Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1367
Thematically most of E. Annie Proulx’s writing is concerned with the gradual disappearance of the rural America that she cherishes, as urban sprawl overtakes the farmlands and forests that once constituted a major part of the United States. Proulx has always avoided cities, preferring to live in rural areas. As city dwellers have pushed farther and farther into rural America, family farms have virtually disappeared, as Proulx shows in Postcards.
Proulx is also concerned with the necessity for people to have roots, and in her novels she shows how, in an expanding society, it becomes difficult to maintain such roots. In The Shipping News, the protagonist, Quoyle, born in Brooklyn, is a deeply disturbed person who has cast about in New York State for most of his thirty-odd years, unhappy with the person he is. Only when he makes a break from his unsatisfactory life following the death of his oversexed, unfaithful wife in an automobile wreck does he develop a self-image he can live with. He leaves his sorrow at his wife’s death behind and moves with his two daughters to Newfoundland, to a dilapidated property that his family has owned for years. In returning to his ancestral roots, he begins to build a new life for himself, one based on self-acceptance.
Proulx usually employs third-person omniscient narrators in her writing. She uses her narrators to provide “flash-forwards,” which, unlike flashbacks, inform readers of the fates of characters outside the immediate time frame of the narrative. By using this device, Proulx is able to add to the intensity of occurrences in her stories by giving readers clues to impending events.
Sentimentality seldom intrudes on Proulx’s writing. An admirer of Icelandic author Halldór Laxness’s novel Sjálfstætt fólk (1934-1935; Independent People, 1946), she, like Laxness, writes about harsh, unforgiving landscapes populated by people strong enough to survive them. She understands well the dialects of her characters, using them authentically to make her characters credible. Doing her research for The Shipping News, she spent a great deal of time in Newfoundland listening to how Newfoundlanders speak and doggedly studying the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.
Proulx does not mourn for a lost agrarian past; rather, she creates situations with which her characters must cope on a day-to-day basis. Her characters do not have easy lives. Those involved in farming or fishing live at the mercy of changing variables that are indifferent to their suffering. Much that she writes about is horrific, but she tempers the horror with humor, albeit often a black humor. She admits to avoiding scrupulously what she terms a “pastoral nostalgia.”
Loyal Blood has lived most of his early life on the family farm, improving it through backbreaking work. He has a clear vision of the farm’s potential. His roots are firmly entrenched in this farm, where he lives with his father and brother. The story Proulx relates in Postcards details events that occur in Loyal’s life between 1944 and 1988. Critics have pointed out that John Dos Passos chronicled the first three decades of the twentieth century in his trilogy U.S.A. (1937) and suggest that Proulx has taken up where Dos Passos left off. She has undertaken the herculean task of chronicling, through Loyal Blood’s adventures, more than four decades in midcentury America.
Loyal Blood has killed his girlfriend, Billy; she had rejected his advances, leading the aroused Loyal to rape her, and in the course of the rape, she died. This clearly is not a case of premeditated murder, but nevertheless it is an act that can destroy Loyal’s life. Panicked by what he has done, Loyal hides Billy’s body in an abandoned root cave. He then tells his father, Mink, that he and Billy have decided to run away and that they are leaving immediately, without even saying goodbye to Billy’s family. Mink is furious.
Postcards unfolds over the next forty-four years, during which Loyal, whose fervent wish has been to stay on the family farm, is ironically forced to live life on the run. His presence is essential to the farm’s survival, as Loyal alone understands how to make the most of its potential. Now Loyal’s only contact with his family is through infrequent postcards—always the same card, with a picture of a bear on it—sent to them with no return address. One card informs the family that Loyal and Billy have separated, and nobody seems eager to pursue finding her.
Ever running, Loyal moves from one menial job to another. His emotional response to Billy’s death is reflected in his having a violent asthma attack every time he tries to involve himself sexually with a woman. Meanwhile, part of the family farm has been sold to a Boston doctor who has found Billy’s skeleton, but the doctor thinks the remains are those of someone the Indians killed earlier, so nothing comes of his discovery.
Proulx’s careful research is evident in Postcards, as it is in all her writing. For example, at one point in Loyal’s meandering, he decides to search for uranium. He scans maps for places with names like “Poison Spring” and “Badwater Canyon” because such names suggest the presence of arsenic or selenium in these places, and where these elements exist, uranium may be present.
The Shipping News
R. G. Quoyle, the protagonist of The Shipping News, is an unhappy, overweight widower who, born in Brooklyn, has drifted around New York State. He falls in love with Petal Bear, a promiscuous vamp, and marries her, but she is unfaithful to him. She is fleeing from him and their two daughters when she crashes her car into a tree and dies. Still in love with Petal, Quoyle suffers the pangs of a disabling grief, but his aunt, Agnis Hamm, an unsentimental, practical woman, urges him to leave his past behind and resettle on a dilapidated family property in Newfoundland.
Quoyle and his daughters, one of whom is emotionally disturbed, follow Agnis’s advice and land in a stark world that is totally unfamiliar to them. There, Quoyle builds a new life. He finds work as a reporter for the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, where his assignments are the shipping news and car wrecks. Quoyle thinks that he cannot endure reporting on the latter, but Agnis views his doing so as a necessary rite of passage.
Quoyle eventually fits in, making friends with the owner of The Gammy Bird and with other locals, including Wavey Prowse, a widow with a disabled son. The two find that they are kindred spirits and, for the first time in his life, Quoyle experiences something that approaches contentment and self-acceptance.
In Accordion Crimes, Proulx explores the melting-pot nature of the United States. Her cast of characters is large, making for a complex narrative of epic proportions. The story focuses on the successive owners of a green accordion that was made in Sicily and, over the century from around 1890 to the 1990’s, is owned by people in the United States in places ranging from Louisiana and Texas to Minnesota and Illinois. Each of the eight chapters in the novel focuses on someone who has possession of the instrument.
The accordion is made a by Sicilian accordion maker who, with his son, Silvano, is about to set sail for the New World, and the instrument comes to America with them. Lured to New Orleans, probably by a pitchman employed to find greenhorns about to sail for the United States and divert them to that city, where they are needed as cheap laborers, the accordion maker is soon beaten to death by people who hate Italians. Silvano, blaming himself for his father’s death, attempts to mask his Italian heritage and changes his name to Bob Joe. In time, the green accordion passes on to his black friend, Polio, who soon dies, as do most of the people involved with the instrument. The green accordion is ultimately found by two children in a Dumpster in the 1990’s. They fish it out, place it on a highway, and watch an eighteen-wheeler run over and destroy it.
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