Saturday, February 21, 2009

Amy's Coming of Age: Eileen Kump's "The Willows"

Over at AMV, William's instituted "Short Story Friday." Yesterday, he posted a link to Eileen Kump's "The Willows," a poignant story of coming of age during the tail-end of Mormonism's polygamy era. This is what I posted there in response to the story:

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I was struck by this story, by the subtlety of Kump’s voice, and this poignancy caught me off guard, so much so that I began taking notes profusely while I was reading so I could make sense of what was happening to Amy as the story progressed, what was happening to me as I read. Suffice it to say, Amy helped me to see our cultural struggle with the vestiges of polygamy in a new light and, as a result of our intersection, our connection, I’ve been, in a sense, reborn with her into the world of ambiguity and paradox.

In one sense, that’s how I read this story: as a coming of age tale told in Amy’s indirect voice (as mediated by the narrator). While this structure and style allow meaning to unfold as the story progresses, they also hold us at a distance from meaning and from Amy’s experience and we’re left to assimilate what’s happening in this community, in the characters’ lives through the confused and maturing---indeed, confused because maturing---eyes of an eight-year old girl.

The turning point in the story, for me and, I think, for Amy, comes when she wades into the “sea of green willows” on a quest for her mother and finds her sitting “among the thickest willows” with a group of “many” other women, a reflection of the matriarchal structure and strength that keeps this community alive. Yet, as Amy falls into her mother’s lap, this worried and confused little girl sees something in her mother, and by extension, in her community she’s never seen before: violence and fear. This image is characterized by her mother’s disheveled face, framed by “strands” of “loose” hair “that looked to Amy like fists” and by the way mother lays her hands on daughter, holding tighter than ever before---“too tight,” Amy says---though I suspect this grasp turns quickly from anger to fear as the mother wonders if her family will be compromised by her daughter’s foolishness, by the young girl’s longing to be safe in her mother’s arms.

At this moment of realization and at her mother’s insistent question (“How old are you, Amy?”) Amy is forced to admit and to begin to accept her place in this threatened and rapidly changing community. And she falls from her state of innocence and must leave this thick garden, the paradise of her mother’s lap, the safety of this womb, the seat of life, and return alone to the dreary outside world. No longer will she find refuge in her mother’s arms; she must now ultimately stand alone against the threat of uncertainty.

Amy’s coming of age, her passage into this fully adult world of paradox, comes through her participation in the proper rituals: her baptism, by tears (hers and the other women’s), occurs in the sea of willows; she participates in a sacrament of “bread and milk” overseen by her mother; and she’s confirmed by fire in her father’s arms at the kitchen hearth (69-70). And the next morning when she awakens to the empty world of her childhood, she essentially realizes that she’s been initiated into this group’s sub-community of priestesses, a role in which she’ll be forced to face the blurring lines of her life, the ambiguities of life in a community, uncertainties characterized by her use of the word “damn" (the keyword that opens this world to her), something she condemns earlier in the story, and her changing perception of McGary.

As the warden appears in the story’s final scene, he is an indistinct shadow in the doorway; yet, as he moves toward Amy, coming into focus, into the light, she sees that his “face [is] not as dark” (71): he has become more real, more human, less indistinct, less obscure. And yet, Amy concludes, “He had to be” a gentile. Had to be in order for the world of her childhood to make sense. Had to be in order for the easy distinctions between self and other to remain. But as the story concludes, these distinctions are absorbed in the willow-like image of Amy “arch[ing] her back against the porch and wait[ing]” (71), waiting for McGary’s approach, for McGary’s words, for the caress of his language to bridge the world of her childhood with the woman she knows she must become in a richly ambiguous world where willows can represent the connection between heaven and earth; where they are at once a symbol of comfort and safety and a place of concealment, fear, and the secrets we are sometimes forced to protect in order to preserve the integrity of our community---all things that connect us to our deepest selves, to others, to God.