Saturday, January 21, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

When my Dad was visiting with my stepmother at Thanksgiving, he helped me fine-tune the organization of books in my "museum library." Most are nonfiction, but a rare exception is a slim paperback copy of We Have Always Lived at the Castle by American author Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). Dad's curiosity was aroused by the cover illustration (above), and when he asked me I told him it was my favorite book of all time. I sent it home with him so he could read it, and when he mailed it back he included a few questions. I can't answer them here without spoiling the plot, but - after rereading and savoring it all over again - I can summarize why I like it so much:
5) Authentic actions of the cat, which cat owners will readily picture in their minds: "The day outside was full of changing light, and Jonas danced in and out of shadows as he followed me. When I ran Jonas ran, and when I stopped and stood still he stopped and glanced at me and then went briskly off in another direction, as though we were not acquainted, and then he sat down and waited for me to run again."
4) A delicious twist as the morbid story unfolds: "'My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead, young man. She did not survive the loss of her family. I supposed you knew that.'"
3) An economy of details that is still very rich, accompanied by an effectively repetitive dialog: "'Tomorrow I will barricade the sides of the house. Tomorrow Jonas will catch us a rabbit. Tomorrow I will guess for you what time it is.'"
2) Vivid imagery of the sisters living in their vandalized house, salvaging 2 teacups that still have handles and improvising tablecloths for clothes, unconcerned that part of the roof has burned off: "Usually I ate fruit and vegetables still moist from the ground and the air, but I disliked eating anything while it was still dirty with the ash from our burned house. Most of the dirt and the soot had blown away and the air around the garden was fresh and clean, but the smoke was in the ground and I thought it would always be there."
1) Intriguing details of the magical thinking that occupies the younger sister's mind and time, as she nails a book to a tree and buries marbles and silver dollars as means of protection: "I decided that I would choose 3 powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come."
Jackson's stories and novels have been adapted for stage and screen, but her most famous story "The Lottery" (read it here) was much more powerful in print. If I have piqued your interest, you can buy a new or Kindle edition of We Have Always Lived at the Castle (or a used edition for less than $1) at Amazon.

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