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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Up in a Tree

From up in a dogwood tree a young girl watches her mother weed a garden, while down on the ground below her less tree-worthy friend Peggy watches. This opening scene from a story evoking a young girl's world, with its grudgingly shared awarenesses and insights ("I sighed, because how to climb a tree was so simple—you just did it—but I knew I would have to show her how, again.") puts me in mind of Dan Pope's delightful 2003 novel, In the Cherry Tree—and not just because of the tree, but because that book, too, does a beautiful job of rendering childhood on the verge of adolescence.

Pope's novel opens thus:
Summer days began without a plan. You got up. You had a bowl of cereal. You went outside. A lawn mower hummed. Ducks passed overhead in perfect V formation like World War Two bombers. A dog barked, and another dog barked back. Somebody was hammering nails into a roof. Somebody was bouncing a basketball three streets away. You heard the echo, not the sound itself. A cat crept across the grass an disappeared beneath a hedge. It was hot. The sun was strong. The crickets made a seething noise. A sprinkler came on and made a quiet rain sound when the water hit the grass and then a louder rain sound when the water hit the street.
The effectiveness of Pope's rendering is achieved in large part through a style that leans heavily on blunt declarative sentences ("You got up") that echo the thudding rhythms of a grade school primer ("See Jane run"). Through such artless sentences his fictional world—one readers of post-Baby Boomer vintage will recognize immediately—declares itself to us with the stark immediacy of a series of street signs: "Caution: Children at Play." No time for fancy wordplay or syntactical pyrotechnics here, only what is—or was: a world experienced almost exclusively through the senses by characters who, because they are still largely children, are natural sensualists.

Less brilliantly, the given opening page achieves a like effect. The writing, though not as stylistically pointed or original, is assured; there are few wasted words, and the sentence offer syntactical variety without self-conscious effort. ("Landing was almost as good as climbing a different kind of scary.") One can quibble that the verb "to be" is overused—and not, as Dan Brown overuses it, intentionally for its plodding, blunt-instrument rhythms, but simply through oversight. But that's a nit-pick.

I do question opening with a snatch of disembodied dialogue, a tactic that I almost always find disagreeable, as it intends by way of withholding context to catch readers by surprise and momentarily disorient them, and it does. But to what end? I have no idea who is speaking, nor does the first paragraph answer the question. I must read on to the next paragraph to even discover the presence of another character, and beyond that to discover who has spoken. Would it not be as good or better to say up front, "From down on the ground Peggy shouted up to me, 'Do you like your mom?'"?

The question is important, as it points to what appears to lie at the heart of this opening and very probably of the story itself: a question of mothers and their relationships to their daughters, and specifically of the tree-climbing narrator's relationship with her mom. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that the story opens with the protagonist having gained the perspective offered by height. I'm reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne's brilliant sketch, "Sights from a Steeple," which begins, "So! I have climbed high, and my reward is small." Being high up off the ground may give us perspective, but it also cuts us off, alienates us, turns us into lonesome gods.

The question lights up this otherwise nicely rendered but rudimentary scene with implications that all may not be sunshine and dogwood pedals on Covewood Drive: that there are issues here that this story intends to unearth. I would keep reading.


  1. Thanks so much, Peter. While seeing the phrase, "Less brilliantly," in reference to one's work is something of a heart-stopper, the comments are helpful, particularly this:

    "I must read on to the next paragraph to even discover the presence of another character, and beyond that to discover who has spoken. Would it not be as good or better to say up front, "From down on the ground Peggy shouted up to me, 'Do you like your mom?'"?

    This points to a significant flaw in my opening page—it's not Peggy who asks, it's the narrator. So, back to work; but not before basking in the warm glow of your final comments. It is nice to know that I succeeded in letting you know it wasn't all sunshine and dogwood petals; even better to think you'd keep reading.

  2. Trust me, there are worse things writing less brilliantly than Dan Pope does in his novel. which is a stylistic tour-de-force. Your novel may well offer something equal or better in some other department, so hopefully you're heart can start beating again!

    I did wonder, by the way, who spoke that first line. I guessed wrong.

  3. My heart is pumping at the usual rate, thanks. I'm made of tough stuff.

    You shouldn't have had to guess; I think I depended too much on the second page where it becomes obvious.

    By the way, it's a memoir, not a novel (another thing I probably could have mentioned sooner—I'm seeing a trend).