"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Not the Husband, Not the Father

Salida, Colorado ~ known in Kent Haruf's fiction as Holt
I took this photo on 23 September 2017
at the Kent Haruf Literary Celebration,
where I presented the following paper:

"They were not the husband . . . they were not the father":
Nativity Play in the Novels of Kent Haruf

My first reading of Plainsong and Eventide happened to be during the Christmas season, a coincidence of timing that has indelibly informed my understanding of the connections shared by Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenage girl with nowhere to stay, and the noble McPheron brothers -- Harold and Raymond, who, to everyone's surprise, including their own, take her in on their farm. The community at large find the relationship difficult to comprehend. As the post - delivery nurse In Plainsong points out ". . . they were not the husband, were they, they were not the father . . . " (289); and as Victoria has to explain with some exasperation to her curious apartment manager in Eventide, the McPherons are neither grandfathers nor uncles nor preachers: "But they did save me . . . when I needed help so badly (7 - 8).

In their generosity, Harold and Raymond step up to meet whatever needs they can for this young expectant stranger. No matter how confused and uncertain Victoria may be, the kindly elderly brothers radiate calm and stability. If you like to think, as I do, that the true message of Christmas is ~ "Be nice to pregnant women, no matter who the father of the baby is and regardless of their legal marital status; and to babies no matter who their parents are; and don't ask questions that are none of your business" ~ then the McPherons are the embodiment of the Spirit of Christmas. As Raymond says a few years later, looking back on the early days of Victoria's pregnancy: "I didn't much care for it myself. The way people talked. I couldn't see how it was much of anybody else's business" (Eventide, 247).

Moving from Holt County to long - ago Bethlehem, the McPherons are Wisemen, Shepherds, and Innkeepers, all rolled into one, doing the best they can to care for the pregnant virgin. When they first agree to take Victoria in, Harold confides in Raymond, "This ain't going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic," and Raymond responds, "No, it ain't . . . But I don't recall you ever attending Sunday school either" (Plainsong, 113). In this paper, instead of a Sunday school picnic, it's going to be a Nativity play (or perhaps a medieval pageant, 69)! An annunciation of sorts takes place when Maggie Jones arrives at the McPheron farm to inform Harold and Raymond that "I want something improbable" (109). Remember what the Angel Gabriel says to Mary: "For with God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37). The stage is set for a miracle play.

Standing at the center of this living nativity are three dramatic figures, Victoria, naive and apprehensive, and the two gruff farmers, somewhat careworn but well - intentioned. Imagine Harold and Raymond as creche figures, standing in the manger scene. When Maggie first drives out to request their assistance, "They . . . approached her slowly, calmly, as deliberately as church deacons" (106); and when Maggie brings Victoria out to meet them for the first time: "They came out of the house at once onto the little screened porch and stood waiting . . . like two lifelike statues of minor saints" (125). Now imagine Victoria as a stand - in for the Virgin Mary, troubled and vulnerable. Her morning sickness notwithstanding, she still appears virginal, wearing a white sleeping shirt by night and a white tee shirt by day (whereas her harsh unyielding mother wears a "stained blue satin robe" 8 - 10).

As the day begins, Victoria's mother, Betty, who has been broken by the world and has her own problems, displays a heart - breaking lack of compassion. Even when Victoria pleads: “Help me, Mama. I need you to help me” (10), Betty Roubideaux (not to be confused with Betty June Wallace in Eventide) remains unmoved. To Victoria's credit, she possesses an understated determination that carries her through the unfolding crisis. After the early morning altercation with her mother, she pulls herself together and "walked to school in a kind of dream . . . past the display windows of the stores, watching her reflection, how she walked and carried her body, and as yet she could see no change. There was nothing she could discern outwardly" (10 - 11). The pregnancy is still a secret that she carries within herself, as she seems to float, dreamily down the street. She makes it through the day, attending classes, warding off unwelcome advances from an older boy, working hard at her after - school job, and finally drifting home in the early autumn night: " . . . the air was turning sharp, with a fall feeling of loneliness coming. Something unaccountable pending in the air " (31).

Sadly, the day ends, as it began, in conflict. Victoria is once again at odds with Betty, who has hardened her heart and locked her daughter out of the house. Victoria implores in vain: “Mama. Let me in now. Do you hear me? . . . I'm sorry, Mama. Please. Can't you hear me?” But the inside lights go out. Now what? In a scene right out of "The Little Match Girl," Victoria sits waif - like on the front step: "She seemed to fade away, to drift and wander in a kind of daze of sorrow and disbelief. She sobbed a little. She stared out at the silent trees and the dark street and the houses across the street where people were moving about reasonably in the bright rooms beyond the windows . . . She sat staring out, not moving. Later she came out of that" (31 - 32).

This is Victoria, just like Mary, pondering her condition in her heart and deciding what to do next. Yes, she feels abandoned and betrayed, but she will soon be a mother and must come up with a plan. Seeing the more "reasonable" family over the road has given her an idea. Just as the newly pregnant young Virgin Mary struck out on her own to visit her older Cousin Elisabeth, so the temporarily homeless Victoria sets out alone, through the chilly night, following the streets of Holt to the house of her teacher Maggie Jones. Though not with child herself, Maggie's role is similar to that of the biblical Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist when Mary learns of her own pregnancy: "And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah; and entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth."

Maggie has the benefit of life experience to share with Victoria, who arrives on foot at bedtime to confide in a trusted adult. Victoria appears on Maggie’s doorstep, with nowhere else to go, the pregnant virgin in search of a safe place to rest. Maggie's first gesture is to offer comfort and adorn her unexpected visitor as one might a nativity statuette: she "took up a throw blanket from the couch and draped it around the girl’s shoulders. . . .The girl looked tired and sad, the blanket wrapped about her shoulders as though she were some survivor of a train wreck or flood." Maggie is very gentle with Victoria but also direct: “For God’s sake. Did you not know any better . . . did you not use any protection at all?” Victoria, in return, answers frankly about her romantic encounters with the boy who told her that her "beautiful eyes . . . were like black diamonds lit up on a starry night" (33, 35, 36).

The conception of her baby was not immaculate, but it may as well have been, for all that Victoria reveals about the father. When Maggie asks, "But who was he?" Victoria answers, "A boy. . . . I don't want to say . . . He won't claim it. . . . He's not the fathering kind. . . . I don't think you would know him" (34). She keeps his name a secret; and his whereabouts are a mystery: "He's from another town . . . he doesn't live here. He lives somewhere else." Harold refers to the absent boyfriend as if he were a breeding animal, asking Maggie, "What about the sire . . . Where does he come into this?" Maggie is thrown off at first by the breeding lingo, but suddenly realizes, "Who? . . . Oh. You mean the baby's father" (109).

In dealing with the situation, Maggie reveals an intuitive wisdom similar to that of the Virgin Mary's cousin Elisabeth: "And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. . . . And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord" (Luke 1: 39 - 42, 45). As Elisabeth prophesies, so does Maggie, providing a latter day Magnificat of cynicism and challenge. First, to Victoria, Maggie predicts: “Oh, honey . . . I do feel sorry for you. You’re going to have such a hard time. You just don’t know it yet” (37). Second, to the McPherons, as she persuades them to take Victoria in, Maggie points out: “You’re going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance” (110).

The McPheron's are tempted, as we all are, to buy their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, if possible. Is Maggie asking for a donation of money for Victoria? They would gladly contribute, but "No. She needs a lot more than that." After listening to Maggie's proposal, Harold says, "Hell, Maggie . . . Let's go back to the money part. Money'd be a lot easier." However, after some consideration, both Harold and Raymond are willing to do this huge favor for Maggie and Victoria, to alter their life-long routines and embrace the unknown possibilities of the good deed at hand. Victoria has already been rejected by her mother, turned away from her own home, locked out of the house. Maggie’s place serves for a time but does not prove to be a safe haven, as Maggie is dealing also with her unwell elderly father. Truly there has been no room at the inn for Victoria, but with her introduction to Harold and Raymond McPheron, that is about to change. The way they see it, the unexpected pregnancy needn't be a negative turn of events for this solitary mother - to - be, bereft of friends and relatives.

As Innkeepers, they open their home to Victoria. They tidy up, carefully attempting to see each room through the eyes of a girl. They anticipate Victoria's need not only for physical shelter but for emotional comfort and privacy as well. Their domestic skills include a sense of tradition, as they search out old treasures from their own mother's household effects and personal collections. On Maggie's first night at the farm, Harold checks on her before bedtime and sees what might easily be taken for a portrait of the Madonna, complete with heavenly halo: Victoria “was sitting up in bed in a square – necked winter nightgown with a sweater pulled over her shoulders, a schoolbook and a blue notepad propped up in her lap, while the lamp beside the bed cast yellow light onto her clear face and her shining hair” (132).

As Wisemen, Raymond and Harold can read the stars in the sky at night. There are so many beautiful examples to choose from, but perhaps the most mystical occurs in Eventide when Raymond observes ". . . the sky overhead clear of any cloud, the stars as clean and bright as if they were no more distant than the next barbed - wire fence post . . . everything all around him distinct and unhidden. He loved how it all looked, except he would never have said it that way. He might have said that this was just how it was supposed to look, out on the high plains at the end of winter, on a clear fresh night" (Eventide, 206). This is the mystical Colorado sky as Raymond reads it, as Haruf shares it with us through every feast and season.

Furthermore, like the Wisemen of yore, Harold and Raymond come bearing gifts! Surely there is no scene more delightful than the excursion to the department store, in search of nursery furniture. This is a new venue for the brothers, but they are equal to the task of choosing the best baby crib available, and all of the accessories. When they call Maggie for advice about buying a crib, she teases them, "I'm to understand that you don't mean a corn crib." Victoria is overcome with emotion at their generosity. Like the Virgin Mary, she would be only too pleased with a humble manger. But the way Harold and Raymond see it, nothing is too good for this first - time mother and her coming child, plus they are enjoying the shopping trip: "We're having us some fun here. . . . It's all right . . . It is. You'll just have to believe that" (Plainsong, 176, 182).

As Shepherds, their understanding of fertility and birth on the farm enables them to help Victoria at this crucial and vulnerable time. Raymond scolds Harold for comparing Victoria's pre-natal habits to those of a young heifer. "She's not a cow!" Raymond insists. " She's not a heifer!" But Harold persists in his analogy, drawing on familiar knowledge to improve his understanding of the unfamiliar: "Both of them is young. Both of them's out in the country with only us here to watch out for em. Both is carrying a baby for the first time. Just think about it" (174).

They take admirable care of their "flock" -- the many head of cattle who depend upon them for a good, safe existence. When the birthing season begins and the first heifer goes into labor, Harold and Raymond carry a lantern out to the calf shed, just as we might envision the biblical shepherds on their way to Bethlehem to witness the birth. It is a hard delivery -- a struggle for heifer, calf, and ranchers -- but successful in the end. As the heifer settles in to clean and feed her newborn calf, the brothers return to the house in a reverie drawn from a Christmas carol: "By now it was after midnight. It was cold and bleak outside the shed and utterly quiet. Overhead, the stars in the unclouded sky looked as cold and arctic as ice" (Plainsong, 204).

No, they are not the husband, father, grandfather, uncle, or preacher. Maybe deacons, saints, innkeepers, wisemen, or shepherds. Cattle farmers certainly. Guardians of youth and innocence. Realistic to a fault, romantic in spite of themselves. Friends indeed. Most importantly they rise to the occasion of befriending Victoria, never judging, always advocating on her behalf, bringing the light of Christmas to the community of Holt.

Thanks to the Kent Haruf ~ Literary Celebration

Previously on FN

Christmas Star at the Palace Hotel

Stairs Going Up

Stairs Going Down

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, December 28

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Haruf (Rhymes with Sheriff)"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST ~ "Everything by Kent Haruf"
my running list of recent reading

No comments:

Post a Comment