Blackbird Blues raises questions about what constitutes a family, what family members owe each other, especially their children, and what they owe themselves. Voices of two women from two different generations tell their stories: Sister Michaeline in her 1940’s diary and Mary Kaye O’Donnell in the main text, set in 1963.
After I finished writing Blackbird Blues I found myself drawn to reading other novels that are steeped in similar themes. As it happens, I’ve had to devote about two-and-a half hours of time to physical therapy every day, due to a recent back and neck surgery, stemming from an old accident. When I was ten years old the horse on which I was riding stumbled and rolled over with me in the saddle, crushing me underneath. Luckily, I’ve been able to harvest that PT time for reading by switching to audiobooks. Here are a few that I have found particularly thought-provoking, resonating with Blackbird Blues in different ways:
Paulette Jiles’ magnificently written, deeply moving News of the World is set in 1870 Texas, about seven generations ago. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an elderly veteran of three wars, makes his living bringing the news from town to town, reading newspapers to public gatherings. An honorable man, Kidd is pressed into service to help a 10-year-old white girl, who, along with her family, was kidnapped by Indians four years earlier. The girl is released, but since the rest of her family is dead, Kidd agrees to try to return her to an aunt and uncle miles away.
The heart of the story is the development of the relationship between Kidd and the girl, who so assimilated into the tribe that she does not remember her native language or answer to her name, “Johanna.” Kidd meets Johanna on her own ground and tenderly and sensitively fosters a rapport in which they learn to trust each other.
In my view, Jiles has done well to draw on contemporary research on post-traumatic stress disorder, which is implicit but never spelled out in the novel. And in Captain Kidd she has drawn a portrait of how any parent ideally should deal with a troubled child. There is not a whiff of sentimentalism or didacticism in this novel. I point out Kidd’s parenting skills in light of the theme of “What do we owe our children, what do we owe ourselves?”
Elizabeth Strout has given us a pair of exquisitely written novels—My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible—which together deal with the question “What do we owe our children, what do we owe ourselves?” The novels must be read in order because the first presents itself as an accurate memoir. The second follows as a sharp corrective, exposing the various family members and their neighbors, warts and all. There are a number of layers of meaning to be appreciated. Among them, to my ear, is the unspoken assertion that, ultimately, we owe ourselves and our children the truth.
In my audiobook listening of late, the biggest surprise has been how much I enjoyed Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, published in England (after being serialized) in 1869. The entire novel centers around the ins and outs of a husband’s insistence that his wife submit to his total possession of her. He sends her away when she defies his prohibition against meeting with a friend of her father’s from her childhood and allowing that man to address her by her Christian name. Think of the changes in relationships between husbands and wives in only seven generations!
Many readers have little interest in older novels these days. But Trollope’s finely crafted characters and his psychologically driven plot make He Knew He was Right well worth reading. It is relevant to our times, both because of what is different now and what is still the same.