During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia won the 1984 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award, an award given annually to recognize a distinguished first novel. In her debut, author Joan Chase has constructed a complex and innovative narrative. Her subject matter is traditional—a family saga of sorts—but her angle of vision is not. This is a challenging and rewarding novel that demands from its readers an imaginative act of synthesis, pulling together its disparate parts into a meaningful whole.

Each of the novel’s five parts is named for a character or pair of characters; from one point of view, the parts can be seen as separate, self-contained stories. Each has its own sense of time; notable are part 1, “Celia,” which is in chronological order, and part 4, “Elinor,” in which persons awaiting Elinor’s arrival by train reminisce about her last visit to the farm. If they were to be read separately, these two sections might not be considered as pieces of the same novel, but, in the final pages of part 5, “Gram,” it becomes clear that During the Reign of the Queen of Persia has a story line—if not a plot—and that only a reading of the entire novel can tie the story line together.

Tradition divides most works of fiction into two classes—those told in the first person and those told in the third person. Use of the first person was commonplace in the eighteenth century, when prejudice against fiction made it necessary to disguise novels as memoirs. The first-person narrative also has the advantage of immediacy, conveying the feeling of an eyewitness account. The third person allows the author to assume omniscience and to let the reader know things which would have to be kept hidden in a first-person account. Rarely can a third-person novel be disguised—even for effect—as a memoir.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia fits into neither of the traditional classes. There is no narrating “I,” as in a first-person novel, but most of the novel is told as recollection by characters in it. The recollections are attributed to a collective—“we”—but who are “we”? At most, four persons are “we”: the four granddaughters who are the third generation of permanent residents on the Krauss farm during the period of approximately five years between the death of Jacob “Grandad” Krauss and the farm’s sale.

The first generation on the farm is represented by Lil Bradley Krauss, usually called “Gram” in the narrative, called “the Queen of Persia” by her son-in-law. The actual owner of the farm, having bought it with an inheritance from an uncle, Gram acts like a queen. The death of her husband, Jacob Krauss—the bane of her youth, later an efficient farm manager—removes an alternative focus of loyalty.

The second generation of permanent residents are Gram’s daughter, Libby, known as “Aunt Libby,” and her husband, Dan Snyder, called “Uncle Dan.” Other daughters and sons-in-law of Lil and Jacob, however, often arrive to disturb the serenity of Gram’s reign. The third generation—“we”—are four girls, born less than two years apart: Celia and Jennifer, the daughters of Libby and Dan; and Anne and Katie, the daughters of Libby’s sister, Grace, and of Grace’s husband, Neil.

It is from the perspective of these four that life on the Krauss farm is seen—not always, however, from the perspective of all four. There are episodes about tricks which “we”—meaning two or three of the girls—play on one of them. Some episodes begin with “we” meaning three or four girls and end with one of them separate from—and antagonistic to—the others, who remain “we.” In part 1, “Celia,” “we” includes the oldest granddaughter at the beginning, but she gradually becomes distinct from the other three. Celia, the first to become an adolescent, is a high school beauty popular with boys and an object of curiosity and espionage of the other three girls. In other parts, however, “we” frequently includes Celia. In some aspects of her life, Celia remains part of the foursome until she marries and leaves the Krauss farm. In other aspects, she is distinct from the other three girls and their world.

Futhermore, the absence of an “I” is not the only distinction between During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and ordinary first-person novels. Some sequences of the narrative are told as if from the perspective of an omniscient author. Sequences of family history—the lives of Gram, Grandad, and their daughters before...

(The entire section is 1871 words.)