By Joyce Carol Oates, 1990
This book had escaped me, although I’m a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates, until Mother Tongue magazine shared it on Instagram.
It’s the story of Calla, told by her granddaughter in mythical-like tangents that keep you turning the pages quickly. Calla’s mother died when she was young, and after a series of events winds up married to a man she doesn’t like and with children she didn’t really want. The quote above is from a brief conversation she has with her husband, Freilicht, when he comments on her “indifference to her children” one Easter. Calla then falls in love with a Black man and runs off with him in Thelma and Louise style.
The short novel raises many questions. Of course Calla’s life is shrouded in mystery. She was known for being very strange, even without the affair and her ‘indifference’ to her children and husband, so there is not much known with certainty about her. It might have been more interesting to hear this story from Calla’s daughter, but her granddaughter’s narration indicates she is the first to investigate Calla’s life with any level of interest. Perhaps in these situations — when a daughter grows up with an absent mother — the daughter doesn’t care to know or understand why. Perhaps she is angry or dubious of finding any excuses. Perhaps it is only the woman herself who has lived the experience who should decide whether to share her story.
Calla’s story serves as just one example of the millions of women’s stories that are lost to history, buried in embarrassment, shame, or lack of interest. It is a reminder that we have a responsibility to ask questions of our elders, to care enough to know them and their lives. It tells us that mothers had lives apart from their children that those children rarely care to ask about. Four stars.