Affection for the World
by Carol Bly
Duluth, MN: Holy Cow! Press, 2008, 244 pages, $15.95, paperback
Reviewed by Judith Niemi
Carol Bly, short story writer, essayist, pamphleteer, gadfly, and teacher, died of cancer last December 21, at 77. Until within a few days of her death she was working when she could, including on the final edits of her first novel, Shelter Half.
On its first page, a young woman’s body lies in a roadside ditch, one eye eaten by some wild creature. The description seems as spare and unflinching as those in serious detective fiction. Immediately, though, the living residents of the tiny town of St. Fursey, in hardscrabble northern Minnesota, draw attention away from the unidentified corpse. Local no-good Brad Stropp steps into an illegal beaver trap. Satisfying. Pearl is introduced. The truly ungifted reserve-organist for the town’s churches, she’s also the foul-mouthed, no-nonsense bartender at the VFW, and a natural scene stealer.
By chapter two, Bernie, the sensible chief of police, knows the murder is unsolvable. Not because he’s got only one dim-bulb, too-eager deputy in a police station with pink walls and cute curtains. Bernie notes the perfect lack of fingerprints and the body dumped without concern for hiding it, and figures it’s not a random rapist or serial killer who’s responsible, but a “big, purposeful organization.” He keeps his thoughts to himself. The dead girl becomes a welcome subject for gossip and speculation.
For readers, the body provides an ominous undertone, a reminder of serious evil in the world. Meanwhile, the people of St. Fursey muddle on with their lives and everyday griefs. There’s a lot of comedy in the plots and subplots about the ecumenical choir, the veterans’ gathering, jobs quit or lost, tacky betrayals, surprising loves.
Readers of Bly’s short stories will find familiar qualities in Shelter Half: her fierce angers, her sly satire of cant and cruelty, and her sheer delight and exasperation with small town life. She has a perfect ear for the speech of her people, and a point of view that stays close to her characters’ awareness; at the same time, there’s an intelligent underlying context of cultural and historical reference.
Over a dozen major characters and many significant minor ones, including a black lab and some bears, inhabit this concise novel. It’s a work of balance and of attention to how a community functions. In so small a town, acts of compassion and courage are personal and imaginative; the characters capable of ethical initiative include an old lady who surfs the Internet and a truant kid.
Central to the book is Peter Tenebray, the town’s Old Money, a genuinely nice man of impeccable manners. Peter loves civic virtue, but he is a hired propagandist for some appalling corporations, mostly because he’s too kindly and too comfortable to bring himself to believe in real evil. A cynical character calls him “one of those people who basically thinks Hitler would have been OK if he had just gone to a Rudolf Steiner school.”
This question of pain-avoidance, of educated Americans ignoring bad news and political sorrow, is something Bly often discussed in her essays and her teaching. (One of her many list-making warm-up exercises: “Name six injustices you should never lose sight of, not even on your wedding day.”) In a 1999 essay she accused herself (along with most American writers) of avoiding these privileged accommodators of evil in fiction, for fear of being called “shrill.” Peter Tenebray is her answer.
Shelter Half is Carol Bly’s clearest fictional portrait of the urgency of recognizing evil and being willing to act, however imperfectly. The exuberance and gusto of the novel illustrate her belief that when we decide to face evil, the spirit is not depressed, but freed. “A strange, almost blessed result of having made up one’s mind to remember evil is gaiety,” she wrote.
Bly mentioned contemporary feminism and the changes in women’s lives only in passing in her nonfiction. Among the lenses through which she does view the world: the stage theory of ethical development; contemporary neuroscience; and the practical, social work aspect of psychology. Her fiction, however, gives us vivid images of the very different lives of men and women, male brutality, and the pragmatic, gritty feminism of small towns. She draws memorable women characters, not always likable, and often strapped by the lack of money, education, and opportunity, who ignore accepted wisdom and take action. In Shelter Half, the coarse bartender/gambler Pearl commits the boldest kindly act. Peter’s daughter Imogene, however, has not let her privilege make her stupid—she’s both a solid resource to others and likely to change her own life for the better.
Carol Bly’s career in fiction began late. She was an aspiring writer when she married the poet Robert Bly in 1955; his family farm in Madison, Minnesota, where they could live cheaply, became a mecca for young poets. Carol managed the magazine of poetry and politics, The Fifties, The Sixties, then The Seventies; cooked (one summer, she estimated, 130 people stayed for dinner); did farm work and community work; and made a conscious decision to postpone her fiction. “Robert would babysit on weekends, but when I heard him telling the kids not to bother mama—I decided to raise kids.”
She did fill notebooks, and wrote a series of essays about introducing culture and expressiveness into rural life: “Getting Tired” is certainly the best thing ever written by a woman about tractors and combines. She and Robert Bly divorced in 1979; she moved to northern Minnesota and later to St. Paul, and her writing flourished. Two of her literary ambitions—a story in the New Yorker and a book with Harper and Row—were promptly achieved with “Last of the Gold Star Mothers” (1979) and the collected Letters from the Country (1981). Her first collection of stories, Backbone (1985), made her, at 54, an immediate critical success. She was compared to Chekhov, Camus, Cynthia Ozick, and Flannery O’Connor.
After her second, even better, story collection, The Tomcat’s Wife (1991), the flow of fiction slowed, but she published much nonfiction: essays such as “How Radiation Oncology Nearly Made Me a Republican” and “Male Bonding: an Ancient and Stupid Ritual;” an ethics reader, Changing the Bully Who Rules the World (1996); and pamphlets. She wrote a book on teaching writing, Beyond the Writer’s Workshop (2001) and a book on writing fiction that matters, The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making your Heart’s Truth into Literature (1993). Several of the characters of Shelter Half first appeared in Passionate, Accurate Story: Natalie the alcoholic wife, the whistle-blower, and the wife-beater picking a fight at the VFW. Over the years, that never-completed sample story grew into a 500-page novel, which Bly condensed to Shelter Half.
Carol Bly was also a teacher, not casually, but fiercely, as a vocation. She never held a regular academic post, but taught often in colleges, summer programs around the country, and classes in her home; she also worked with students by e-mail and phone. I worked with her as a student and as a colleague for many years, and she was the hardest-working, most generous teacher I have ever known. Several times at a rustic northern Minnesota lodge she taught women writing and thinking, while I taught them to snowshoe down beaver streams. Many of those students were only casual writers, but every day Carol was awake by 5:00 a.m., reading and annotating whatever they had turned in. “Wonderful! Say more.” Soon everyone took to rising early, not wanting to miss her wild, free talk. We had more laughter before breakfast than most women get in a month.
Firmly believing that every human being deserves a chance to write, to form a personal philosophy, and not to be blown about by change and chance, with skilled, serious writers, Bly was demanding. A novelist who worked with her for years, and traveled across the country to attend her memorial gathering, said, “There is a power to being perceived with an intensity like she could bring: it blasts open one’s imagination.” Some people found her alarming, intimidating—as blunt people can be. She crossed swords with many, and could be opinionated and formidable, but if told she was wrong, she often asked with real interest, “Oh? Tell me.”
“Affection for the world” was one of her highest compliments to student writers, and she had that quality in spades. She was interested in everything. learning Icelandic, knitting loud socks, cheering for the Pittsburgh Steelers. She took up the violin in her fifties and played until carpal tunnel problems forced her to quit. She loved both classical education and the joy of physical work. In her seventies, at her Sturgeon Lake summer place, she built a woodshed with a skylight, and a new outhouse. She planted and tended hundreds of baby oaks for her grandchildren: oaks because the native conifers would soon be losing out to global warming.
In the last five years, besides working on her novel, Bly collaborated with social worker Cynthia Loveland, creating Bly and Loveland Press to publish their pamphlets addressed to “privileged perpetrators” and small wake-up books denouncing America’s “gallop to Empire.” Loveland cared for Bly in home hospice during Bly’s final months. “We’ve got to have some rules around this house,” Bly announced, and posted warnings to visitors that included the strict prohibition of language such as “spiritual journey” and “passing on.” She worked; reread Anna Karenina, part of War and Peace, and Chekhov; and discovered new books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Carol Bly was a seasoned, tireless warrior, in it for the long haul. Still, I wondered, did she regret the amount of time she spent on thankless work, such as publishing pamphlets about George Bush, instead of on writing fiction? I asked Loveland. “I don’t think she regretted a thing,” Loveland said. “She was a great admirer of Thomas Paine—the pamphlets were just another part of her real work. ‘Hopeless’ was a word she hated; she just saw work to be done and did it. And besides, we had so much fun. She was the funniest woman I’ve ever known.”
Judith Niemi is a freelance writer and editor and a wilderness guide. She loves the Arctic and the Amazon, and her home base in Minnesota. As Carol Bly put it on one of the personalized pens and pencils she loved to hand out: “Minnesota! The state where the humanities count! Best human services, book publishers, and civic leadership! Fewer bullies. Fewer jerks.” Contact Niemi at Judith@womeninthewilderness.org.