Books’ characters live
I do have living, breathing friends and family whom I cherish, but sometimes it seems that I have greater insight and sympathy with people who come alive to me from the pages of books. That’s why when I read about the death of Tony Hillerman this weekend, I felt sad even though I never met him. I only know him through the pages of his books.
I have read most of his books about the culture of the Navajo and other Native American tribes of the American Southwest.In the course of being entertained, my world grew larger. Not only did I begin thinking of Hillerman as my friend — though we never physically met — but I also grew in my appreciation of the places and people of his stories. Although I grew up on the edge of the great American desert in New Mexico and Arizona and had visited New Mexico a number of times when I was a child, I had not had any appreciable contact with the Native Americans who made that part of the United States home.At the same time that I am mourning the loss of Hillerman, I am overjoyed to “discover” a new writer who brings new dimensions to my life. Her name is Curtis Sittenfeld, and I have to confess that when I began reading her book, I believed she was male because of her name, which I now realized is her second name. Her first is Elizabeth. I read almost a third of her new book “American Wife,” thinking she was male, but seemed to have an unusual insight into the feminine mind. “American Wife” is Sittenfeld’s third major book, but served as my introduction to her writing. This book is a formidable one not only because of its length but also because of its subject matter. The book tells the story of a woman whose life loosely parallels that of Laura Bush. It is her story and that of the man she married. It is a study in contrasts. Alice, the heroine of “American Wife” is a quiet, book-loving elementary school librarian who prefers the company of children and books to boisterous crowds. She is an only daughter of a family of middle managers. The man she marries at the ripe old age of thirty-one loves large, rowdy crowds. He loves to drink, to joke and to party above all else. He has grown up in a life of privilege, going to Ivy League schools and taking for granted his wealth and powerful family. He chooses Alice and charms her into marrying him. He’s not a bad person. He is generous to those around him, generous with Alice, and adores the daughter they produce. The only thing he asks of Alice is that she not publicly disagree with him.
This book travels from Jack Kennedy to the present. It is told from the viewpoint of its heroine who comes to silently agonize over what she has become: a symbol for a political viewpoint she does not espouse. She still loves her husband, but does not like his policies. Ultimately, she is a tragic figure in a world she did not make, but didn’t protest. The story would serve as a starting place for many discussions about personal responsibility.