Friday, February 26, 2010

Come and Go, Molly Snow

Come and Go, Molly Snow is a book about grief, redemption, and music. Published in paperback this past October by The University Press of Kentucky, the novel was Mary Ann Taylor-Hall’s first, garnering praise as a hardback from The Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, and People Magazine--just to name a few sources of acclaim. There was even talk of a movie version that ultimately collapsed under the weight of a bad script. That’s unfortunate, because the story is intrinsically cinematic in its flashback format, capturing everything from atmospheric breakdown scenes to spirited bluegrass music “breakdowns” through the plucky voice of Carrie Mae Mullins, an extraordinary woman fiddler who enters the mostly male world of bluegrass music.

The story begins with Carrie reflecting on how she ended up on a farm near Lexington, KY recovering from a breakdown, barely trusted by her two elder hosts to wield a knife for pitting peaches. The author uses the frame story of Carrie’s recovery to reveal gradually one of the major questions of the novel: how does one get beyond the death of a child?

The challenge of writing about grief hinges on the writer’s ability to make the inner landscape of a character accessible to the reader. For Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People, that challenge was met by alternating the inner suffering of two major characters, the grieving father and son. Both tell the story in first person, letting the reader piece together the tragedy beneath the surface from two viewpoints. While most first person narrators are by definition “unreliable,” as the reader only gets one subjective point of view, Taylor-Hall builds trust in Carrie Mae the same way J.D. Salinger had readers believing Holden Caulfield, by creating a character with a distinct, authentic voice. We believe and feel her descent into the monotone of grief because we have already heard her passionate voice describe the myriad emotions, sounds and sensations of playing in an ensemble.

In fact, music permeates the entire novel. Carrie describes her attraction to the handsome band leader, Cap, through their harmony singing, when she says,“harmony’s all there is or needs to be, when it’s right” and characterizes her often absent father’s depth of blues as “oh, my daddy was not easy listening.” The music even extends into Carrie’s thoughts on language when she considers the onomatopoeia of one word:

“Cease--what a word, like the breath going out of everything.”

And the music of Taylor-Hall’s language as it filters through Carrie set me jotting down quotes I wanted for later, just because they were surprising and succulent. As Carrie struggles with whether or not there is something after this life, the task in front of her of slicing peaches produces this insight:

“The gold, moist slices, red at the inner edge, gather the light to them. They look like light itself, as if to say, ‘You want to believe in something, believe in peaches.’”

The other characters in this novel serve to guide Carrie toward her eventual path through their examples--good and bad--and through their ample humanity. The sumptuous Cap, heart-throb to the masses, yet clueless about his own desires, the hardworking, nurturing granny, Ona, with her own tragic loss, and the ravenous-for-adventure retired banker, Ruth, who seeks the Holy Land and just maybe another fling, Pearls Girls, the all-women band formed by friends, Louis, the hard-driving banjo picker who resents Carrie’s “invasion” of his all-male band, the lively Molly Snow herself, who steps in and out of the narrative bringing Carrie both joy and pain, and spectres of all kinds who haunt Carrie in their longings, including her parents and a ghost called Little Lady Kidwell.

This novel poses many questions about the nature of existence, but thankfully leaves the answering to each of us on our own paths with our own casts of colorful characters. Come and Go, Molly Snow is a book for those who ask the important questions, but don't expect the answers to be easy.

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