BASS 2018: Carolyn Ferrell, “A History of China” from Ploughshares Solo 5.4

Every year at the family reunion – before Cousin Monique comes to your rescue – the uncles sit back in their folding chairs and napkin-necks and ask about your father. They take you in with age-soggy eyes, as you stand before them in a floppy blouson and skirt. You look different now than you did in 1970 or 1981 or 1997 – though you still have what lyrical Aunt Vitrine calls your swan quality. Cousin Monique had wanted to ditch the reunion for the shopping mall in Auntsville; she has always been your wings and, as such, was born to ignore the uncles: in 1970, she set fire to the truck belonging to one uncle and claimed it was lightning; in 1981, she put Ex-Lax in their pound cake frosting. Now she is nowhere to be seen. There’s no reason we can’t have fun at the reunion, you told her the night before, when she picked you up at Raleigh Airport. You’re right, Monique replied, grinning in the dark, the car pulling faster and faster along the blind curves of the road. Slave food and rockheads. I don’t see why that would in any way be an obstacle to fun, cousin.

My apologies: I found this story of a family reunion very difficult to follow. Mostly, it’s the timeline: we jump from present to past, to another time in the past, back to present with a remembered past, to past remembering past. Of the many names thrown around at the reunion, and in the past, it seems three characters make up the core of the story (second-person narrator Sasha Jean, her mother Elspeth, and her father Bobby Lee), two of whom are now dead. Then there’s Cousin Monique, who doesn’t seem to have much of a role but was for me a welcomed anchor to the present.

And then, running through the story in the form of section headers, there’s the history of china. Not China: china. Dishes. Everything from Dixie and Chinet to Pfaltzgraff, Lenox, and Dansk. Ferrell’s Contributor Note indicates the story began with a long-ago job for a china company, when she was fired because she didn’t have “what it takes to succeed in that world.” I’m not sure what it takes to succeed in the china world, but other worlds benefit from the mismatch. Sometimes the china connection was obvious: Dixie at an outdoor reunion picnic makes sense, and Mom left her home in Germany to marry Bobby Lee carrying a suitcase of stolen dishes from her own mother’s kitchen, dishes that Bobby Lee broke throwing the suitcase in the trunk, in as clear a metaphor as ever written. After all, he’s the guy writing gooey letters that turn out to be fictitious when she arrives.

Not to mention what he does to Sasha Jean:

It was nothing more than a few weeks’ worth of touching. The moon came out from your Mother Goose window and stared in shock. His finger didn’t even make it in all the way. Do you like this, your father asked No, you answered, It took another five and a half weeks for him to get that through his head.
Ach, du meine Güte! Heaven, hear me.
Your mother said she would leave him, take you and your brothers back to Germany. There was no way she could stay with a child molester. A monster.
Heaven, don’t stop hearing me!
But then weeks, more than a year passed.

That’s a beautifully written passage, conveying so much. The sprinkle of German. The absence of help. And again, we see normalization: even a child molester can be minimized to avoid the substantial disruption of leaving. And another china connection: Elspeth takes Sasha Jean shopping for dishes after she finds out about the abuse, which seems to be quite some time after it happened.

The present-day plot of the story hinges on Sasha Jean’s recent inheritance of the 37 acres on which various family members reside (and provides the space for the reunion), after Bobby Lee dies. He wanted her to bulldoze everything there and build her own house, suitable for someone with her graduate school education. I have the impression he was estranged, not only from Sasha Jean, but from the whole family for various sins over the years, and this bequest makes Sasha Jean the implement by which he means to carry out his revenge. She’s reluctant to tell people she now owns the land on which they live and party. At least, I think she is. I don’t have a real feel for what’s going on in her head.

Fortunately, where I threw up my hands and dove into sentences, Jake’s post at Workshop Heretic fills in a few spots and digs deeper for the framework of the overall story. I’m grateful for his fortitude, though a bit ashamed of my own laziness. There are stories I will spend hours parsing out; this didn’t tempt me in that direction.

So I enjoyed the many beautifully written moments instead, without trying to construct the whole:

There is swimming, miles of it – and a surprise underground clearing, and giggles over mermaid nipples and moles, and promises, and some hope. Why ever resurface? Why not stay here for all time? Dandelion wine and nougat truffles. You could live like kings.
It’s tempting, but not going to happen.

Nope, heaven isn’t going to hear us. It’s such a perfect match for my mood at this time. Oh, for a place to swim!

3 responses to “BASS 2018: Carolyn Ferrell, “A History of China” from Ploughshares Solo 5.4

  1. I was looking forward to your comments on this one.

    I, too, found the structure confusing. I’d read the story prior to its appearance in BASS. I’m working on a novella that I’d like to submit to Ploughshares Solos at some point so I purchased this story and two other Ploughsharesw Solos issues to look for ideas on how I might structure my novella. This story actually did help a little bit because I saw how the story might be restructered so as to be more coherent but, all in all, the other two stories (“A Death in the Family” and “Pie”) were much better stories and more helpful as were Toni Morrison’s “Home” and Tobias Wolff’s “The Barracks Thief.” I appreciated Jake Weber’s comments on this story, too, and I have to thank you for steering me to his blog in your post about “Cougar.”

    • Well, now that I know it’s not just me, I keep wondering why the story is written the way it is. There must be some thread, some mechanism that connects everything, a kind of “key” that, once you see it, everything makes sense. Most stories are told out of order – I just commented on the prior story by Danielle Evans that the ordering added to the experience, by changing the story, and the earlier story about dementia also had that effect. But neither of those were confusing or hard to read. I’m not sure what the confusion factor adds here; surely someone along the way – a trusted reader, an editor – must’ve said, “Hey, this is hard to follow” and there was some compelling reason that I haven’t seen yet. Oh well.

      Jake’s great – it’s been wonderful to see him really get into these, rather than just adding comments like he has in prior years. And his post titles alone are worth the follow.

      Good luck with Ploughshares!

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