Saturday, March 9, 2013

"The End of the Point"

Elizabeth Graver's novels include Awake, The Honey Thief, and Unravelling. Her short story collection, Have You Seen Me?, won the 1991 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

Graver applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The End of the Point, and reported the following:
Quote from Page 69:
“The demonstration’s over,” the soldier said, and let out a high-pitched, girlish giggle. Then he lowered his voice. “Sorry if it spooked you, ladies. I guess we did our smoke screen pretty well!”

“No,” said Agnes, pushing past Bea and getting up. “No, we’re fine. Excellent work, sir,” and she had Bea by the arm now, she had Janie too. “You’re fine,” she said to Bea, brushing her off, but Bea did not feel fine; her dress was dirty, her mind torn up.

“I thought...,” she said slowly to Agnes. “It seemed ... ” She looked down. There was Janie, not crying any longer, but rather staring at Bea as if she’d never seen her before.

“You hurt me, pulling me down like that,” the child said.

“I was protecting you,” Bea said instinctively.

“It was fake.” Janie plucked at the grass on her dress. “They did it on purpose.” She turned to Agnes, tears starting down her face again. “Right?”

“Of course, love.” Agnes pulled out a handkerchief for her. “Bea was just playing along. You’re supposed get down low. It’s what you do in a fire drill. Same thing here.”
Page 69 lands us in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1942. Eight-year-old Janie, her Scottish nanny Bea, and Bea’s friend, Agnes, have just finished watching a gas mask demonstration. During it, Bea—despite knowing that the occasion was a spectacle meant to entertain and impress the local citizens—grew panicked at the sight of smoke and masked soldiers and threw herself onto Agnes and Janie: “On the grass, Bea covered them, her best friend and her baby. She could not tell where her body left off and theirs began.”

On page 69, we find the three of them standing again, processing the scene. Janie, in a mix of clear-eyed wisdom and an inability to imagine true horror—views the bedlam as entirely staged. Bea, who has early memories of World War I, glimpses the thin membrane between peace and war. Janie hates to see her nanny lose control, but Bea can’t help it. Roles are reversed here. Something important between the two of them shifts, perhaps even cracks.

What are the effects on the home front of a war fought on distant soil? How does the real register and different angles of vision come to bear? The army has set up a base at the end of a rocky spit of land, Ashaunt Point, near New Bedford, where Janie’s family has a summer house. The peninsula sticks out into Buzzards Bay and makes an excellent spotting station to watch for planes and submarines. The mood that summer is high-pitched. Saboteurs have climbed ashore on Long Island. Anything could happen, anytime.

Meanwhile, nothing happens. The days stretch long for soldiers and civilians alike. The military training feels at once urgent and like playtime: sham battles; sham cottages hiding real barracks; a radar tower built to look like a water tower. The Civil Defense Exhibition in New Bedford is a cross between a carnival and a war. Later in the novel, in 1970, another central character, Charlie, retreats to Ashaunt and tries to understand the Vietnam War from watching the news, befriending a veteran, going to protests.

Peninsula means “almost island.” The “almost” fascinated me. How, I wondered, does one small, isolated, summer place sit both inside and outside of history? How are individuals attached to wider bodies, continents, movements? What happens when the boundaries—between war and peace, near and far, child and adult, hired help and mother—begin to blur?
Learn more about the book and author at Elizabeth Graver's website.

--Marshal Zeringue