Creating Family


Katherine Hauswirth


Whether you consider it fact or fiction, it’s no accident that the story of Christ starts with an expectant mother who’s conceived the hope of the world. Immaculate conception or not, pregnant mothers often serve as icons for the possibilities of humanity, so they are carrying a weight that’s not purely physical. When I got to the stage of pregnancy where I was obviously showing, I was struck, like countless mothers before me, by the great interest and concern many complete strangers had for the welfare of my growing baby.

Both books I read this week had pregnant women as pivotal characters, and both stories featured new ties that hinged on the promise of new life. The novel Strange but True begins in the midst of harrowing circumstances. The central family has survived, but just barely, the loss of Ronnie Chase. Strong, smart Ronnie never makes it past prom night. His girlfriend is maimed in the limousine accident, and so is his parents’ marriage. Five years later, surviving brother Philip is back at home with his mother Charlene, who makes it clear that the wrong son has died. He reads suicidal poetry. She is bloated and bitter, numbing her senses with whatever food is within reach.

Into the darkened home of Philip and Charlene steps the damaged girlfriend, with literally unbelievable news: she’s pregnant with Ronnie’s child. Of course, this can’t physiologically be the case—any kind of postmortem artificial insemination is quickly ruled out. Clearly Melissa must be delusional, but she insists that she’s never been with anyone but Ronnie—it has to be his child. She finds the anticipation of Ronnie’s baby a great comfort that she wants to share with his family.

While Charlene’s infuriated at Melissa’s bizarre suggestion, it kicks her into action. She reenters the outside world to investigate. Philip, who’s been struggling on many levels, is also compelled to step outside of his narrow existence and seek a real connection. The lives of the characters intertwine and interact in unexpected ways in this artfully written tale that is rounded out juicily with a dark, suspenseful parallel plot.

Kent Haruf’s Plainsong is a novel, too, but it’s not as plot driven as Strange but True. Rather, the chapters encapsulate an assortment of characters who occupy the small town of Holt somewhere on the American plains. There’s schoolteacher Guthrie, his estranged wife Ella, their boys Ike and Bobby, Guthrie’s new love Maggie, and the aging McPheron brothers, who are farmers. Unmarried and pregnant, Victoria, like Melissa in Strange but True, is an unexpected and potent catalyst, particularly for the McPherons. Nothing especially earthshaking or unusual happens, but as the characters gradually come into focus it becomes clear that these seemingly disparate lives are quietly touching and unfolding in tandem.

On the whole, the characters populating Holt have a simple, essential goodness. They’re not saints but in their own ways they find the means to help and paths for new relationships. Maggie sees Victoria’s need for a home and she sees the loneliness of the McPheron brothers, decent men who have only each other. With her nudging Victoria’s now living on the farm.

Haruf’s prose grabbed me, because it is, on the surface, so plain. It’s telling that the face page of the book holds a definition of plainsong—“…any simple and unadorned melody or air.” Flipping through the book for an example of powerful text, it occurred to me that this text is much more than the sum of its parts. The people are ordinary; they speak in an ordinary, unadorned manner. But there’s a subtle and comforting subtext about human decency being established with quiet, matter-of-fact language. It’s as if it gets told in the spaces between the words. Here’s one scenario involving Victoria and the old men. The men sense a new restlessness in Victoria and come up with a solution. They venture out to shop for baby things:

Together they made a kind of parade. People on the square, shoppers, women and teenage girls and old retired men, turning to stare as the two old men and the pregnant girl went by. Out in the winter air it was colder now and the sun was already starting to lean toward the west, while across the street the granite-block courthouse loomed up gray and solid under its green tiled roof. At the curb they set the boxes in the bed of the pickup and lashed them down with yellow binder twine from the toolbox. Then they backed out into the street and drove slowly out of town, riding up out of the South Platte River valleys onto the cold winter flatlands of the high plains.

Not everyone in Plainsong is thoughtful and kind. Brutish men do brutish things. There’s an ugly family who just won’t relent in their ugliness. But Victoria is coming around to some wisdom about which people, however odd they may seem, are the best fit for her rapidly changing life—a very valuable lesson for a girl still in high school and soon to become a mother. Other characters, too, are finding “ties that bind.”

This is one of those weeks when the two books I picked up seemed to have little to do with each other, other than the pregnant women they each featured. One was about a grieving family thrown off course by loss and then, inexplicably, on course by bizarre events that follow years later. The other was about the comings and goings within a community on the plains. I think of a boyfriend I had who was so impressed with a professor because he revealed that, “It’s all interconnected”. At the time I thought, well, of course it is! But my boyfriend was impressed with the many examples his professor put forth, making his statement seem so compelling and wise. Both Strange but True and Plainsong, though quite different on the surface, manage to accomplish the same thing by highlighting the intricate way that our lives overlap. Sometimes a sense of family comes from the least expected places. Sometimes we form our true family amid the detritus of what’s been lost. We reach out, we connect, and, gradually, we find our way home.

Books mentioned in this column:
Strange but True, by John Searles (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2005)
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf (Vintage, 1999)


Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



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