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November 14, 2000

Books by Kay Kimbrough

Margaret Atwood, Nan. A. Talese
Doubleday, New York, 2000, $26.00.

This novel is the story of two sisters, Iris and Laura, whose father, Captain Chase, a war hero, a good employer and a distant father, owns a button factory in Port Ticonderoga, a town near Toronto. Captain Chase lost his two brothers in World War I; he returns from the war crippled, bitter, depressed and cynical. He reluctantly takes on the management of the factory founded by his father. The mother of Laura and Iris dies giving birth to a premature baby, leaving them in the care of their housekeeper and cook, Reenie. She tells them all they are to know of their mother and paternal grandmother, for their father does not talk to them, except for words that are necessary. His message for Iris is that she must take care of her younger sister, who is four years younger.

Reenie informs the girls of the history of their grandmother, Adelia Chase, a fine lady with exceptional taste and background who has married for money. By contrast, their mother is respectable but not from such a fine family. Her father is the lawyer for the Chase factory, is educated, has taught school and spends her time performing works of charity instead of organizing grand dinners and receptions at Avilon, the Chase estate. Reenie herself becomes a mother to the girls, educating them with proverbs and folk wisdom and protecting them when she can. She also perpetuates Adelia's standards of dress and deportment, standards their mother would have scorned as pretentious and frivolous.

Their world changes with the Great Depression. The factory loses money and their father, a heavy drinker, does not cope with the crisis. Two men enter the picture in the middle Thirties, one a dedicated communist who has arrived to organize labor, the other a wealthy manufacturer from Toronto who marries Iris in exchange for the Chase factories. Laura, now fourteen, falls in love with Alex Thomas, the communist. Thomas is like Faulkner's Joe Christmas, orphaned, adopted by a Presbyterian minister, unsure of his origins and at odds with the world around him.

After Laura's suicide in 1945, Iris publishes Laura's novel, which she knew nothing about, until she finds it in her stocking drawer. The novel, THE BLIND ASSASSIN, details the secret affair of a young woman with a fugitive from justice who has been accused of murder in a struggle between management and workers at the Chase factory. These lovers spend their time together creating a science fiction allegory that enriches the themes of Iris's narrative about her life and Laura's. The science fiction story is full of violence and sex, causing moral indignation against Iris for having published it.

The story of the Chase sisters is more horrifying than Laura's novel. These girls are not sent to school, although it is certain that their mother would have wanted an education and a useful life for them. Instead, they have tutors whom they resist with all the power children can generate when bored and resentful. One tutor in particular is so cruel that the story becomes lurid, but Reenie comes to the rescue. Avilon is a prison, lovely but empty of other people, of reality and of life.

The girls are not allowed to play with other children; they might be "common." They are together too much, according to Reenie, holding one back and pushing the other ahead of her age, since Iris is four years older than Laura. Iris is a loner, never expecting to make decisions for herself. According to Laura, Iris is "asleep." Following her mother's footsteps, Laura yearns to do good for those who need help, so the soup kitchen of the Great Depression becomes her escape from Avilon.

Laura's suicide sets the mystery in motion, leading the reader through a maze of three stories until her reasons are revealed. Reflecting on the past, Iris writes her story, finishing just before her death at the age of 83 in 1999. She has been alone for years but has discovered by necessity that she could do something to make a living with her "good eye" for quality old furniture and accessories from the past, some of which are actually antiques. Pleading with Iris to leave the house of her evil husband, Laura has insisted that the two of them could learn to work and survive. Ironically, Iris survives to work but Laura does not.

Human rights, freedom for women, the sins of the rich, the horrors of war, the pain of poverty and hunger and human selfishness move through this grim but witty narrative like well-aimed arrows. Atwood achieves a marvel in weaving all the stories and themes into one coherent whole. She recreates a past that is quite unlike the present but makes no judgment about the "good old days." The final message is that Iris has been asleep all her life, until she decides to write a book about it as a gift for her granddaughter, whom she has not been allowed to know. Her gift represents truth, which she now sees as being as essential as water to human life. Her final message to the granddaughter is "Your legacy from him (her grandfather) is the realm of infinite speculation. You're free to reinvent yourself at will."


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