Monday, August 18, 2014

"Small Blessings"

Martha Woodroof was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR,, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Woodroof applied the Page 69 Test to Small Blessings, her debut novel, and reported the following:
From page 69:
... like thin velvet between his fingers. The truth was that his mother-in-law often said things he was too timid even to think, things such as Marjory is better off dead. When he actually considered it, though, that statement seemed pretty likely to be true. Twenty-three years of marriage, and the woman he’d been married to was better off dead. Tom tried to picture Rose Callahan’s oddly peaceful face, but it eluded him. He knew Agnes was waiting for him to say something. “I wish,” he said, “that Marjory could have figured out a way to be more relaxed about things. I really do. But she didn’t seem to have much capacity for relaxation.”

Agnes snorted. “The master of understatement speaks again!”

Tom put the petal carefully back where it had fallen on the table. “I guess you’ve got that right.” It was a great relief to find that he and Agnes could still talk; that the two of them were joined in a way that had, initially anyway, survived Marjory’s death. He would at least have a comfortable beginning to this long tumultuous day. Small blessings. There was his mother again. Louise Putnam was in a New Jersey nursing home, smoothing her apron and planning to bake brownies for him and her dead husband, blissfully convinced it was 1967. Growing up, Tom had thought she was mostly hopeless, only able to grasp the occasional big picture, such as civil rights. But now he knew she’d been wise, taking sustenance from the simple pleasures of everyday things. When you got down to actual survival, that was the big picture.

Agnes ground out her Camel. “So let’s have it,” she said around a final blast of smoke. “I think I’ve put off knowing long enough.”

It didn’t occur to Tom to be disingenuous, to ask, “Have what?” or to stall for time by talking about what he was about to talk about. He took a deep breath and addressed the jar of roses. “I have a ten-year-old son named Henry who’s arriving in Charlottesville on the Monday morning train. I had no idea he existed until that letter arrived.”

“Hmmm.” Agnes lit another Camel. Tom heard her sucking and blowing, but other than that, nothing. The silence was unbearable, so he rattled on. “I had a short affair with a visiting poet the year before you came to live with us. It only lasted three weeks, but I guess that was long enough to produce Henry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“Why?” Agnes asked.
My goodness, page 69 of Small Blessings contains the line from which I drew the title -- rather a small blessing in its own right...

I think this page -- which holds a conversation between Tom Putnam, English professor and our hero, and his redoubtable mother-in-law, Agnes Tattle -- shows both these characters and their relationship. Tom and Agnes are two somewhat ordinary people who find themselves beset with extraordinary events. To me, over the course of the novel they strengthen each other, challenge each other, respect each other, love each other, and enjoy each other -- all of which is kind of there on this one page.

Plus, it takes place at the kitchen table, which is as central to this piece of fiction as it is to my own life.
Visit Martha Woodroof's website.

My Book, The Movie: Small Blessings.

--Marshal Zeringue