Thursday, March 28, 2013

Christina Schwarz, Lighthouses, Specimens, and Stories--"The Edge of the Ocean" on Sale April 2, Our Event is April 9, 7 pm.

Christina Schwarz is a writer whose written three novels, most notably Drowning Ruth. Her fourth, and her first with Atria, The Edge of the Earth, releases this coming Tuesday, April 2. She's coming to town for two events, first on Tuesday, April 9, 7 pm, at Boswell, and then on Wednesday, April 10, at Books and Company in Oconomowoc. But my story begins elsewhere.

While I’m reading her new book, The Edge of the Earth, I’m sitting with my Mom at her assisted living apartment in Worcester, and she decides to tell me some stories about her young adulthood. Her family didn’t have very much money and she set off to get an office job after high school. Her first job opening came to her when a neighbor at her apartment--her family moved just about every year, to take advantage of the month’s free rent that came with a year’s lease.

It just seemed that every story involved complicated choices and avoiding the bad alternatives. There was always a bit of serendipity, of course, and in the end, she met my father on a blind date with someone else, got married, and after her third kid (me), went back to school, go her degree, and started teaching.

There's no doubt that my mom's stories played into my reading of the book. I thought about how many choices my mom made, and what might have happened if someone had taken her under her wing and sent her in a totally different direction. She knew she wanted stability, but what if she’d taken up with an adventurer instead.

Trudy Schroeder was a bit more complacent about her life than my mom. Her German-born parents had established themselves in Milwaukee well enough to send her to college. She was likely to marry Ernst Dettweiler, as steady fellow if there ever was one. At the most, she might do a little teaching before settling down, at the suggestion of Miss Dodson. But then she became reacquainted with Oskar Swann, Ernst’s cousin, a serious and impulsive fellow who promised her great adventure. He was off to a lighthouse, after all.

Trudy marries and goes off with her husband, and I don’t want to say there are some clues to her husband’s personality in the voyage. And one of the amusing things about choices is that sometimes you don’t have much of a choice at all, particularly if you’re a woman in the 1890s. Trudy meets the Crawleys, Henry and Euphemia, and their four children, plus Euphemia’s rather unstable brother Archie. And what do you know if they’re soon talking about Trudy teaching the children (the lighthouse is too far from formal schooling) with hints about Trudy’s someday child. Teaching, kids, boring—it’s all the same except in a more exotic locale. And I am reminded of the feminist treatise in The Madwoman in the Attic, where Trudy sort has become the locked up woman by Oskar, her jailer.

Only that locale offers a few other options. The tidal pools are filled with interesting specimens, and that leads to a unique line of teaching. And then there is the mysterious mermaid girl that the younger Crawley Jane talks about, leaving gifts in the tidal pool, which the others have left in the Swann apartment. Another mad woman? Another attic (cave)?

It turns out there are a few secrets among the Crawley family, and Trudy’s likely to find them out. But worse than the deceptions is Oskar’s newest line of scientific inquiry. See the problem for Trudy is that while spending time with Oskar in Milwaukee, she sees him doing something heroic, and judges that to be his true character. And in a way he is, only a bit more complicated than that and possibly misguided.

I love how Oskar bears his villainous (or crazy, you decide) face, but if you look back historically, folks like Oskar were the genius explorers and scientists of the era, and were certainly not considered plunderers. I think Schwartz was aware of this and gave a wink. At one point, the novel became an argument about anthropological inquiry—do you change a people when you study them?

The Edge of the Earth is most certainly about women’s choices. I am reminded a bit of Tracy Chevalier’s recent novel, Remarkable Creatures, which though set on the English coast, also looks at a woman’s role in scientific inquiry. We don’t think of cataloguing as women’s work when we’re talking about breakthroughs, but it did seem like it was something that the women naturally understood and I’m not sure whether the men did or not.

I am also reminded of M.L. Steadman’s The Light Between Oceans, which while I didn’t read, was certainly a major bestseller at mini indie bookstores in 2012, and coincidentally, arrives in paperback on the same date as Schwarz’s hardcover release, April 2nd. This novel is set in Australia, but it’s at a similar time period (20 years later) and takes place at a lighthouse and there are some surprisingly similar turns of plot.

Hey, if you want to start collecting novels about lighthouses, while I haven’t read P.D.James’s lighthouse-set mystery (The Lighthouse, of course) I did read Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping, which, while a very different style of writing, reflects in the first part of her novel that remoteness that seems to permeate all books about folks in remote parts of the world trying to prevent disastrous crashes. And as I remember, there was a lot of storytelling in that book, and why not, as what else are you supposed to do when you’re stuck at a lighthouse.

So now I’ve been pondering storytelling, choices, women’s roles, and scientific inquiry. And it was all inspired by listening to my not-going-to-give-her-age mom tell me stories about what she wanted to do when she was 19. And of course by reading The Edge of the Earth.

Tomorrow I ask Schwarz a few questions, and she has a few answers.

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