The Whiteness of Bones

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Whiteness of Bones begins with a slight incident which forces the twelve-year-old protagonist, Mary Wilding “Mamie” Clarke, into the quest which will occupy the next ten years of her life. Up to that time, the sugar plantation on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, where Mamie lives with her parents and her sister, has seemed to be a paradise. The easy sexuality of the Filipinos and the Hawaiians has a kind of innocence about it which does not trouble the children. When the trusted long-time servant, Hiroshi, makes a sexual advance to Marnie, however, she reacts with shock and shame. When she tells her father, McCully Clarke, he dismisses Hiroshi, despite the pleas of Mamie’s mother, Mary Clarke, who does not wish to lose a valued gardener. Partly because of her mother’s reaction, Mamie comes to blame herself for the incident and to feel that her developing sexuality is in itself evil. Later, when a tsunami threatens, she runs to save Hiroshi, for whom she feels responsible. Unfortunately, she cannot find him, and Mamie must then bear an added burden of guilt because her father also drowns, while he is looking for her.

The title of the book, suggesting the quest for purity which motivates Mamie’s behavior during the next ten years of her life, is drawn from one of the characters in the novel, Anna Sheridan. In Susanna Moore’s first novel, My Old Sweetheart (1982), Anna was a major character. An emotionally unstable woman, she was an addict who depended upon her young daughter to care for her and even to inject her with drugs. Eventually, Anna committed suicide, leaving her daughter an inheritance of confusion and insecurity. In The Whiteness of Rones, Anna is a minor character of great thematic importance. Frequently she takes her daughter and Mamie to a deserted beach, where she urges them to strip and pretend that they have been washed up from a shipwreck, as smooth and as clean as bones. To Mamie, the peculiar game becomes a vision of vanishing purity; as her body changed during puberty, she felt that she was becoming tainted. She was no longer as smooth and clean as the ideal. What the game meant to Anna is not clear; it is, however, significant that her husband was as emotionally dead as Mamie’s mother appears to be. If, as the ritual implied, purity could be found only by denying passion or participation in life, it should not be Anna who was committed to such a viewpoint. The fact that Anna proposes this game is significant, however, from another standpoint: She is as unable to have a proper nurturing relationship with her daughter as Mamie’s mother is. Thus the incident touches both themes of the novel, both goals of Mamie’s quest.

Although Marnie senses her need for purity and for love during her childhood in Hawaii, she does not understand the difficulties which her quest will involve until she has moved to a very different world, the New York City of her wealthy, sophisticated Aunt Alice, or, as she now calls herself, Alysse. Recovering from a casual abortion, Claire soon joins Mamie there, and Alysse sets about instructing both girls in the ways of survival in an environment where the threats come not from sharks and tsunamis but instead from predators armed with malicious gossip, deception and intrigue, sex games, alcohol, and drugs. Mamie and Claire are drawn to Alysse’s society because they are young and it is exciting. Her approval is particularly important to them because their own mother has never seemed to care about them. Sadly, Mamie observes that Alysse is the first grown woman who has ever paid any attention to her.

It is Claire, however, not the more serious-minded Mamie, who is Alysse’s favorite. Like Alysse, Claire is completely practical. People, both believe, are to be used and enjoyed, judged not by any moral standard, but instead by their capacity to amuse, by their brightness at a party. No one has any responsibility for others; no one need be bound by any restraints. Claire is captivated by Alysse’s philosophy.

At first, flattered by Alysse’s attention, Mamie becomes a part of her world. Alysse gets her a job with one of her friends; it turns into modeling. At one of Alysse’s parties, Mamie meets Alder Stoddard, an older, married man, separated from his wife and child, who soon becomes her lover and initiates her into the sexual delights at which he is so practiced, while respecting her as an individual and treating her with consideration. For a time, that is enough. Mamie seems to have adjusted to Alysse’s world.

On a business trip to Chicago with her employer, however, Mamie learns that she cannot live by the...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)

The Whiteness of Bones Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, December 1, 1988, p. 601.

Chicago Tribune. March 12, 1989, XIV, p. 6.

Library Journal. CXIV, January, 1989, p. 102.

Los Angeles Times. March 23, 1989, V, p. 10.

Ms. Magazine. XVII, March, 1989, p. 41.

New Woman. XIX, March, 1989, p. 20.

The New York Review of Rooks. XXXVI, April 27, 1989, p. 50.

The New York Times Rook Review. XCIV, March 26, 1989, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, December 23, 1988, p. 66.

The Washington Post Rook World. XIX, February 26, 1989, p. 3.