Follow Up On Settings Influence Stories: Stories Influence Settings

Kim interviewed Jeremy Morong about his new book The Legend of Hummel Park a couple weeks ago. Given that she took a week off our list, I thought I should do the same so I didn’t get too far ahead on the list. In that interview she gave some thoughts how settings influence stories. That got me thinking, what about the flip side? Settings certainly influence stories…but the reverse is also true.

Consider the Stanley Hotel:

I’ve been there. I wasn’t staying at the hotel, so why do you think I visited? I think you know:

I had to look at the place, feel the eeriness of it, peek around.

But…it only felt that way because of King’s story. Sure, people claimed that the Stanley was haunted before King made the story, but the attention came after. For a rumored haunting, it’s certainly nothing like King’s story. It feels like an incredibly eerie place…but only after King.

The Shining has permanently altered how I and many people perceive the Stanley. Sitting in the bar, I kept looking around for Jack Torrance. An awesome horror writer retreat is regularly held there. Heck, the Stanley has even put in a hedge maze to be more like the story.

The setting of the Stanley may have influenced King’s story, but I think it’s pretty obvious that King’s story has had even more influence on the setting itself. How people see it, how it sees itself, how it tries to get people to see it, and so on. Stories aren’t separate from the world. They are influenced by it, and they influence it right back. Stories are a conversation with the world, an interaction.

At least, the ones I like are.

I’m sure this is completely obvious to everyone (particularly since the stories about Hummel Park we talked about previously influence the park as much as the park has influenced the stories created involving it). However, I thought it was worth bringing up given what we’ve already said on here about setting influencing stories. Like most anything, that doesn’t just go one direction.

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Night by Elie Wiesel

Edwidge Danticat was the only author to list this in her top ten. I love the name Edwidge Danticat. I don’t remember ever hearing her name before, even with any other books I read for the Top Ten. I looked her up in the book to get her bio (and to find out that she was a she and not a he :O )

“Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she was twelve. Her books include Breath, Eyes, Memory; The Dew Breaker and the Farming of Bones which won an American Book Award”.

Looking at her Top Ten, I have actually read a couple for this blog. And Dave has read a couple. So, apparently her name did not strike me with its originality until tonight.

Which might be because I just finished Night.

Before I start talking about Night fully, I will admit to something. I have, since an early age, been fascinated by the Holocaust. Not in an insane way or a creepy way (I have no Nazi uniforms and have no idea the name of the woman who was a wife of a commandant and supposedly made lampshades from Jewish skin). Further confession: I made Greg spend six hours in the Holocaust Museum on our honeymoon. Which, when I say that, he always responds “I was interested too”. (I do, in fact, often thank God that I married Greg).

Somehow, I had never read Night though. I remember picking it up once years ago and putting it back down. I think I was mainly interested in women Holocaust victims and survivors at that point. So, I picked it for this week.

Night is a very short novel in terms of words written. It’s a forever novel as in the images Wiesel sears into your soul. I’ve read a lot of Holocaust memoirs, fiction and historical accounts. Many that went on longer than Night. Night is one of the most vivid ones I’ve ever read. Wiesel would have done Hemingway proud in his brevity and ability to pack as much as he could into each word.

Wiesel, prior to going to the camps as a young teenager, was a very devout Jew, and in fact, had history not …you know, I can’t even think of the right word, the one that keeps coming to mind is raped, so raped it is…raped him, he would have probably been a Kabal scholar. The camps changed that.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the faces of the little children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God, Himself. Never.”

Later on, after seeing the hanging of a younger boy whom was well liked in the area of camp they were in:

“Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

‘Where is God now?’

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

Where is He? Here He is–He is hanging here on this gallows.

That night the soup tasted of corpses.”

Many authors I have read have talked about the immense hunger in the camps. Only Wiesel has managed to sum it up in one short paragraph so well.

“I now took little interest in anything except my daily plate of soup and my crust of stale bread. Bread, soup–these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.”

Elie managed to survive with his father until almost the end. Then his father finally, exhausted from their march from Auschwitz area to Buchenwald, died. Wiesel and his father had had the choice of staying in the infirmary at the camp they were at, but afraid of being “liquidated” they left with the others. Wiesel stated that he found later that 2 days after they left, the Russians walked in and liberated them.

This book will leave you feeling heavy. Weighed down.

But, still I highly recommend you read it.

One: As just a general human being on this planet, to see what some humans will do to other humans, to educate yourself, to develop a sense of compassion.

Two: As a writer, Wiesel’s writing could teach a lot.

And now, I’m putting the rest of his books on my To Be Read pile.

Have a great weekend 🙂

Hummel Park, Jeremy Morong, and thoughts on settings influencing stories

Last week, Dave hinted at how we were going to be doing something a little different this week.  Well, here it is. Those of you in the Omaha area already probably are wondering why the heck would I be talking about the most haunted park in Omaha and those of you outside of Omaha were wondering until that line what the hell Hummel Park even was.

This week, a local author from Omaha, Jeremy Morong, had a book come out called The Legend of Hummel Park. It’s a collection of short stories. Hummel Park is -that- place in Omaha. The one that all the legends spring from, where you hear about hauntings, and body dumps, and lynchings, and albinos. In fact, normally, local authors that aren’t Rainbow Rowell don’t get much press. Hummel Park is so imbedded in Omaha’s psyche as the scary place that one of Omaha’s news stations even did a story about Jeremy and his book. I’m posting the link here. Between watching this clip and further information below, those of you not in Omaha should get a good indication of what Hummel Park is all about.

Dave contacted me a couple of weeks ago (in Facebook, then had to text me to tell me to check my Facebook as I am currently in a very casual acquaintance relationship with Facebook) and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing an author he knew with a book of short stories coming out. The subject? Hummel Park. Well. Those of you that have been reading this blog for awhile know that I’m a fan of the “spooky”. And short stories. And Hummel Park, which is fascinating in so many different ways. So, I told Dave I had to think about it….ha! kidding! I told him sure. He gave me Jeremy’s email address and bada bing, bada boom (I’m not sure where some of this stuff is coming from tonight, in all honesty) the next thing I knew I was at a reading for Midnight Circus (a literary magazine run by EAB Publishing. Check it out here. (Side note: The most recent issue, Issue 9, is an amazing issue. Check it out.). Jeremy and I had agreed to meet up there to talk a bit about the short stories, Hummel Park and whatever else came up. Now. If you haven’t watched the clip of Jeremy talking about The Legend of Hummel Park above, go do so now. I’ll wait.

So. In all honesty, after I read the stories, I was not expecting Jeremy to be well…Jeremy. I was envisioning one of those slightly gloomy coffee house guys (you know, not the emo ones, the other slightly gloomy coffee house guys) or someone that I’d be likely to bump into in a bar that seems like Halloween year round. Jeremy, well, he looks like he works in a bank (which is good, since he does actually.) Though, I should have had some warning that he probably wasn’t the gloomy coffee house sort when we had a whole 3 or 4 email exchange about our children’s names (there was other information interspersed, we aren’t really that pathetic). We talked about favorite books and he told me about reading to his two year old son as he was going to sleep at night. He’s reading him Huck Finn and other ones he’s loved in his lifetime. Now. Please, please, buy a copy of his book. Read those stories. Then reconcile the stories with that image. I have yet to read Jeremy’s other two published works (sorry Jeremy! My to be read pile from the library is huge. I promise. Soon!) but he assures me that they’re less macabre and are books that he feels comfortable with his children reading as they get older. We had to leave shortly after the reading was done, due to the place closing down. Which was sad because I definitely could have spoken longer with him and done more of the interview in person than via email. But, Jeremy was nice enough to answer my multiple questions in email.

Legends of Hummel Park has two stories in it that were written (per Jeremy) specifically with Hummel Park in mind. They’re fascinating to me because they really explore the intersection between stories, legend and reality. There’s also a sense of when someone desperately and truly wants a legend to be true, what lengths will they go to? (Oh, and by the way, Jeremy stated he agreed with me that in Hemingway’s short story, the curtain was probably just a curtain, so don’t go looking for hidden symbols in every word he’s written. It’s not there. Or at least not symbols hidden in trees and curtains and hills). Then other stories have Hummel Park almost as a hidden character. They’re spokes in a wheel with the Park in the middle. Then there are the ones that don’t overtly have Hummel in them, but the tone of them…well they’re Hummel all the way. In a couple of the stories, there’s almost a glee to the macabre. Oddly, for the fascination he shows with Hummel Park, Jeremy says he has never seen anything overtly spooky. He said his dad used to take them to Hummel when they were kids, and tell them the story and he always just wanted to see the hermit!

(Digression note: I was listening to the podcast Serial today, which I recommend, and they were talking about Baltimore’s Leakin Park, and the dumping of dead bodies and the spooky feel of it. And I was like Hummel! Except for Leakin, the reputation as a dumping ground for bodies is well documented and deserved. In the last 50 years I think it’s been something like 60 bodies found there. For those of you outside of Omaha, there have not been 60 bodies discovered in Hummel Park. But…maybe they’re really there! Ha.)

So, here are the questions I emailed, and Jeremy’s responses to them.

1. Explain about Hummel park for Dave and my readers who aren’t from the Omaha area. What it is on paper and what it is on legend.
“Hummel Park is a park on the northern edge of Omaha, set in forested river bluffs that overlook the valley of the Missouri River. Though there are residential areas around it, they are sparse, and so it is highly isolated. If you want to do something you’re not supposed to when the sun goes down, Hummel Park seems to be the place for you, even though the park closes at 8 when the gates are locked.”
2. You told me when we talked that your dad used to take you there and tell the tales. You have a 2 year old son now. Do you plan on continuing the tradition?
“We live fairly close to Hummel and we love to hike, so we’ve been there many times. I have a 7-year old daughter and she loves to count the stairs, and I’m sure I’ll tell my son all the tales, but only in a joking manner. I don’t want them to be scared of anything that isn’t true!”
3. You personally have never seen or heard anything creepy at the park. Why do you think it lodged itself in your psyche like it did?
“Everyone likes ghost stories, I think. We believe, and we hear things, even when our brains are telling us not to. I can’t say that I’ve ever had anything unexplainable happen to me there, but it definitely has a vibe about it–maybe it’s the vultures that often circle overhead! The idea of being alone in the woods–it’s very powerful. You never know when the Big Bad Wolf is waiting for you.”
4.  Do you think Omaha has deposited a lot of the “banal evil” of the city into one place? Like the trees where black men were supposedly lynched?
“I think that when people see something that perhaps can’t be explained, there’s an urge to explain it, and sometimes the facts get in the way of that. For example, the trees that “lean” can be explained easy enough–they grow on a small hill that borders a road and seeking sunlight, naturally adjusted.

But, what kind of story is that? Unfortunately Omaha, like most cities, has a sordid history with race, particularly lynchings. Malcolm X was born here; his family fled shortly after he was born due to harassment from the KKK. In 1919 there were a series of race riots, including a brutal lynching. I guess someone thought it would be fun to link that horrible incident to the trees in Hummel.”
5. Explain how the lynching can be shown with actual historical documentation to be a definite myth.
“Lynching in Omaha is not a myth; it definitely happened. The most known incident would be the 1919 murder of Will Brown. He had supposedly assaulted a white woman and was seized from the courthouse and lynched, then his body was set on fire. It’s far scarier than anything that actually happened at Hummel: http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/stories/0701_0134.html

As far as it taking place in Hummel, it defies logic. Work on the park didn’t begin until 1930, and there are no documented lynchings in Omaha after 1919. Even if there were, Hummel is a good deal away from where people live, and so nobody would have bothered taking their victim all the way there when there are plenty of trees elsewhere. The road the trees lean over didn’t even exist.
As awful as this all is, there’s almost a sense of disappointment when you learn a place isn’t as scary as you thought it was. And so that motivated me to create a character who decided he would make some of the myths reality. Being twisted and a sociopath of sorts, he naturally doesn’t see that it’s not quite the same thing.”
(Side note: At this point, I did have to clarify with Jeremy that I wasn’t meaning the lynchings didn’t happen but that they didn’t happen in Hummel. He knew. But I was afraid of appearing like I didn’t know that so I had to put this note in here. Carry on.)
6. There seems to be more people coming out of Nebraska whom seem to be creating art that feels like it couldn’t exist without the locale. The most famous contemporary being Alexander Payne and Rainbow Rowell. Do you think of Hummel park as an actual secondary character in your stories? Like without this character the story wouldn’t exist?
“Hummel Park is definitely a character in four of the stories of The Legend of Hummel Park and Other Stories, to varying degrees. Without Hummel, two of the stories don’t work and could never exist; they came about entirely because of Hummel. “The Legend of Hummel Park,” the title story, is about a group of teenagers going to have their own Hummel experience. As people often do, they learn to be careful what they wish for.

“Deer Season” was inspired by something that happened to us while driving past one day–someone shot out our driver side window in our car with a pellet. It really ticked me off–it’s not cheap to fix a window, number one, but number two, my daughter was in the backseat. So this was sort of my opportunity to put myself on both sides of that event.
In “Unwanted,” which takes place on the edge of the park, it exists as sort of an evil entity, and is a motivator for an adult daughter to try to get her father, who lives alone, to adopt one of the rescue dogs she cares for. The story could exist without the park but I think it definitely adds a layer to it.
Great question; I like the idea of being a contemporary of Alexander Payne and Rainbow Rowell. 🙂
7. Remind me how the conjoined twins fit into Hummel again?
“There are nine stories in this collection and as mentioned, Hummel plays a role in four. The other five do not take place there, but they all share certain thematic elements, to a degree. It’s a collection of horror-type stories.”
8. Tell me a bit about your other published work and how it differs.
“I have published two novels. They are quite a bit different than each other, and far different from The Legend of Hummel Park and Other Stories, and I guess I’m a little proud of that. The Adventures of Braxton Revere is my second novel, published by EAB Publishing. It’s a first-person story about a vampire killer. Don’t let that scare you; someone told me it has as much to do with vampires as Indiana Jones has to do with archaeology and I liked that description! I grew up watching Universal Horror films and playing Castlevania video games, and reading Huck Finn, and so if you put all of those in a blender, you’d get something like this I think. Hopefully, it’s fun.

My first novel is On the Backs of Dragons. It’s an epic-fantasy. I tried to steer clear of save-the-world plots with it; basically, it’s about three children who have their father seized from them during a burgeoning war, and so they take off both to rescue him as well as warn the king that war is coming. Of course, nothing is ever easy. Ultimately, I think I wrote it because I wanted to feature Sasquatches as characters in a book… ;)”
9. Have you always written? Or is it something you started doing as you got older?
“. I have not always written fiction, in part because I am an idiot. I had done a few short stories in high school and enjoyed it. I can remember by senior year English teacher expressing that I might have some talent. I also wrote for the school paper. I did fine on it, but can’t recall the teacher thinking I had a lot of talent there!

I say I’m an idiot because I signed up to take a Short Story class in college, thinking I would learn how to write them. Instead, it was about reading them, and the teacher wasn’t particularly good, so it kind of killed my interest.
But I kept getting weird ideas, and stories. Eventually, it had to come out or I’d go nuts. So I started messing around with what eventually became On the Backs of Dragons. I struggled with it, with lots of failed ideas, and so it languished. What finally motivated me to finish it was my daughter. I read a rant somewhere that most adventure books feature a female character that does little but pine for some heroic man to tell her what to do, so I decided that my main character would be a female that would sort of boss around her brothers, and use her brains to outsmart her enemies on the way to saving her father. That all sounds rather Freudian, to see it written like that, but that was not my intent! So now my daughter will at least have Caroline, from Dragons, and Hermione.”
10. And appropriately enough for question 10 and fitting in with the blog theme, list me your top ten books.
“Wow, my top ten books. This will start easy and get tough! And I will be honest, I won’t try to cite things that make me sound well read or anything.

1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: My all-time favorite, I’ve read it probably a dozen times and I learn something new from it each time. It’s part of my DNA at this point.
2. Watership Down: A book about talking rabbits that is far better than it has any right to be.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird: English teachers have it right about this one.
4. The Lord of the Rings: Cliche, but true.
5. The Count of Monte Cristo: Dumas books are usually jammed with filler. This one is around 1200 pages in its unabridged version (the only way to read it) yet feels short.
6. The Chronicles of Narnia: I read these when I was 10 and they blew me away.
7. The Harry Potter series: I really didn’t want to like these, thinking the hype was too much. I was wrong. JK Rowling is my hero.
8. The Education of Little Tree: This book is a pack of lies–purported to be the autobiography of a young Cherokee boy, it turned out that it was written by an avowed racist. And yet, it works.
9. Buffalo and Beaver: This is one of many churned-out adventure novels for boys back in the 1950s or so, but I read it when I was 12 or so and I still have the desire to read it every few years, so it must be pretty good. It’s about a boy whose father suddenly shows up and takes him on an adventure as a mountain main in the Rockies. What more could a boy want?
10. Scrooge McDuck comics by Carl Barks and Don Rosa: I’m sorry, but these are just the greatest thing ever. They were once huge in America before we got all jaded and stuff; they remain so in Europe.”
I don’t have any sort of ratings system I give. So I will give the one rating that means a lot to me. I will be re-reading this book. (Obviously not until my to be read pile shrinks a bit, and time passes, but yes. I’ll read it again).

Pearl by Tabitha King

Me again. Kim is taking the next two weeks. In fact, we have something special planned for next week so I went twice in a row to give her time. Anyway, today you’re going to hear from me again. This time? Pearl by Tabitha King.

I have to admit that I decided to pick up Pearl by Tabitha King after realizing she was Stephen King’s wife. I didn’t know about the book, didn’t know Stephen’s wife was also a writer, or anything. I was immediately curious what kind of writer she might be.

Pearl presents us with Pearl Dickenson, a woman who has inherited a home in a small New England community from a family she has almost no personal connection to. She knew her mother, and then only her grandmother when her mother died. No one else personally. This relates (in ways that may not be completely elaborated) to the fact that Pearl’s mother and grandmother were white, whereas Pearl’s father was black.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Pearl is capable and knows what she wants. She buys a diner in town and is immediately successful. However, there are parts of herself she is not completely able to control. Against her better judgment, she cannot resist getting into sexual relationships almost simultaneously with two very different men in the small town. The first is a rich and indolent young poet pretty boy named David Christopher:

Inside was all shadows and she could almost feel the house exhaling coolness. David Materialized out of them from somewhere, barefoot, in shorts and an unbuttoned crinkled gauze shirt, its long sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Despite the interior shadow, he wore sunglasses.

“Welcome.”

Solemnly he flung open the door. It cracked smartly against the siding and he caught it as it came back, sparing Pearl an ungraceful jump over the stoop to avoid the door spanking her calves. He led her through the dark entry hall past a galley kitchen.

Abruptly the house opened into the living room, three stories high, with a wall all of glass facing the lake. It was a breathtaking wedge of space that dwarfed the two of them, an alien intrusion of right angles into the natural world of forest, lake, and mountain, and yet in scale with the enormous old pines, the vast containment of the lake’s water, the leap of the land toward the sky that made the mountains reach.

and the second is a burly and laconic mechanic named Reuben Styles:

He knocked politely at the screen door.

“Come in, Reuben, it’s open.”

“Pearl, you’re up late,” he said, flashing her a grin that was just a wee bit slowed with legal anesthetic. He breathed a yeasty zephyr over her.

“You too. Excuse my dishabille. Thanks for the berries.”

“It was too hot to sleep,” he explained.

She struggled to keep a straight face.

“Actually,” he said shyly, “those are your berries. I picked ’em on your land.”

“Do tell. Sit down.”

He pulled up a straight-back chair, turned it around, and sat down with its back for an arm rest.

She offered him a berry and he popped it into his mouth with great relish.

“I shouldn’t. I ate a lot when I was picking ’em.

She giggled. “I remember picking strawberries at a farm as a kid and eatin’ too many.”

He grinned. She was looking at the way his mouth hitched up ironically when he did that, and not thinking about the box of berries, and she sat up. The box spilled and they both reached for it and came up with each other’s hands. Oh man, why couldn’t you have waited till the fall, when poets fall off the trees and get swept back to the cities? Her stomach tightened up, partly in panic, partly in a nearly hurtful arousal. It seemed David hadn’t satisfied her after all, but only awakened her to what she had been missing.

David is unbalanced, occasionally suicidal, still not over the murder of his sister as a child. Reuben has his problems too, a daughter running wild and a wife who ran off with a preacher. Either would make Pearl’s life complicated, but the combination of both is a sure-fire recipe for a crash. Pearl knows this better than anyone, but can’t stop herself and can never manage to tell each about the other.

Life in the town starts to get more complicated. Reuben’s daughter’s boyfriend brutalizes her and Reuben puts him in the hospital, giving Reuben’s ex wife a chance to try to take custody. David has episodes that disturb Pearl deeply. People start to notice the affairs. Pearl, against what she really wants to do, keeps juggling. Things will come to a head, though. That is the one certainty.

King lays down solid, literary lines. Pearl reminded me of John Irving or Richard Ford a bit, but still a distinctive voice over them. The characters are full and tangible, the storyline is engaging, and the descriptions are vivid. I can’t understand why Pearl isn’t still in print, because it is very good. It isn’t one of my all time favorites or anything, but King is definitely an accomplished author.

A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Mr. Biswas wants a house (making the title of A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul pretty apt). He hopes for a lot of things, but mainly getting an even break. As an Indian born poor in Trinidad, that probably isn’t going to happen.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for both Heidi Julavits and Claire Messud.)

Mr. Biswas strives throughout the book, but the reader always knows that only so much is going to come of it. He’s born under very poor omens, and ends up being the unintentional cause of his father’s drowning death. His life becomes difficult, his mother shunting him around to different places trying to do something with him in life, usually with poor results. He yearns more and more to make a decent way in life and have a permanent home.

Then, somewhat intentionally but mostly by accident and machinations of others, Mr. Biswas gets married. He’s dependent on his wife’s family, which is not particularly pleasant. Still, he makes his way in life.

Now, before you get the idea that this is a ‘poor Mr. Biswas’ story, it isn’t really. Though his chances are pretty poor, he does a lot of things to himself. Arrogance, ignorance, stubbornness, and poor judgment, Mr. Biswas is instrumental in the way that life throws him around. And, for everything that others do to him, he mistreats someone (his wife, his children, and so on) himself.

Of course, not that he’s a bad person either. He’s just imperfect. It’s just life.

A House for Mr. Biswas is a happily tragic story. The details are thorough, vivid, and beautiful. I kind of felt the story was already told when things got started, but it was still a pleasure to read. In one man’s life, A House for Mr. Biswas manages to capture what seems to be the story for most. That gives the writing a great deal of power.

I hate to just give a giant block quote instead of mixing smaller pieces into a review, but the first section of the opener is such a perfect encapsulation of the book (perhaps it tells everything and makes the book a little unnecessary other than for the enjoyment of reading?). There is no other way that would convey the whole book better. Thus, the entire first section of the opener:

Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time. In less than a year he had spent more than nine weeks at the Colonial Hospital and convalesced at home for even longer. When the doctor advised him to take a complete rest the Trinidad Sentinel had no choice. It gave Mr Biswas three months’ notice and continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every morning with a free copy of the paper.

Mr Biswas was forty-six, and had four children. He had no money. His wife Shama had no money. On the house in Sikkim Street Mr Biswas owed, and had been owing for four years, three thousand dollars. The interest on this, at eight per cent, came to twenty dollars a month; the ground rent was ten dollars. Two children were at school. The two older children, on whom Mr Biswas might have depended, were both abroad on scholarships.

It gave Mr Biswas some satisfaction that in the circumstances Shama did not run straight off to her mother to beg for help. Ten years before that would have been her first thought. Now she tried to comfort Mr Biswas, and devised plans on her own.

‘Potatoes,’ she said. ‘We can start selling potatoes. The price around here is eight cents a pound. If we buy at five and sell at seven —’

‘Trust the Tulsi bad blood,’ Mr Biswas said. ‘I know that the pack of you Tulsis are financial geniuses. But have a good look around and count the number of people selling potatoes. Better to sell the old car.’

‘No. Not the car. Don’t worry. We’ll manage.’

‘Yes,’ Mr Biswas said irritably. ‘We’ll manage.’

No more was heard of the potatoes, and Mr Biswas never threatened again to sell the car. He didn’t now care to do anything against his wife’s wishes. He had grown to accept her judgment and to respect her optimism. He trusted her. Since they had moved to the house Shama had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children; away from her mother and sisters, she was able to express this without shame, and to Mr Biswas this was a triumph almost as big as the acquiring of his own house.

He thought of the house as his own, though for years it had been irretrievably mortgaged. And during these months of illness and despair he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it: to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room and about his yard, instead of being condemned, as before, to retire the moment he got home to the crowded room in one or the other of Mrs Tulsi’s houses, crowded with Shama’s sisters, their husbands, their children. As a boy he had moved from one house of strangers to another; and since his marriage he felt he had lived nowhere but in the house of the Tulsis, at Hanuman House in Arwacas, in the decaying wooden house at Shorthills, in the clumsy concrete house in Port of Spain. And now at the end he found himself in his own house, on his own half-lot of land, his own portion of the earth. That he should have been responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous.

That is A House for Mr. Biswas. The next 562 pages really just elaborates on that perfect encapsulation…though you should still read it.