Joanne Greenberg

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1980

A consummate storyteller, Greenberg employs shrewd psychological insights to create characters that draw her readers into the plot, keeping them immersed in her story until the very last page.

“The Supremacy of the Hunza”

Joanne Greenberg’s “The Supremacy of the Hunza” is about the responses of two men to ninety-foot towers linked with cables that are erected on their land. Forty-three-year-old Westerbrook is an uncompromising idealist who is looking for a utopia. First he seizes upon the Chontal Indians on the southern Isthmus of Mexico, who are reputed to have a society free of violence and crime. Margolin, an anthropologist, who meets him at a protest organized against the towers, points out that the absence of crime only means the absence of the idea of private ownership. Their peacefulness is due to chronic malnutrition.

Westerbrook tries to enlist Margolin in his causes, conservation groups, fights against pollution, crusades, petitions, and marches. Cynically, Margolin throws away all the pamphlets. Margolin is relieved to be summoned by a therapist at a state institution to interpret the dreams of three Sioux patients so that he can escape from brooding over the towers that are defacing the landscape.

Margolin returns, exhausted by his failures. “The symbols of The People had become cheapened parodies, like Made in Japan trinkets.” The dreams that he had taped had been full of phony images from the movies, fake feather headdresses from cowboy pictures, and carried no cultural weight at all. He is oppressed by the pain of these Indians, “tongue-tied with tranquilizers,” and by his inability to help at all. When Margolin discovers a drawer full of leaflets about the air, the water, and the food, he begins, in a rage, to dial Westerbrook’s number to tell him that he does not want to be involved in any more of his crusades, but his wife informs him that Westerbrook is sick. Margolin then determines to be kind. He scarcely recognizes the “lowered, pinched quality of the voice; its youthfulness had been conquered, the naïve enthusiasm was gone.” There is so much pain in Westerbrook’s voice that “suddenly Margolin wanted to beg his forgiveness; for polluting his air and fouling his water and for permitting the hideous towers to stand.” When Westerbrook mentions his newest enthusiasm, the Hunza, Muslim herders on the slopes of the Himalayas who live to a vigorous old age because they exist simply on pure food, whose language has no words for greed or envy, Margolin restrains his usual cynical comments. For his restraint he earns a pounding headache and the reward of hearing Westerbrook’s voice recover its normal enthusiasm.

The conflict is between two contrasted attitudes toward civilization. The amateur romanticizes the simple life. The professional anthropologist refuses to be enlisted in any campaigns to clean the environment because he recognizes the hopelessness of the struggle, as well as the falsity of all the hyped-up reports from utopia. Margolin’s compassionate impulse angers him afterward because his fear of further wounding the idealist has cost him his honesty. His conciliatory remarks about the Hunza restore his friend’s dignity, however, and Margolin recognizes in this concession how much envy had been mingled with his previous responses to Westerbrook, and this is a humiliating fact to have to accept.

The imagery in this story is so unobtrusive that one has to search for it. The telephone poles that have upset both of the men remain standing. That is an inflexible fact. Neither organized protests nor private broodings have budged them an inch. Yet the ugly poles support cables which permit telephone conversations like the one which closes the story. The skeptic who had maintained his detachment ends by giving emotional support to a man whose naïveté he had scorned, whose social activism has made him feel guilty, whose faith in primitivism he felt was ill-informed, and whose belief that this world could be made better by means of committees he disagreed with. The poles carry the possibility of communication, flawed though it must be by individuals’ psychological distances from one another. They bridge the physical distances; one must make the emotional accommodations to bridge the psychic ones. Every technological advance carries its own psychic assault with it. The movie versions of Indian identity have supplanted any authentic feelings about what it means to be a Sioux, just as the tranquilizers have obliterated the dark passions that had placed him in the asylum in the first place. Civilization makes primitive truths difficult to recover.

The story is effective precisely because it permits no easy answers to these hard questions. It raises the possibility that there might be a superior language, like that of the Hunza, which has no words for greed (represented by the individual conglomerates that put up more and more poles) or envy (represented by the academic mentality that feels the need to expose myths). If political activism is futile and dreaming of utopias is childish, what hope is there for this earth? The story provocatively raises profound dilemmas, leaving the reader to search for some solution. This is an example of the polemic genre at its most effective. It derives ultimately from the prophetic books of the Bible, whose rhetorical strategy is always to pose a question that demands to be answered in action: What are you going to do about this?

“Hunting Season”

“Hunting Season” tells of a mother’s anguished pursuit of her little boy, whom she has allowed to play outside while men are shooting their guns and sometimes killing one another. Fearing that he will have an epileptic attack because he has been on some new medicine only a week, she sets aside the bread she has been baking to follow him to make sure he does not have another seizure as the guns go off, and the animals burst the thickets in panic. “He could fall, thrashing, unable to breathe, his face growing gray for lack of air, and then down the rocky gully, falling.” She begins to run, listening for him, “smelling the air for danger,” tracking him warily like a middle-aged huntress. At the sight of his small, thin figure, staring at the creek, she realizes that she is intruding on his privacy and, full of self-reproach, retreats, leaving him to face his dangers alone. He is shouting at the rocks, a big-boy threat that ends with: “Do you hear me?” “It was her intonation exactly, all the querulous anger of her impatience and all the long-suffering in her tone, captured with unconscious, searing honesty.”

She whispers back that she has heard him and that she knows he has to make that murdering world his own. The courage involved in the mother’s withdrawal of maternal protectiveness shows that she has successfully negotiated her part of this rite of passage. She hears, in his unconscious imitation of her voice, that she has damaged him enough already. He has internalized all the negative aspects when she had so much wanted him to see her as someone spontaneous, who played and laughed and loved the wind. She is ashamed at having lost her youthful joyousness and turned into a scolding woman. In the instant of grace when she decides to leave him his freedom, however, there is the possibility, if not of recovering her own freedom, at least of permitting him to retain his. The suggestion remains poised in the air.

Again, the symbolism is structural, not decorative. The title, “Hunting Season,” is explicitly referring to the men who are stalking game. Implicitly, however, it embodies the plot. The mother has become a hunter of her child. She stalks him, holding her breath, keeping her footsteps noiseless, trying not to extrude the scent of her fear, which he might inhale. When she lets him go, she releases a victim. She allows him to fantasize himself as an aggressive male, to enter the murdering world, protected only by his talismanic turquoise jacket on his pathetically thin shoulders. That instant of swerving away from her maternal impulse to enfold him requires enormous control. The mother’s silent surrender of the role of huntress shows she can discipline her feelings. The author’s use of a moment of silence to signal emotional growth shows what control she has over her art. The mother’s concern builds up, accelerates into anxiety, mounts into panic but, instead of expending itself, is suppressed. The pace of the story augments the jolt of the ending. In that instant she accepts the end of her season as huntress so that he can become the hunter of experience in his own hunting season.

High Crimes and Misdemeanors

All but three of the stories in High Crimes and Misdemeanors are Hasidic tales. These trace the cosmic consequences of human lapses. A lie can extinguish a star; an expression of gratitude can make a tree bloom. The narrator says, “Medieval Jewish mystics held that the acts of men have widespread effects in the heavenly realms.” Two old ladies afraid of muggers barricade themselves in their house. Their niece consults a professor of religion, who advises her to fortify them through the mystical word as Rabbi Judah Lowe did his golem, when he fed him the Ineffable Name. So she inscribes Psalm 22 in Hebrew, leaving out all the vowels, so that its “mystical power retained its primal strength,” and bakes it into a honey cake so they can ingest its power. At the end, the elderly aunts are no longer afraid to walk in the streets in “The Jaws of the Dog.”

“Things in Their Season”

In “Things in Their Season” intricate calculations are made “from one of the mystical books of the cabala” to discern where time is stockpiled. Four middle-aged Jews succeed in stealing some from the Cosmic Bank for Rabbi Jacob, whose fatal illness had threatened to interrupt their Monday night Talmud discussions. “Certain Distant Suns” takes its title from a Yiddish “commercial” on Aunt Bessie’s unplugged television set that reproaches her, through the person of a shabbily dressed Hasid, for having stopped praying. He says,in every relationship a certain amount of resentment builds up over the years this is especially true in regard to mankind and the Master of the Universe, since the relationship is so—so onesided. I beg all of you, not to stop discussing the Master of the Universe, even if you can no longer praise Him. If it be in anger or despair or even, God forbid, in ridicule, keep His Name aloud in your mouths. It is possible that certain distant suns are powered by the mention of His Name.

With the Snow Queen

In her later collection of short stories, With the Snow Queen, Greenberg takes readers on an engaging tour of a fantasyland that only she could have created. People travel backward in time, characters harangue their authors, and an incomplete ritual may have had a disastrous effects on some innocent bystanders. She uses the search for an authentic sense of self that people in their middle years often embark upon as the bridge for this series of short stories. Personal crises help some of her characters change direction, while other characters come to accept a slightly flawed but more authentic self.

Who can resist Sima’s freedom—in the title story—to go back to a turning point in her early years and dramatically change her life. In “Persistence of Memory” a prisoner who trades his memories to the inhabitants of Ghenna for oblivion finds that he can change his life by changing his memories. Only at the very end of “Torch Song” can one find out how the Vatican Ski Team fared in the Olympic Games. While older readers may immediately identify with many characters in this collection, With the Snow Queen will appeal to readers of all ages.

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Greenberg, Joanne