Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series Blooming Analysis
Toth’s intent in writing the autobiography of the formative years of her life is neither to glorify life in a small Midwestern town nor to produce a journalistic report of facts and events of her maturation. It is, instead, more generic and more cosmic. The mere title of her book, Blooming, is indicative of both her metaphoric and her representational goals. The italicized introduction to the first chapter presents an important metaphor: Toth’s garden is compared with that of a friend, for both of them succeed in yielding flowers, even though the friend plants haphazardly and carelessly, while Toth gives great attention to the layout and care of her garden. She develops that idea into a useful analogy about her life: “When I look at the time, the town, the customs, the people who surrounded me when I was growing up, I cannot wish I had been nurtured in a different place. It was the only garden I knew.” The metaphor of growing up as a type of blooming recurs throughout the book and connotes potential, possibility, anticipation, and promise. For example, during a rare shopping excursion to a large department store in Des Moines, she is charmed to find “a new strain [of white blouse] blooming in an overlooked corner.” On a chilly May Saturday, her mother helps her gather blooms of wildflowers to fill May baskets. Describing preparations and events of an important holiday, Toth records donning gaily colored clothes on Easter Sunday even when the weather was inclement: “Mixing the colors of religion, nature, and vanity, we did our best to bloom.”
A second important motif in the book is water imagery. Although Toth was born and reared away from sources of natural water, many of her most vivid sensations are nevertheless associated with water. Psychologically, being near water brings soothing and healing to her. Community pools in and around Ames serve as hubs of adolescent social life, but the benefits to Toth are personal as well: “Once in the pool, doing my laps, I felt a kind of anesthetic set in. Cold water slithered over me, a numb caress, promising relief.” Family trips to an old house on a Minnesota lake for two or three weeks each summer give her peace: “I lapsed into the lake’s quiet life with an unconscious comfort that was like a sigh of relief.” There she goes fishing when it is possible to borrow a boat, more for the pleasure of dreaming and being beyond the reach of a human voice than for the prospect of actually bringing in a catch.
There are material images of lesser importance which are used in the novel to signify something more than themselves. Clothes, for example, may measure success or independence or self-sufficiency, as well as satisfaction with spending money honestly earned. They may also be indicative of a positive or negative attitude. Working as a receptionist for a college radio and television station, Toth notices the careless way a sophisticated female reporter treats expensive clothes. In the same chapter, Toth compares her attitude about an expensive yet seldom-worn wool suit she buys on the spur of the moment, when married and having access to a joint income, with her feelings about a cheaper orange print dress she had debated for two days about purchasing years earlier with...
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Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series Blooming Analysis
Given Toth’s argument that growing up in a small town in the 1950’s could be pleasant and fulfilling, Blooming appropriately uses a balanced, lighthearted tone. Toth often pokes fun at herself, but she also has great sympathy for her community and the younger version of herself. She offers detailed descriptions of 1950’s material culture, and her stories and reflections bring to life the texture of everyday life in a small midwestern town during the decade.
Beneath this often-humorous storytelling, however, Blooming also provides a useful analysis of how gender marked the lives of girls in the 1950’s. She reveals some of the strongly defined gender expectations in Ames, such as the notion that males would be inclined to science and females to literature, but she also shows her own faith in these visions of gender difference. While the adult narrator looks back critically at the sometimes clear divisions between male and female behavior, Toth also shows how her younger self found guidance and fulfillment in those divisions. In a humorous but also critical passage, for example, she describes the pleasure and agony of classic rituals such as preparing for and attending high-school dances. For girls, such rituals offered the first chance to wear stockings and lipstick, two signs of adult femininity that Toth remembers with both nostalgia and disdain. This ironic stance allows her to demonstrate both how traditional gender expectations could place limits on a young girl during her coming-of-age and how she might find such ideas about masculinity and femininity attractive.
One attractive aspect of being female was the essential link that shared gender identity created among Toth...
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At the time when Toth published Blooming, there were already in print a number of autobiographical childhood reminiscences set in various regions of the United States. Most of these, however, centered on the South, the North, large cities and ghettos, or ethnic communities; the Midwest was largely ignored as a setting for autobiography. Among autobiographical works of fiction, however, the Midwest is notably represented in writings of Ruth Suckow (Iowa), Sherwood Anderson (Ohio), Theodore Dreiser (Illinois), and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota), among some others. One critic, Robert L. Bartley, has called the Midwestern small town “our least understood regional culture” because of the dearth of literature from that area.
Besides beginning to fill that void, Toth has written vividly and engagingly, with the kind of details that bring to life the decade of the 1950’s. She dispenses pleasantries and not politics, optimism and not cynicism. Although the Korean War was being waged, children growing up in small-town Iowa were not directly affected by it and so paid more attention to sock hops and science projects. If they seem repressed or sheltered when compared to peers in a more urban setting, they were at least happy and enthusiastic.
Blooming gained instant acclaim in reviews from all regions of the United States, and was identified by The New York Times Book Review as a “Notable Book of the Year” in 1981. Toth’s first book, it was published when she was forty years old. It was preceded by several fiction and poetry selections appearing in Harper’s, Redbook, Ms., and The North American Review and was followed by two other autobiographical novels, Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East (1984) and How to Prepare for Your Class Reunion (1988).