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by Daphne Athas
Category: Mainstream Sir Walter Raleigh Award Winner, Time Magazine's "Ten Best Fiction List"
Description: This novel, about three school-aged sisters, originally published by Viking Press 20 years ago, was hailed by the critics, made Time magazine's "Ten Best Fiction List" in 1971, and won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction in 1972. A British edition by Chatto and Windus in 1972 was equally praised, as the following review excerpt attests: "As formulas for happiness go, there's a lot to be said for shared adversity; and if this can be enriched with a touch of group paranoia, so much the happier for one and all. Hence, when in 1939 the Bishop family have to leave their loved and lovely house on the Connecticut coast and plunge geographically and socially down, there is glory in this fall and survival, a vindication of their sense of inborn aristocracy, savored more lusciously as things become worse and worse. Here they are penniless and stuck in this arid town of Ephesus, lodged in a crumbling shack on the edge of Niggertown: Father--an immigrant Micawber--can only play-act hopelessly as the business of business, and the local kids are astounded by these girls' eccentricities, their outlandish homemade clothes, the daft poetry of their arrogance. But it is the unquenchable sense of specialness of mere magical Bishopry, which holds them together against all common sense, so that the girls can take on Ephesus in all it's horror and screw it stupid.--Times Literary Supplement
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1971
eBookwise Release Date: July 2001
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [771 KB]
Reading time: 497-696 min.
Packed in among the blankets, linens, and Loco Poco's dolls, the three girls and their mother sat upright like bankers. Their faces were shaded and dark in contrast to the scorching glare of the sun, but their eyes betrayed a certain eerie wildness. Cars passing in the opposite direction jerked away from the Pontiac, giving it a wide berth. The grilled hood was lined with suitcases. Three mattresses, two bedsprings, and a carton box were roped onto the roof. The valves in the engine were worn, and in the airless heat the pistons pounded monotonously.
"I see no sign saying Ephesus," said Irene, the oldest, a beauty of fourteen known as the family fool.
"We're only at Richmond," answered Urie derisively.
"How far away is home now?" asked the youngest, Loco Poco, in a lonesome voice. She was ten years old and clutched a doll on her knees. Dark curls matted her temples.
No one answered.
"Will the moving van get there before us?" asked Irene.
Again no one answered.
They had left their old home two days ago, at six-fifteen, August 18, 1939. Irene had taken a picture of that moment. Urie, Loco, and Mrs. Bishop lined up before the Pontiac, the great white house behind, the ocean its infinite backdrop. Urie, thirteen years old, had stood like a general with one foot on the running board, her grandeur mitigated by the Grapes of Wrath car. This moment was entitled "The End of Their Oceanic Life." They had gotten in, slammed the four doors, and left.
The Indian's nose pointed south. For two days they had been traveling, passing through New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia. Urie told everyone that the wheels clicked the following words: "Wrong South Wrong South Wrong South Wrong South."
Mrs. Bishop allowed these remarks to pass without comment, but she had to restrain herself. She needed all her energy to nurse this Pontiac to P. Q. at Ephesus.
The girls commented lugubriously on everything.
"Look at that woman sweeping the yard with a broom!"
"Whoever heard of such a thing! Sweeping a yard!"
"She's white trash."
"Mamma, is she white trash?"
"Why does she do it?"
"Because it's a dirt yard. They don't have any grass. See!"
"Who ever heard of dirt yards?"
"What good is sweeping dirt?"
"Look. Negroes with umbrellas. And it's not even raining!"
"Look. Red dirt."
"Who ever heard of red dirt?"
"Dirt is supposed to be brown."
"Red dirt stinks."
"What does red dirt make you think of?"
"Old rusted stoves."
"Red dirt comes from real iron rusting in the ground," Urie informed them.
"It makes me think of the earth having an operation," said Loco.
"Yeah. Trenchmouth!" spat Urie.
"Look at that high grass."
"It looks like upside-down brooms. See how dull and boring it is."
"Will you people keep still!" exploded Mrs. Bishop finally. "We're coming to a town!"
It was Richmond.
At the moment of Mrs. Bishop's words the radiator began to steam. Billows of smoke poured out.
The Pontiac picked up speed on the descent. It wobbled down onto the long James River bridge. Smoke heaved up over the roof of the automobile and down each side of the red-stained railings of the bridge.
"Get the milk bottles out," barked Mrs. Bishop.
"But there must be a gas station!"
The automobile plummeted into a long street of houses.
"Try to make it through town," said Irene. "People are staring."
"Since when does Mamma take your orders?" asked Urie.
"Yes. What does our family care what people think?" parroted Loco.
Blankets, dolls, magazines twitched spasmodically as Urie and Loco fought to unearth the milk bottles.
"They're empty, Mamma," said Loco.
"After I told you to fill them on Grandfather Mountain?" said Mrs. Bishop in a shocked voice. Rusty water began to spit on the windshield. The smell of hot metal threatened.
A red-necked man on the sidewalk dropped a chocolate ice-cream cone in surprise. They passed through Tin Town. Two Negroes backed into their shack yard.
They turned into a street of brick houses with black wooden porches. People turned their heads. Expressions varied from pleased suspense to the hope that this incipient Mount Vesuvius would erupt farther down the street.
Cords stood out in Urie's neck until she looked like a quivering airplane of the Lindbergh era. Loco clenched her fists together and sucked the mouth of the milk bottle. Only Irene was impassive. She hid her fear under the creamy imperturbability of a sacred cow.
Suddenly Loco Poco screamed, "There's a Sears Roebuck!" The sound, given Biblical authority by its descent into and emanation as echo out of the empty milk bottle, caused Mrs. Bishop to slam on the brakes.
The Pontiac jerked sidewise like a crab. Mrs. Bishop piloted it bumping and stuttering past the row of brick houses to the brand-new yellow Sears Roebuck sitting in a bulldozed red gravel pit.
She swung fully around, holding the wheel and holding the motor in a pronounced idle, facing the backseat three as if from a pulpit. Clouds, sun, and sky were blotted out by the billows of wet steam.
"Why did you tell me to stop here?" she demanded.
Loco Poco rolled her eyes up into her head.
"She didn't tell you to stop," said Urie, but seeing the expression in her mother's face, improvised rapidly: "There's water in Sears Roebuck."
"Oh," said Mrs. Bishop. She turned off the key.
Outside, people seemed to be running, and a crowd gathered.
A man's face appeared in the steam and said, "The engine ain't got no air to breathe with all them suitcases lined up against it."
"You, Loco and Urie, hurry into Sears Roebuck and fill those bottles," whispered Mrs. Bishop, her hand on the door handle. "You, Irene, get out and help me unload this stuff."
Assuming a brave, gallant, elegant, "so glad you are helping me, how wonderful you are" expression, she opened the door.
Urie and Loco sneaked out of the car and threaded their way through the curious faces, clutching their empty bottles. Just as they stretched out their hands to push, the Sears Roebuck doors swept open to usher them into an automatic embrace. They were welcomed from limbo into a new, hushed, shiny, impersonal world. Lawnmowers, light bulbs, refrigerators glowed in indirect lighting. People were moving up and down the appliance counter, slow and reverent as in church.
"It's air-conditioned," whispered Urie.
They walked down a green carpet. A thousand automobile tires hung above them, some black, some pure velvety, others wrapped modestly in fluted brown paper. Everything smelled unreal. They did not question the unreality. They accepted it naturally, as if they had not lost their home forever, as if they were not eight hundred miles away from their Oceanic Life, on their way to their father, P. Q., to a home and life they could not imagine.
Suddenly Loco Poco stood in front of a gigantic suspended trailer-truck tire.
"Look! It's the kitty of the Little Cat's Paw!" she breathed. She drew her finger over the tire tread. Outlined against her fingernail, a small rubber cat was cut to the pattern of the tread. It lay sleeping in a bed, its nose and one paw exposed. "If I ever have a chance to buy a tire, I'm going to buy the Cat's Paw Tire. Isn't it cute!"
"We're supposed to be in here getting water!"
"This little kitty is home in bed. If you put ink on it, it would make a hundred little cats all the way down the highway!"
Searching the labyrinth of the store, Urie suddenly spotted something at the end of Straw Seat Covers. "Look, there are two fountains!"
Forgetting the sleeping cat, Loco darted forward. "One has colored water, Urie!" Pink, she bet.
She had the milk bottle ready, aiming it under the spout. But before she had time to push the handle, a horned finger touched her shoulder. It belonged to a bony middle-aged woman. "You're not supposed to use that fountain," she informed Loco in a low voice.
There was such strangeness in her disapproval that Loco was frightened. She backed away.
Outside, having delivered plain old white water without having spilled a drop, having for fifteen minutes maintained careful, minuscule footsteps like a serving girl's on a Greek vase, Loco paid no heed to the honks and brays of her sisters. She was only faintly pleased at Mrs. Bishop's diatribe: "All right. If you older ones don't know how to behave in a public place, you can just get right in the car and stay there until we get to Ephesus."
In this case the Truth Urie had told was a Lie. Maybe only Negroes were supposed to use the fountain, but Loco had been prevented from ever finding out what color the water was. Was it pink? Was it blue? Was it iridescent? Secretly she still thought it was pink. Forever she would be dedicated, like Ponce de Leon, to looking for the pink water in the magic fountain she saw so clearly in her mind's Garden of Eden.
It was more than an hour -- restarting the motor, pouring endless milk bottles of water in -- before they could repack the suitcases and wobble onward again, halting and starting out of Richmond, out of sight of the crowd of waving helpers.
Hours passed. Everything descended into monotone. The family's personalities became dissolved until they became a Pontiacal zoom upon the universe.
Toward evening they saw a sign pointing to Ephesus.
They stirred. Their faces were dusty, and they became slightly scared. It was like awakening. At once they thought of the ocean. They could not believe it was lost. And they thought of P. Q. They had not seen him for more than a year. Mrs. Bishop had the address of the house he had taken for them on a piece of paper.
It was dusk when they entered the town. Mrs. Bishop squinted over the steering wheel and went slowly. The stores were flat. The gravel sidewalks were gullied by erosion. Trees clutched their hands over the automobile. The lights of the town came on. They passed a gas station in front of which there was a large magnolia tree, which stuck out its blossoms through vulgar, shiny patent-leather leaves, like tongues. They turned right, passing the post office and the Ephesus Inn. Then, following the directions carefully, they entered an area of houses. Lights from the windows twinkled obscenely through large padded leaves. Bushes were overgrown in the yards. The fruitfulness of the Judas, quince, dogwood, honeysuckle was a disguise, and the fragrance that permeated everything was overpowering.
Suddenly a bell from a bell tower rang: "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go." The F-sharp was flat. Urie made a face at Loco. Behind this ritual their hearts were sinking.
The houses became closer and closer together. Mrs. Bishop veered toward the curb. "Nineteen Ransome Street," she said.
It was a squatting bungalow set in a gully. Bushes hid everything except the light inside and two fat orange columns, which held up the porch.
Mrs. Bishop looked at her paper again to make sure.
"It can't be!" said Irene in a shocked voice. "This is a residential district!"
Copyright © 1971 by Daphne Athas