Wow! This is going to be a difficult one for me. It was fairly plain from the publisher’s blurb that “what happened” to Marianne Mulvaney was some type of sexual assault. But I want to warn potential readers that if you are easily triggered by rape and sexual assault, you will probably want to avoid this book. It is beautifully written, evocative of upstate New York in so many ways, so reminiscent of my childhood–particularly in the natural world and small town life–and… the first half is chock full of flashbacks, both minor and protracted, of the events of the night of Marianne’s rape.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books (although I may have to raise that number… again) from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. This is our first read for upstate New York, and it’s fabulous.

There’s some great natural topography and geological history included that’s just an integral part of upstate New York, like this description of the road to High Point Farm.

Now the character of High Point Road changes: the blacktop becomes gravel and dirt, hardly more than a single lane, virtually no shoulders and a deep ditch on the right. The road rides the edge of an ancient glacier ridge, one of a number of bizarre raised striations in the earth in this part of New York State, like giant claws many miles long.

True to the tone of the book, there are a number of storms, especially winter ones, and the descriptions are wonderful!

A storm was blowing up, rain and sleet and then sleet and snow, the sky above the mountain-rim of the Valley a frightening bluish black roiling with clouds like those fleeting distorted faces you see as you’re beginning to fall asleep, and the sun a smoldering red eye at the horizon like the last coal in the smithy engorged with flame by the blacksmith’s bellows. … And you could hear a strange sound like the hoarse-breathing suck! suck! suck! of the bellows that was the wind sucking at the struggling car wanting to pluck it from the road.

There are several scenes that incorporate lake lodges, which are a phenomenon common in upstate New York, in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (the Poconos, where Dirty Dancing took place, are in neighboring Pennsylvania). Some of these lodges are somewhat exclusive and cater to New York City folk upstate for a vacation, but many are accessible to middle class folks. While my family didn’t stay at the lodges, we did lots of tent camping at the nearby state parks, enjoying the lake ambiance. The Schroon Lake lodge mentioned in the book, as well as the less classy Wolf’s Head Inn, are fictional but ring true.

The Wolf’s Head Inn was a country tavern built on a promontory above the lake, a boat-rental concession operating out of its ground floor. (How the Mulvaney children loved those leaky, cumbersome rowboats, clamoring to be taken out Sunday after Sunday! The memory made the corners of Corinne’s eyes crinkle–that blinding glare on the lake at sunset.) … Inside, the Inn was dim-lit on even the sunniest days. … There were flyspecked screened windows overlooking the lake, there were unfinished floorboards littered with cigarette butts and package wrappers by the end of the night. .. Yet the Inn had a seedy glamor, your heart quickened when you stepped inside.

Throughout the book I came across bits that were extremely reminiscent of my own childhood, like this bit about hunting.

Once, long ago, Dad himself had hunted–but no longer. There were bad memories (though I did not know what these were) having to do with Dad’s hunting and the men he went hunting with, in the area of Wolf’s Head Lake.

My father used to go hunting and fishing with my mother’s father and brothers, but there was often drinking involved and at times more deer were taken than there were licenses for. My father had, I think, been becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this, but after one of the brothers mistakenly shot at my father and his fishing companion, there were no more fishing and hunting trips.

This quote also brings up one of the main themes of the book, and one which has recently been a topic of discussion in my own family–that of secrets. I remember being cautioned–about any number of topics–“we don’t talk about that.” As a parent I understand that there are things that we don’t want our children to discuss with “outsiders” for several reasons. And there are topics like this that are especially difficult to explain to younger siblings–like Judd, I was always the last to know. But there are also topics, such as mental health and miscarriages, which are surprisingly common, but have developed a stigma, due, in part, to not talking about them.

Rape and sexual assault, as the Me Too movement has graphically illustrated, is one of these topics–as more and more people have come forward, awareness of how common and widespread they are has spurred outrage and public shaming (and in some cases criminal charges) of perpetrators. Yet we still see that women who come forward are sometimes shamed, blamed and threatened, and we can understand why Marianne was reluctant to make an accusation and why she felt it was her fault.

Oates makes it fairly clear through the flashbacks that Marianne remembers plenty of details of the attack, and that she was not at fault. The descriptions from the doctor’s exam left me steaming when the doctor counseled her mother not to “do anything rash”–like bringing charges against the boy. There’s the condition of her dress as well, which could have been presented as evidence, but was hidden and then disposed of. There seems to have been plenty of evidence, but the shame and self-blame Marianne feels outweighs it. And the lawyers Michael Sr consults tell him pretty bluntly that they will be unlikely to get past a grand jury to a trial, let alone get a conviction, if Marianne is unwilling or unable to testify.

And so it becomes a family secret that no one talks about, and that tears the family apart. Marianne is banished–which seemed particularly cruel to me. On the one hand, a new school and environment was probably the best for her, but it seems to feed the idea that it was her fault, since she is the one essentially being punished. It also seems to have been done as much or more for her father than for her, though the fact that he could hardly even look at her or talk to her made life difficult for all.

The book is full of quotes that just about broke my heart.

In one case Oates (or her narrator Judd) is telling us about how Michael Mulvaney Sr broke away from his family. He had an argument with his father, the father disowned him, and the rest of his family followed suit. Corinne observes, “You must miss them…”

Michael said quietly, “No more, and no less, than the old bastard misses me.”

I loved this, and I feel it really hits the heart of this type of family discord, because that answer can be read both as meaning that neither misses the other and that they both miss each other terribly but refuse to admit it. And, of course, it becomes a foreshadowing of the relationship between him and Marianne.

There was also a scene where two of the boys are discussing Marianne’s banishment and their dad’s reaction.

“Why does Dad hate Marianne so? Why doesn’t he want to see her, or even talk to her?” I asked, and Patrick said, frowning, “Dad doesn’t hate her. It’s just she reminds him of–you know.” … I said, “But that isn’t Marianne’s fault!” … But Patrick said, soberly, looking at me for the first time since he’d come home, “It isn’t Dad’s fault either.”

Another important idea that wasn’t explicitly expressed seemed to relate to the isolation the family felt afterwards.

Are we lepers? We, Mulvaneys?–lepers? … The crowd seemed to part for us. Fascinating: how people who’d known Corinne and Michael Mulvaney for twenty years seemed now not to see them, or, unable to reasonably not see them, smiled vaguely, with a pretense of enthusiasm, then turned away to greet others, shaking hands and embracing others. … Yes we feel sorry for you Mulvaneys but no, no!–don’t come talk to us, don’t spoil this happy occasion for us, please.

However, by this time, it was fairly clear that Michael Mulvaney Sr was becoming a drunk and occasionally was publicly confronting people about the “shunning” and about the lack of justice. I’m minded of Robert Frost’s classic poem “Mending Wall”–good fences make good neighbors–and I wondered how much of the isolation the Mulvaney family faced was due to the actual rape and people’s provincial attitudes toward it, and how much was due to Michael’s volatile reactions.

I did find a couple of minor errors or inconsistencies in the work, which critics would probably attribute to how prolific Oates is–since 1962 she has published 58 novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, non-fiction, plays. The most “egregious” of the errors was a comment about Marianne winning a ribbon at the state fair in Albany. Albany is the state capital, but the New York State Fair has been in Syracuse for over 100 years, since 1890. It seemed an odd error for someone who grew up in Lockport and did her undergraduate work at Syracuse University, but it’s minor, especially since it’s a passing comment not an actual scene.

Overall, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates was a fantastic book for our reading challenge–the upstate New York setting comes alive and is integral to the story in little ways (though the story itself could probably be set elsewhere with certain changes). Be wary if you think the topic will be difficult for you, but otherwise, this is a thumbs up that makes me eager to read more of Joyce Carol Oates.