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Summer Books

Now old, Ellen confronts family secret

By Jim Grimsley
Algonquin Books, 258 pages, $18.95 hardback


A male lion will swat his hungry cubs a-reeling if they attempt to snatch a morsel while he's feeding. Some combinations of ignorance and soul-breaking poverty can cause human parents to be just as ruthless toward their children -- like ravenous big cats without conscience.

Ellen Tote was born to such a clan, and in My Drowning she calls forth vignettes of her prideless, hungry life in the hands of such parents. In the face of abject cruelty and apparent absence of love, Ellen kept her spirit always alive and, throughout the repeated wounds to her soul, was never vanquished, in spite of the dark family secret that took her a lifetime to unravel.

Her childhood days were counted out in mostly biscuits for supper, lunchless school days dressed in ragged dresses and shame, and hours of cowering under the porch of some cold shack with her daddy's hounds after getting a beating from one self-centered parent or the other. Ellen never succumbed to the almost hypnotic savagery, though her many siblings were sacrificed to the brutality in varying ways -- jail, hardheartedness, even death.

Author Jim Grimsley's writing is intense in Drowning, his third novel, which was inspired by his mother. He does a rare, superb job as a man narrating in the back-and-forth style of a girl's and woman's voice in this evocation of his North Carolina backwoods heritage. The power of some of his roller-coaster sentences lies in their innocent beginnings that progress toward dropping the floor from beneath the reader's feet before the period is reached.

He tells the story as Ellen, who in her old age searches the banks of her memory for clues to solve the riddle of fragments of dreams that have been recurring since her childhood. Standing in her kitchen with the light on, she is an old woman remembering and "seeing everything around me in a strange way -- all the objects have a patina."

"I understand this is happening because I am old and all the rivers of my memory are rushing toward the sea, unstoppable," she muses. At her age, a memory becomes as real as the original action.

In one of her earliest impressions of her mother, Ellen recalls, "She looks down at me with the blankness of a cow. I am so in love with her, every part of me aches." As a child, Ellen, along with her often pregnant mother and siblings, picked cotton, weeded farmers' gardens and "topped and suckered" tobacco to scratch out a living when her father didn't want to work.

Yet, her spirit pursued hope in small ways, which were the only ways available. On wash day, her mother and older sister would light a fire under the wash pot while her brother Otis chopped wood. After pumping water and scrubbing on a washboard, Ellen carried the clothes to the rinse water and dropped them in. Amid the drudgery, she observed, "I liked the scattering of soap bubbles in the water."

Bereft of entertainment, the backwoods culture was rich with superstitions -- if a girl wets her blouse doing dishes she'll probably marry a drunk -- and aghosts. And stories of monster sightings by the river were so believable that grown men would periodically jump in trucks with shotguns and tear off down the dirt roads in pursuit. The gray beast would rip the heads off dogs, and by comparison with that lot, people could feel lucky at least not to be thus defeated by this metaphor for life.

The time Ellen's daddy went on the monster hunt, her mother was scared to stay in the shack alone, so she packed up the kids and walked to town. They gathered with others around the store to speak in wide-eyed excitement about the mysterious goings-on. Her father returned and whipped his pregnant wife with a belt all the way home, kids running after, townspeople growing quiet at first and then murmuring. "Get your fat ass and those filthy young 'uns to the house," he yelled.

Years later, Ellen recalls, "They watched me run, with the chocolate drink bottle swinging by my legs, my coat and skirt flapping high. I heard some of them laughing. The sound echoed for a long time." A few months later, her sister Alma Laura was born.

Ellen was smitten. She gave all her love and devotion to the baby, who lived for only a few months. After the burial, the baby's ghost began appearing to Ellen, a vision that lasted throughout the rest of her childhood.

At first, Ellen told her mother. But "Mama's eyes focused to sharp points, and the fury of her hand crashed against my head. She grabbed me by the hair, slapped me across the face until I was dizzy and my nose ached, then threw me across the room like a sack of sugar." Ellen never mentioned it again. "I was old enough to have a secret now, and it made me more conscious of myself."

Alma Laura grew up with Ellen, dressed like her and followed her most places, though she never spoke. She just seemed to shore up the girl's resolve and provide witness, a quiet strength.

In introducing the specter of Alma Laura, Grimsley displays a writer's gift of doing slippery things with time that glide through the mind as smooth as honey on a warm biscuit. Within a page and a half, he has elderly Ellen recalling her childhood and her sister's birth, the first appearance of the ghost and the last appearance a decade later, and then proceeds with the time frame following the first apparition -- and it all makes perfect sense.

By the end of this grueling yet life-affirming tale, Ellen pieces together all the parts of the family secret and mysterious dreams that have nipped at her heels throughout her lifetime, validating herself, and returns one more time to face the monster in the North Carolina backwoods.

Candice Sackuvich is a journalist who lives in Kansas City, Kan.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997