December 14, 2018

Run by Ann Patchett

Run by Ann Patchett (2007) was an amazing read and just great for my reading challenge–we really feel not just the New England snowstorm, but also many of the Massachusetts people. 

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes its own character, or where we learn something about the geography, people, or history of that state. Right now, we are just beginning Massachusetts, and what a great book to start off with!

The story itself is one, for the most part, that could take place in many settings across the US, but Patchett makes the most of her Boston setting, incorporating the strong Irish Catholic presence, the politics–the brothers are named for two of the most famous and influential Massachusetts politicians of the 1990s, Edward (“Teddy”) Kennedy and Tip O’Neil–the Boston Brahmin upper class, and the intellectual influences of Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge in general–we even see the obligatory weekend and summer trips to Cape Cod.

It was Doyle who had driven them over the Sagamore Bridge and down the straight and narrow shot of Route 6 when he and Teddy were little. … On the drive, the two little boys asked their father questions about the ocean: What made the waves and why was it salty and where did the seagulls sleep at night? They did not ask to stop at the ice cream stands and taffy shacks that dotted the Cape with bright distractions. All they wanted was to get to the water. Everything about those perfect afternoons stayed with Tip, the parking lot blown over with sand, the tall sea grass bunched by the wooden steps that led down to the water, the matching red swim trunks he and his brother wore, and Doyle holding their hands. It was Doyle who settled them at the edge of the tide pools and there, for their benefit, identified every living thing in that shallow slice of ocean. … On those sunny days with the wild roses blooming red against the dunes to their right and the ocean sliding back and forth over the sand to their left, his father was the inventor of taxonomy, the namer of living things. He instilled in Tip the sincere belief that there was nothing more fascinating than a tommycod and a string of kelp. Every day at the beach was gorgeous: in rain and sun, with noisy crowds carrying bright towels and in utter desertion, they found the same clear, cold water over the small pulsing universe, a fully comprehensible world.

Patchett does a wonderful job showing the differences between the lives of the two brothers adopted into an upper class political family and the mother and sister “left behind.” We have read other books on our journey that included children who were abandoned by teenage parents (most recently in several Georgia books), but I was struck in Patchett’s story by the fact that, in this case, the mother consciously gave up her boys for adoption in order to give them their best chance. I was also struck by the poignancy of her not being able to give them up completely–of her not only keeping track of their lives but even literally following them, in what could be considered a very stalker-ish way. I found myself nodding along as Tip tried to figure out what to think about this.

“There are two choices as to what you can think. You can think this is a sad person or a dangerous person who has been following us around for God only knows how long because of something she read in the paper twenty years ago. She watches us go to school, she watches us pick up bagels, she tails us through the bookstore. I don’t love this thought. In fact, I find it singularly disturbing. Next thought—this is our biological mother, the woman who didn’t take you home from the hospital and set me out on the curb at fourteen months, and now she’s following us around for whatever reason, jealousy, regret, who knows. What part of that am I supposed to embrace?”

But I’m also watching ABC’s Once Upon a Time television series with my family right now, and this idea of giving up your child in order to “give them their best chance” is a recurring theme in the show. (As an aside, I love the depth of the characters in Once Upon a Time–particularly the villains–and how complicated the stories are, and I think it’s a good lesson for my son to help him think less in black and white and more in shades of gray.)

Another aspect and theme that I found very interesting was the way race and class came up in this book. Tip and Teddy are young black men, adopted into a white upper class family, which tends to give them the self-assurance of their white upper class counterparts. But, of course that subtle, constant racial tension is always there, and it comes through in other ways. I love Patchett’s subtle nod to it in this passage:

There were more black students in the lobby than a person usually saw around this place. Most of the time they were diffuse, scattered, always in the landscape, never all together. But tonight they held a slight majority. 
Tip would have said it made no difference to him, when in fact that alertness he always carried in his neck, the alertness that stayed with him so consistently he never even noticed it anymore, temporarily released its grip and disappeared.

But even more interesting is another point Patchett makes. At the scene of the accident, none of the emergency personnel connect their middle-aged white father with the two young black men; instead, everyone assumes that they are connected to the injured black woman and the young black girl. In fact, the police and EMTs unwittingly leave an 11-year-old girl behind at the scene with no one she knows–she doesn’t even know where they are taking her mother or how to get home in the storm or where she will sleep that night! And later, no one questions the fact that she leaves the hospital with the Doyle family–and we are left wondering whether the police or hospital staff would have been more observant or protective of a young white girl in a similar situation.

“We’d take you home with us but they don’t let children walk out with just anybody at this hospital.” But they all knew that wasn’t true. There were very few people left in the waiting room now, and where they were standing, so near to the door, there was no one else at all. No one would see them or stop them. No one would care who she left with except for the Doyles themselves.

And as the story unfolds we begin to question more and more how poor people of color might fly beneath the radar in unexpected ways. 

For instance, it sounded to me as if Beverly took on Tennessee’s identity–including her nurse’s qualifications, which could have been a very dangerous situation–but somehow that seems to have gone unnoticed by… anyone! Part of me wants to protest that this is not believable, but Patchett makes it seem very realistic and plausible, and I’m really not sure. Obviously, the people who know them would notice, but the bureaucracy? As long as there is paperwork to go with the name… I don’t know…

As I’ve mentioned, the main story takes place during a snowstorm, and there are some lovely descriptions scattered throughout of the snow and the cold, some hardly more than phrases, like, “The air was hurtful, too cold to breathe,” and some longer:

When they were finally pushed out of the warm foyer of the Kennedy School and into the great cold world of the night, it was snowing. Not the heavy, wet flakes that come down like silver dollars and melt a minute later, and not the very dry tiny snow that blows around and never really settles on anything. This was a hard, steady fall of a medium-sized flake that meant business. To tilt your head back and look straight up into a streetlight was to have some comprehension of infinity.

I remember all of those kinds of snow, and, granted, that’s not solely a Massachusetts thing. Somehow, setting a Massachusetts book in a snowstorm seems less stereotypical than writing a tornado into your book set in Kansas or Nebraska–probably because snowstorms are more common. This snowstorm is a doozie, but it doesn’t knock out the power for days or cause buildings to collapse from the weight of the snow–it’s just a typical New England snowstorm… or Midwestern snowstorm, for that matter, and the citizens of Boston take it in stride. It’s just background. But it’s lovely. It also occasionally makes for a poignant reminder of the day-to-day differences in the lives of rich and poor:

She watched as the snow was whisked away in the winter and how the street sweeper came and scrubbed down the street in the summer with water sprays and giant round brushes. Where she lived, what fell on the street stayed on the street, if it was precipitation or a Coke can.

Another unique character trait that I very much enjoyed in this book was Teddy’s (and occasionally the others’) quotations from famous speeches.

“Your loved ones were daring and brave,” Teddy said quietly, “and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, ‘Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.’” Kenya looked up at him. She had no idea what he was talking about but the words were beautiful. “‘ They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths,’” Teddy said. “‘ They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.’” “Oh, for God’s sake, Teddy,” Doyle said, pushing himself up from the ground. “Not Reagan. Not now.”

It’s from President Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation after the Challenger disaster in January 1986. I loved this, especially Doyle’s response. But I also love Kenya’s response–not knowing, or caring, where the words came from, but only the message. (And, not to get too political here, but this sort of dignity and unifying message in the face of national tragedy is sorely lacking in President Trump.)

Run by Ann Patchett was a lovely book–both in general and for my challenge. While the story itself could have been set in many other locations, Boston is a constant companion and is clearly present in the book. We’ll be seeing more of these issues of race, class, and religion in Boston when we get to my Young Adult pick, Green by Sam Graham-Felsen. I’m looking forward to that, but in the meantime, Run was a great way to start Massachusetts.

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