Reviewed by Dan Sundahl
I once had a student who wrote a poem about a farmer coming home mid-afternoon. In the farm-house kitchen, refreshed by some icey-sweet tea, he listened to muffled voices in an upstairs room. Carefully and quietly he mounted the steps and then down the darkened hallway to a room with a closed door. He paused. Open the door or not? He bent to look through the key-hole to see his wife and a blesséd company of women around a quilting frame. There’s tension in the poem as the farmer pauses, thinks not to disturb, turns carefully and quietly, and then back down the darkened hallway, down the steps, back to his field-work.
It’s the poem’s last line that’s revealing: “With something he would never understand.”
It’s likely true and I agree with the poem’s ending. But there are two critical and theoretical parts to this notion, one of which concentrates on the errors of the past which suggest that the purposes of literary criticism and feminist writing are to reveal and remove the effects of female servitude. The second concentrates on the beauty of the imagination and suggests that the styles, themes, genres, and linguistic structure of writing by women own a different generative process than the literary creativity of men.
The ten stories in Mary Hood’s A Clear View of the Southern Sky are about women, and thus feminine albeit a reader has no need for a specialized critical discourse that uses women’s writing as an exclusive subject. These superb stories, although again feminine, can stand on their own without recourse to gender difference, e.g., the effects of female servitude. Hood owns superb gifts and her language is not a separate language marked by secrecy.
The ten gem-like stories are about women who are “working” their way toward something or away from something. It’s a thesis universal. The “working” the reader needs to understand is fulfillment, happiness, what women have always pursued when confronted by circumstances and choice, actuality and potentiality.
The first story is the title story, “A Clear View of the Southern Sky.” Edayara Garcia has enrolled in the “Cities of Refuge Ministries” English as a Second Language Class. It’s the kind of story allowing some critics to appoint Mary Hood the literary heir of Flannery O’Connor, or to place her in the blesséd company of Alice Munro, George Eliot, and even Margaret Atwood.
It’s one way for a relatively unknown writer to rise quickly toz literary prominence. Hood herself has said that O’Connor was influential but not influential to her writing. She makes a good point. Neither was she specializing in stories that were especially southern. She was, however, aware of Eudora Welty’s voice, the same as her mother’s voice. But when it came to writing, she did not make comparisons, which she rightly suggests in early interview is frightening (leaving her, though, with an affection for “O’Connor’s . . . warthog”) (Georgia Review, 1985).
The “warthog” intrigue in “A Clear View of the Southern Sky” is in the chords laid down in the story’s first sentence: “Sometimes you just can’t kill the ones you need to.” Yara practiced hard because she already knew what she was going to do, with liberty and justice for all, and no regret for wiping the smile off that Cutthroat Rapist’s face. And it was over and done and from the assassination into a women’s prison where Yara confronts her life, by choice and circumstance, actuality, then, and possibly potential: it depends.
That’s exposition, background for the remainder of the story which takes place in the Allendale Prison for Women and Yara’s ESL class. Is she, after the fact, sinkable or unsinkable when this prison becomes her known world? The inmates are seated in a small bleak room. Yara prints on the green board “‘I am like you.'”
Soul naked one might say, or stripped to the bone. The women wear everyday sets of tan scrubs; the teacher cannot read on the back of their scrubs the words “Prisoner of the State of Georgia.” The ESL exercises ask the students to hang color and detail and “style” approximations in writing assignments when, as the reader ironically notices, their lives are absent of color and detail and style. The disjunction is between the teacher, a male, who believes the inmates are interested in fashion. For Yara, who liked the smell of sunshine, the only clear view of the southern sky is what’s gained from the prison satellite dish pointed in the proper direction. Yara’s life does not sway like a bower in soft spring winds. Hard to bring one’s mind to a page and write answers to questions like “What kind of clothes do you like?” For Yara, who pled guilty at her trial and did not have trial clothes (she wore an orange jumpsuit), the questions do not clarify her situation and there are no hidden clues she can decipher. How can she therefore think, write, and answer a question like “‘What do you wear to work/school/college?‘”
Teachers come and go, most of whom were trembly with good intentions but weary with doubt. Miss Haidee, rhymes with Friday, does not come back; she’s replaced by the new teacher, “Mist’ Steve.”
The futile and ragged attempts of previous teachers have passed. No games this time; he’s neither needy nor displaced, and was a marine. He coached hockey. But is he capable of teaching Yara and the other women inmates to find another framework for these women to respond to the demand of openness and a more genuine imaginative clear view of the southern sky. More so, what kind of corrections are necessary in a correctional institution?
The conclusion to the story is quick but in an ironic way, on the basis of this man, who has learned the “manic clarity of issues during a firefight,” who has raised five children, a boy, a girl, and a mixed gender set of triplets”; what was punishment for these women, week after week, becomes something more than learning English. They’ve been cheated and babysat; it’s time, he says, which is what Yara and these women have in abundance, to deliver up the soul:
The students lie (or sit) with eyes closed, in silence. Anybody may initiate a dream (which may be the beginning of a real dream they have had, or simply an image that has come to their mind). Others may join in at any time to add details or to move the action along. Gradually a composite dream emerges.
The point, of course, is less the rules and more the combined imaginations of these women, these inmates, finding common emotional dimensions, rather than writing about the kind of clothes they may or may not find attractive on a man.
In fact, the group is no longer muted and they are not part of a subculture.
But there’s one more point to be made: This ESL world in this prison is guarded if not rigidly patriarchal. But Yara can write in any language she chooses since all language is acceptable. The provision, however, is this: When she tells the teacher her story in “as perfect English sentences as [she] can make,” she has to translate for him. It could be argued, of course, that a translation is inadequate to understand a woman inmate’s experience; I suspect, rather, that the translation is less to emphasize the duality of feminine culture within the general culture but more the need to transform so the group follows the same language.
This extraordinary story seems to suggest as much when t Mist’ Steve pulls on his jacket and prepares to leave and says briskly, “See you next time.” It’s part of this circle, this next time, because they “have not known before that it is up to them.”
Yara’s paper has been returned, the first thing she has received in this correctional institution with corrections on it: “…she wants to know what she feels so she can write it in her journal. But there is no word for it in English. Not Yet.”
“Mad Woman in the Attic” is the fourth story in the collection and may allude to The Madwoman in the Attic, a landmark collaborative work in feminist literary criticism by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who drew their title from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The women, however, if the metaphoric framework outlined by Gilbert and Gubar works, are less angelic and more original, and unmasked.
Connie is using up her tax refund and severance pay to have her tattoos removed; “RoyBoy was worth it”; Sandy, RoyBoy’s recent ex-girlfriend, worked in a credit union, had never been inked, had never had a moving violation, kept a vanilla bean in a sugar bowl and like to iron. Eleanor, RoyBoy’s mother, called her “‘that born again cheerleader.'”
Eleanor is a force, much like the tropical depression dumping two feet of rain on saturated ground; runoff is gathering force. When the waters rise and rise more, it takes Eleanor some time to comprehend. Alone, she takes candles cigarettes, some ice, a golf tournament trophy, white cheddar, and a fresh bottle of lemon vodka, and makes her way to the attic. “Her whole life had been about arriving here,” she thinks, “this very moment” in the attic.
While the river keeps rising, Eleanor’s thought flow freely, and “shades of memory [rise] up in the murky air.” When the storm rattles off into the distance, Eleanor’s mind delivers “up an irrelevancy, a memory of her own voice — a clear complete memory of the curse she had offered King’s third wife when they finally met.” Unlike Bertha Mason, though, kept locked in the attic by her husband in Bronte’s novel, Eleanor goes with the flow: “Sometimes that’s enough.”
There’s humor in these stories, as Pat Conroy notes in his “Preface,” and wit in abundance. Hood has mastered also the “high wires” of brevity, abbreviation, and conciseness. Indeed, three or four of these stories rank among the very best. The characters are diverse: There’s a woman interstate trucker, a kindergarten teacher, a widow who witnesses, and a diverse cast of women workers in a rural Georgia textile mill who sew camouflage for United States soldiers but come to see themselves as part of a larger purpose.
It’s true that the women in the stories reflect the duality of the general culture itself. But they are not a muted group subservient to a dominant group. One does not need to be steeped in either Freudian or Feminist Theory to enjoy these stories; too much theory might just spoil the fun. Mary Hood has never been compelled to run any sort of foot race with influence. Her work, though, is a secret that needs to get out.