Bettyville–George Hodgman


This is categorized as a memoir, but it’s really a love letter–and a confession.  Bettyville is a love letter to Hodgman’s parents.  This might be expected of his mother, based on the title (his mother is Betty), but it’s also a love letter to his father, Big George.  It’s a love letter to his hometown, Paris (Missouri) and to the life of all small Midwestern towns full of farmers and church-going hardworking folks.  It’s not a love letter with blinders, and this is where the confessional element comes in.  As Hodgman shares his love for his parents and hometown, he also unravels how complicated that love is, due in large part to his being gay in an era when no one in smalltown Midwest anywhere had heard of Pride.  What is amazing, given his story and his struggles, is that Hodgman loves the people who would not accept him, who made him shear off parts of himself that he spends his adult life trying to put back together (or realizing that he needs to).

Hodgman’s prose is poetic.  His is one of those books that I read and re-read passage after passage, line after line because the language itself is stunning.  This is not entirely surprising given that Hodgman spent years editing others’ work.  Those years paid huge dividends in Bettyville.

When his father, who never mentioned or accepted Hodgman’s sexuality, dies:

“I flew at 6am the morning after he died.  At home, I felt his presence.  The place was filled with him, as it had been, though he was missing and his big chair, where I had last seen him, empty.  Near his workbench, I spotted two gifts, handmade, left for me to find: The first was a small cube with photographs glued on every side.  To keep the pictures safe, to make them last,  a coat of polish had been carefully applied.  The photographs, views of our backyard at different times through the year, showed the way it looks in snow, in springtime when the trees are in blossom, in summer when all is green, and in fall when the leaves are colorful…My father’s hands were swollen when he made this memento, all the seasons of home, for me. He was dying.  He could barely grasp a pencil….. a second gift, a wooden hand created by tracing his own on a piece of wood.  Like the cube, it was carefully polished.  At the base where the wrist is, there are three carved letters: GAH, his initials and mine.  I was grateful for these gifts.  I had wanted some goodbye and he had left it, without saying anything.  My silent old man.”


On his hometown and the people in it:

“Mammy’s people were farm people.  Sometimes it is simply to imagine them, those who lived here once, all the good people, crossing the river, coming in from the country for church on Sunday mornings with clean, coerced hair and their best clothes.  Think of wrinkled faces, mischievous eyes, hands in immaculate white gloves, wistfulness, innocence, worry over money, or crops, or sickness.  Think of the men, itchy to get back to work; mayors and merchants in their hard-pressed white shirts, tight collars, and stiff coats; lacy girls in ribbons; stoic boys, uncomfortable in their finery, confined in rarely worn shiny shoes; big-boned farm women with ample bosoms in dimestore brooches; old, milky-eyed codgers, freshly shaved with a few hairs still peeking out of their ears and noses; mothers with careful glances, pulling their kids away from puddles, holding their hands, smoothing, their hair, and wiping their cheeks.  I picture them all moving across the land, the days, through time, crossing Main Street, clutching their crosses and Bibles, trying to stay pretty, trying to look pious, walking together, traveling in their snorting, hard-to-start cars, or heading toward town in their buggies or on horseback to bow their heads and pray together to Jesus, who, in the stories I read, stood for love, charity, and kindness offered every day to others, even those unlike ourselves.  Kindness may be the most difficult of virtues, but when I have encountered it, it has meant everything to me.”

But not blind:

“Every week or so, a gay kid somewhere jumps off a bridge or slashes his wrists.  I am told that a boy near here hanged himself because his father could not accept who he was.  On television, I listen to the things they say, the right-wingers, and fundamentalists, and all the people who consolidate their power by hurting other people.  I want to cover up the ears of kids and say ‘Do not take it in.’ I took it in.  I really did.  I heard everything that people in the world around me said about who I was.  It hurt me, but I thought I had no right to say anything because I was wrong.  I didn’t know what silence would cost, how it would change my life.  It takes a long time to outrun the things that the world drills into you.”

Betty, with her list of forgotten words, her list of hymns, her struggles with her hair and her natty old sandals.  Betty, emotionally distant, but George’s champion–“Mind your own business”, “You are my business.”

Do yourself a favor.  Read this beautiful book.

Finished 7/31/16


Elizabeth is Missing–Emma Healey

Debut novels often err in revealing the skeleton that supports the skin.  Emma Healey’s debut novel offers us a debut novel that turns our entire idea of the organism on its head.

Maud, an older woman of unnamed age (although later facts suggest she’s in her nineties), narrates the story, which takes its title from her overriding concern about the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth.  Maud’s memory is slipping and she uses little notes, which she sticks in her pockets and around her house, as memory aids.  Many of these pertain to Elizabeth, who used to work at the charity shop with her, whose house is fronted by a stone wall with colored rocks along the top.  Elizabeth’s house is one of the “new” houses built after the war.  Elizabeth collects majolica pottery and specializes in pieces that features reptiles and bugs.  This fascination suits Maud, who collects odd bits, including the occasional bug exoskeleton.  Maud has a carer in the mornings and her daughter, Helen, checks on her in the afternoons/evenings.

Healey quickly leaves us clues, like Maud’s slips of paper, to let us know that Maud’s memory is going more quickly than Maud realizes.  Soon we are questioning whether she should be left alone.  The anxiety over Maud’s welfare is just one emotion that Healey ratchets up over the course of the novel.  She manipulates our concern about Elizabeth like the conductor of an orchestra, first leading it one way, then another.  Just when we think we have a handle on what is happening, we discover that Maud’s sister, Sukey, disappeared when she was young and was never found.  Maud’s concern about Elizabeth’s disappearance seems to evoke memories of Sukey’s disappearance and soon the two become a bit confused.  As we learn more of the facts behind the two cases, as we become more clear, Maud becomes less clear and is moved out of her home and in with her daughter and granddaughter, whom she does not always recognize.

This novel grabbed my heart from the first page and did not let go even when I closed the covers.  I ached for Maud and her slow descent into dementia.  I ached for the long-standing wound left by the loss of her sister, ripped open anew by the loss of her best friend.  I ached for her daughter, who by turns mourned the loss of her mother and felt embittered by the responsibility left to her by her distant brother.  Healey made me ache from so many directions there was no relief no matter which way I looked in the plot.

The structure of this novel also grabbed me as I first sensed and then, when I had to close the pages because reading was just too intense at times, analyzed that the emotional wreckage was not all that was disturbing.  Healey creates a narrator who was lovable but untrustworthy, although to what degree was unclear.  Maud’s dementia made her a destabilizing narrator and Healey never gives us a second or third voice with which to right ourselves.

Elizabeth is Missing is going on my shelf, but I will not need to reopen its covers to remember why it earned its place there.  I cannot wait to see where Emma Healey takes us next.

Finished 11/10/15