in 1963, when she was nine. That he dies is no spoiler, as the book begins with it noted as a plaintive fact. At first blush, this seems a simple story: girl copes with unforeseen death of her father. How Wood comes to terms with his death is where the narrative, ironically, comes to life. Her mourning does not unfold through melancholic rhapsodies or self-indulgent monologue but rather through humor, love, and an exploration of the question people everywhere want to know about everything they don't understand: why?

On the subject of Wood's memoir, a childhood friend of mine confessed: "I'm kind of scared to read it. To be honest, I don't know who the Woods are. Naively, I thought we were the only ones." In Mexico, our world was small, smaller than a football field, and anyone outside our circle may as well have been on the moon. We explored the world through textbooks, Matchbox cars, and made dioramas of what we thought a Mayan village or a Midwestern dairy farm looked like. Everything else we needed seemed to be in New Hampshire or Canada. Lives were focused inward and we didn't go much further for friends than hollering distance. I thought we were the only ones too. But Wood gently breaks the news to me: "Who could tell one kid from the next? White kids in similar clothes; Catholic children of millworkers and housewives. We lived in triple-decker apartment buildings -- we called them 'blocks' -- or in nondescript houses that our fathers painted every few years."

Wood's point of view is close and penetrating and life in this small town shimmers through her nine-year-old purview, a magical time when a person is not yet scornful but old enough to be vaguely aware of looming adulthood and its concomitant heartache. Wood's "Prologue: My Mexico" (Her Mexico? I was ruffled!) describes the town so precisely I could smell it:

The mill. The rumbling, hard-breathing monster that made steam and noise and grit and stench and dreams and livelihoods -- and paper. It possessed a scoured, industrial beauty as awesome and ever-changing as the leaf-plumped hills that surrounded us. It made a world unto itself, overbearing and irrefutable, claiming its ground along the Androscoggin, a wide and roiling river that cracked the floor of our valley like the lifeline on a palm... what bound us, the children, was bigger and stronger and far more alluring than the past. It was the future we shared, the promise of a long and bountiful life.

As I read the final paragraphs of the prologue aloud to my husband, I actually cried. All adults, I daresay, find it hard to look back at childhood where the "promise of a long and bountiful life" twinkled like a bright shiny button only to realize many dreams went unfulfilled or got lost along the way. Wood evinces this sentiment without once getting sentimental.

The title captures the preteen exploratory phase when young girls step into someone else's shoes -- often famous shoes -- searching for their own identity, something other than "white kids in similar clothes." I remember being drawn to Amelia Earhart, the apes from Planet of the Apes, and Laura Ingalls Wilder (the Melissa Gilbert version). I was Laura, always wanting to punch Nellie Olsen in the face but holding back for fear of god or my parents. I wanted parents like Laura's! They were so kind and understanding! All girls did this. We were on the lookout for heroines who were not our mothers. We sought their "advice." We wanted to be them and be part of their whole fake family when ours wasn't acting the way we wanted it to. Wood tries on for size Jo March, Nancy Drew, and Anne of Green Gables, comparing and contrasting their lives with hers. She admits looking to these chimeras "for instruction" rather than adventure. For a while, she became Nancy Drew, girl guru in finding answers to the question, why? "Isn't a titian hair a fair start? I tap on our walls in search of secret passages, inspect crumples of paper for tossed-away codes."

Wood finally settles on the Kennedys as her doppleganger family because all the pieces fit: Caroline and John-John Kennedy just lost their beloved father leaving behind a beautiful shocked and somewhat shamed widow and bereft children. And they are Catholic. By going outside herself and into the umbrae of others, famous or not, Wood's identity begins to form as does the ability to cope with her father's death. And it is comforting that a nation copes with her.

Wood's landlords, the Norkuses, figure large in her life. My mother remembers where they lived. "Lithuanian corner we used to call it," she tells me over the phone. The Norkuses, Lithuanian immigrants, lived below the Wood apartment and were always barking, in broken English, rules at the children, with Mrs. Norkus indefatigable:

NO GO IN GARDEN!

NO CAR IN DRIVEWAY!

NOT TOO MUCH GARBAGE!

NO BRING FRIEND!

NO PUT BIKE ON GRASS!

MAKE STOP YOU JUMP!

TOO MUCH STAIRS!

As the story moves forward, Wood comes to realize her family is not the only one to suffer a tragedy. The Norkuses left their homeland and relatives behind in Lithuania for a better life in America. She imagines them "disembarking in a cold rain, the words Mexico, Maine, pinned to a rotting sleeve... They'd stumbled stiff-kneed down a gangway, impossibly young and yearning to breathe free, a sepia-toned couple..." Why they protected their garden, the garbage, their stairs, Wood confesses, "took me years to know this, to see how loss can tighten your grip on the things still possible to hold."

"We were an ordinary family; a mill family, not the stuff of opera," Wood intones. If you are seeking thrills, I suggest another book. Wood's keen observations of everyday life in an everyday sort of town are exciting in a different way. Reading them is comforting, recognizable, because that is how most of us live: we get up, brush our teeth, go to work, and carry on. It's not a memoir of nervous breakdowns and epiphanies (though they are woven in the fabric of this wonderful book); it's a love song to close-knit communities everywhere and what they have given: community, promise, and an inheritance that is as inescapable as one's own DNA.

"Here we go people say at these humdrum moments of repetition, the day's momentum released by the turn of a key or the punch of a time card..." What's not humdrum is Wood's writing. Her sentences are rhythmic and every word choice is triumphant, deliberate, and rooted in Maine: "Father Bob is still here, sitting next to the birdcage, breathing like a gut-shot deer" or "The garden memory, like all memory of Dad, lives as a shard of mica embedded in smooth gray stone. This lovely man, irretrievable but through these glints and flickers." For anyone growing up in western Maine, the tantalizing glitter of mica is very real, as real as that childhood promise Wood writes of in her prologue.

Wood's biggest coup is this: while Richard Russo's Empire Falls and Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and I admire each book), both take place in Maine, but neither of them get Maine right; they are a flatlander's view of a misunderstood state and perpetuate the oft-unrealistic portrayal of Maine in fiction and beyond. Granted, they were works of fiction, but there's not a "gut-shot deer" to be seen. Living in rural Maine, far away from candle shops and clambakes, near a pulp and paper mill is no seaside fete. Unlike Russo's characters, Wood understands most mill families didn't visit the seaside in the summer, and unlike Elizabeth Strout's Kitteridge, Mainers all are not quirky, stoic, and thus adorable. Wood's story is as real as the filthy river we both grew up on.

Where Wood's story ends, my own begins. She leaves Mexico around 1972 for Georgetown University while I was starting kindergarten. In my book, the mill is the main character. In Wood's book, the mill chuffs in the background, filling the town with sulfur dioxide and jobs, an ever-present Wizard of Oz.

The only Mexico we knew was this one, ours, with its single main street and its one bowling alley and its convent and church steeples and our fathers over there, just across the river, toiling inside a brick-and-steel complex with heaven-high smokestacks that shot great, gorgeous steam clouds into the air so steadily we couldn't tell where mill left off and sky began.

Wood writes, "People die either unexpectedly or after lingering" and in Mexico death is typically via heart attack or cancer, the former one of my father's biggest fears come to fruition in the 1980s when he had a triple bypass. Wood and I inherited many good things yes, however, with the good comes the bad. The continuous huffing and puffing of the mill in Wood's book is like a mantra everyone in the community hummed to themselves. He practically lived there. The work will kill him. He practically lived there. The work will kill him. And it did. And killed many more good men. And it will probably kill me from the poisons I swam in, gulped down, or breathed in during my formative years.

When I told her I was reviewing her book she wrote, "We can call it 'our' Mexico." Wood's generosity as a writer and a person is profound.