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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2372

 

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Like her most recent works, the novel John Dollar (1989) and the story collection Herself in Love (1987), Marianne Wiggins’ Bet They’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone is concerned with vulnerable characters.

Angel, the eleven-year-old protagonist of “Angel,” has been abandoned by her parents. Her maternal grandmother, Fanny, takes care of her. If they are close, it is not through words at first, for Fanny does not speak Angel’s English nor Angel Fanny’s Greek, though they do share a small vocabulary in both languages.

Fanny’s husband, Papou, has died, and her sons’ marriages are tragic. Her son George is put in jail for murdering his wife Brenda’s lover, and Brenda leaves him. Jeanette, the wife of Fanny’s son Archie, is killed in a car accident. Cat, the wife of her son Nick, dies of a stomach ailment. None of these women, whom Fanny collectively calls “the Dots” after her son Mike’s wife Dot, has children, which is a further, and even more basic, disappointment to her.

That something good can come from death itself Ray Gould, the undertaker who lives next door, shows Angel in his deft use of makeup on cadavers and in his bringing flowers left over from funerals to the house. He functions as an image pointing out that the living need lovely memories of the dead.

Angel translates this into the bits and pieces she collects from departure and death—Brenda’s old lipstick, for example, which this “Dot” gives her when murder drives her from her marriage, and Cat’s “Miss Conviviality” trophy, which she won when she was young. These objects help Angel to keep her missing parents in her memory.

Fanny and Angel need each other for two reasons. The first is practical: Angel needs a mother, and Fanny needs a helper. Angel gives Fanny (who is a diabetic) her injections, helps her clean the rugs each week, and acts as a translator for her when she visits George in jail.

The second and more important reason is emotional. This need is made plain at the story’s end, when Angel and Fanny, alone in the house, share their mementoes with each other. Words do not have to be understood to be felt in this scene. By holding Fanny’s wedding shawl while Fanny speaks of her marriage, Angel understands what the past means to her grandmother. By holding Angel’s treasures while Angel tells stories about them, Fanny understands what they mean to her granddaughter. These objects, memories, and words fuse to reveal a vulnerable love and to counteract loss.

“Zelf-Portret,” “Croeso I Gymru,” “Shibboletboo,” and “Grocer’s Daughter” present characters whose identities are vulnerable. In these stories, language itself assumes the task of rescuing identity.

“Zelf-Portret” is drenched in a frustration that would be despair if it were not for the story’s wordplay. The narrator says, “What breaks the heart in the end are the facts, not the fiction.” She seems to mean that what happens in life, including the act of writing, has no true identity outside itself.

Art tries to overcome this fact. It uses analogy to do so, but it fails, for analogy is “lies…beginning from that line…where it touches at another zelf.” This “zelf” (identity) can be the writer’s own, which, in this story, is both the woman who rides a train in The Netherlands and visits Anne Frank’s hiding place there and the woman who needs to write about this and about writing about it.

If the second “zelf” is closer to the reader than the first because it happens in the writer’s tussle with words on the page, it is still only an illusion, for the writer’s experience of this frustrating project is no longer going on; it is the past. Even when it was going on, it was self-contained, partly because the past instantly claimed it.

This is true of Anne Frank and Hieronymous Bosch, too, for Frank’s attic room, her pictures, and her diary are not the feelings she had nor the death that came to her, and Bosch’s paintings are not the visions that disturbed him into making them.

No wonder the narrator dotes on death, which her allusions and puns let us see but cannot let us feel her feeling for. She spends much of the story’s time on Anne Frank’s absence and annihilation, words like the “nether” in Netherlands and the “low” in Low Country, and especially on the letter “z,” as in last (the last letter of the alphabet), going nowhere (the Dutch z.o.z., meaning “continue”), slipperiness (the Dutch word zee, meaning “sea”), and experience (self, damned to ending where it begins, as the narrator shows by substituting “z” for “s” in the word).

Marianne Wiggins was once married to Salman Rushdie, an experience that forms the background of “Croeso I Gymru.” “The president of a bankrupt desert nation,” an “aged psychopath,” as the narrator calls him, has demanded her husband’s death for writing a book that he (the Ayatollah Khomeini, of course) finds blasphemous, and to save themselves, the couple goes into hiding in Wales. To the narrator, this exile means an identity cancelled by a fear of words and an identity regained by a love of words.

The narrator says, alluding to Julius Caesar’s commentary on the Celts’ view of the power of writing, “those who could write of…rite and of worship…must be feared.” She imputes this fear to her husband’s enemy, and it makes her wonder, “What are words made of?

All she knows is that learning, at least in her case, depends on words, and that without learning, and writing down what she wants to and does learn, she is the no one that her husband’s would-be assassin has forced her to pretend to be.

Thus she learns as much as she can about Wales, especially its language. Dafad means “sheep,” dyfodol “future,” marw “dead,” she finds out, and in her hunger to know as much as she can about where she is, she roams the hills, visits the towns, broods on the pictures and legends on coins, and searches out the minutiae in the local newspaper such as the doings of women’s clubs—their charming competitions, for example, like the one “for an unusual pebble.” In this way, the narrator tries to find in words a form of saying “yes” and “I,” not “no” and “no one”; to find, in short, herself.

An identity denied is at the heart of “Shibboletboo.” To the town that the narrator, speaking in patois, seems to represent, Boo, the main character in the story, has a silent identity, for she is dead when the story opens, and during her life she was mute.

Her real name was Nancy, and the reason she was called “Boo” was that her older brother and sister, Jimmy Junior (“Major”) and Lorelei (“The Spinster”), spoke a private language as children that Nancy could not learn, since they would not help her. (This language was based on substituting “boo” for the last letters or syllables of words.)

This suffix became Nancy’s nickname (in fact, her only name); it also is the word for why she did not speak. She had, in the town’s mind, no identity other than “Boo.” Her siblings are at fault for this, for they failed to love her. Without love, there is silence. Without speech, the real self vanishes from view.

This is not entirely true, however, in Boo’s case. While those who were at her funeral are at her brother’s house afterward, a revelation about her arrives when her friend Ray announces that her last words were, “Ray? Why is men behabe so nast?”

So she could speak, and though her use of the word “nasty” pays tribute to the childhood language by dropping the last letter, it does not put “boo” in its place. Boo’s question thus shows the cause of her trouble (the suffix “boo”) and her refusal to be, in her self, defined by it.

“Grocer’s Daughter” is mostly a character sketch of the narrator’s father, John Wiggins, and it means to make up in written words—which are natural to the narrator but were not to her father—for the “unfinished business” she has with him.

She means that she never fully told him of her love for him. As a child, all she could do was absorb what he was and did, and what he taught her. For example, he taught her “how to pitch softball.… how to spot a plant called preacher-in-the- pulpit.… how to drive a car.… to ride a bike.” He also gave her maxims, such as, “Keep your feet off other people’s furniture.… Go nowhere in a hurry.… Sing,” and especially, “Don’t waste.”

What was he that she now understands was part of their distance from each other? His “life was landlocked.… Water was not an element he knew, except as rain on crops.” Also, he had never, as far as she knew, seen an island. She, in contrast, is writing her memorial of him on an island (England) “where all roads lead to water.”

What does she do, besides writing, to close this distance? As a farmer’s son and a grocer, her father gave her advice about vegetables, which she follows now by planting “only what my family guarantees to eat.” When she cooks, she wears “grocer’s aprons.”

Describing what her father was as a person is the main task of love to which the narrator sets her words. By using words to express how much she misses him, how morally solid he was, how he liked to play jokes, laugh, and sing, even how he always “wore pleated pants in dark colors,” she recovers his identity from death, which is only proper, since, as she says, his only motive was life.

Vulnerability and memory often go together in Bet They’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone. Old age makes Harry in “A Cup of Jo” and Nina in “Rex” vulnerable. Both characters have trouble communicating what they remember—Harry to his niece and Nina to her daughter, Pat. For them, life is a feeling imbedded in recollections that senility, in Harry’s case, and being lost, in Nina’s (a storm has interrupted her flight to see two of her daughters), bring to the fore in them.

Harry recalls a fishing trip he once went on to the Snake River with his now-dead friend Joey; the sensations of that event, triggered by the smell of hot coffee, are as strong as they were in the past, and seem to summarize what life at its best meant to Harry.

Nina recalls the questions her daughter Pat asked when she was a child; the difficulty of answering them, triggered by Pat’s abrupt questions about Nina’s accidental companion Ed in the airport (perhaps in a dream Nina may be having there), seems to reveal to Nina how hard it is to make sense out of life, let alone to communicate the feeling it comes down to in her.

The death of his wife, Marlene, makes Carl Tanner vulnerable in “Balloons ’N’ Tunes.” To deal with this, he talks to her as though she were still alive; to support the illusion that she is, he hangs her bra on a window, gets drunk, and dismisses the sane interruption of a neighbor, Dolores. His excuse for opposing his vulnerability by denying death is that he could not fulfill Marlene’s last wish, which was for her ashes to be spread on the Appomattox River. As Carl was doing this, a truck with “Balloons ’N’ Tunes” lettered on the side rushed by, creating a wind that scattered the ashes away from the river. The occurrence, random and mysterious, gives Carl’s grief an exit, as it were, from acceptance into fantasy. The unforeseen intervention of the truck is crazy, and this allows him to be crazy, too, to make what is remembered what is actually going on.

In “Counting,” Mildred, a retired chemistry teacher, is vulnerable because she is old and alone. She defends herself by counting up the violent deaths reported in newspapers and by spending a lot of her time in supermarkets.

In “Evolution,” Vy, an amateur actress, is vulnerable because she fears the future—generally the end of the world, and particularly the corruption of her daughter Cicely through “mutagens” in her food. She is comforted by turning off dripping faucets and, in the end, by making “A Real Loud Noise” to Cicely so that she’ll take her mother seriously.

In “Eso Es,” Modesto is “a shy man who loves birds.” He is afraid of women and especially of strangers. In fact, it seems he is, unknown to himself, an angel. This fact makes him vulnerable to the weight and noise of the world, dramatized by the fireworks that frighten the birds of Zaragoza, Spain, and by Modesto’s uncle, a loud-mouthed and gluttonous “eye doctor.” Modesto thinks he himself is trying to stop the fireworks to save the birds, but he is really signaling heaven to rescue him; that happens when an angel kills Modesto’s pet birds and Modesto himself.

Whether trapped or solaced by memory or language, or both, or by personal quirks, the characters in Bet They’ll Miss Us When We’re Gonecannot escape vulnerability itself. This makes it easy to feel akin to them and easy to like them. In turn, that helps to make up for the fact that plot often goes nowhere in these stories, which sometimes seem more concerned with the writer herself than with the tale she is telling.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. July 4, 1991, p. 49.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, April 15, 1991, p. 505.

Library Journal. CXVI, June 1, 1991, p. 198.

Los Angeles Times. May 30, 1991, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, June 30, 1991, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, May 3, 1991, p. 61.

San Francisco Chronicle. June 30, 1991, p. REV4.

Vogue. CLXXXI, July, 1991, p. 85.

The Wall Street Journal. July 19, 1991, p. A9.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, June 9, 1991, p. 10.

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