Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213
Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite concerns a set of interrelated characters in West Virginia and Korea in the 1950s. Phillips shifts between two locations: a tunnel beneath a railway bridge at the start of the Korean War in 1950, where twenty-one-year-old Corporal Robert Leavitt is trapped with a mob of refugees being fired upon by confused American troops, and Winfield, West Virginia, 1959, where an unconventional family that includes Leavitt’s autistic son rides out a torrential flood.
Lark and Termite features an epigraph from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The novel recalls Faulkner’s both in its reliance on a mentally impaired character and in its use of multiple points of view. Phillips moves between the perspectives of Leavitt; Leavitt’s autistic son, Termite; Termite’s half-sister, Lark; and Lark and Termite’s aunt, Nonie.
Robert Leavitt has arrived in Korea by way of Japan, where he played trumpet in an army band before being chosen to join a group of American servicemen in an intensive Korean language program. A month after the surprise invasion of South Korea by North Korea, Leavitt is guiding a large mass of refugees from an evacuated village when they are fired upon by American airplanes, who are under the assumption that refugees have been infiltrated by North Korean soldiers. In the chaos of the firefight, Leavitt helps a Korean girl who is traveling with a blind boy, probably her brother, and an older woman. Leavitt flees with the refugees into a tunnel—but not before he is mortally wounded by gunfire in his legs and back.
As Leavitt marches with the refugees and after he becomes trapped in the tunnel, his mind reaches back to his life in America—specifically his youth in Philadelphia and his time on base in Fort Knox, Kentucky. While at Fort Knox, Leavitt visits nearby Louisville, where he plays trumpet in a jazz band at a club and brothel run by Bill Onslow. Leavitt falls in love with the jazz band’s lead singer, a thirty-year-old woman from West Virginia named Lola. Three weeks before Leavitt ships out to Asia, Lola tells him she is pregnant with his child, and they marry. As Leavitt fades in and out of consciousness, he hears Lola speaking to him. Leavitt knows their baby is due any day now, and he believes he will somehow know when Lola gives birth.
Interspersed with Leavitt’s story is the story of the title characters, Lark and Termite, and their life in Winfield, West Virginia, exactly nine years after Leavitt’s death in Korea. Termite is Leavitt’s son; he is a mentally impaired boy who does not communicate or walk but has a preternatural ability to mimic the words of those around him. His older sister, Lark, is Lola’s daughter from an earlier relationship. Lark and Termite live with their aunt, Nonie, who is Lola’s sister. Lark is Termite’s principal caregiver while Nonie is away at work, and the siblings share a special connection. Others disagree about the extent of Termite’s understanding of his surroundings, but Lark believes Termite is acutely sensitive to the emotional states of others even if he is unable to express himself in conventional ways.
As a serious storm threatens Winfield and the possibility of a nearby river flooding the town increases, Lark and Termite go about their summer routine. Lark bakes Termite a birthday cake, they explore the rail yard, and they are visited by a mysterious social worker who gives Termite a brand-new wheelchair.
Nonie fills in the backstory of the unconventional family. Nonie has always been in love with Charlie Fitzgibbons, who runs the restaurant where Nonie works. Charlie cannot break the control of his overbearing mother and the owner of the restaurant, Gladys, who is a vindictive, cruel woman who has always looked down on Nonie’s family.
Nonie relates how she came to be raising her sister’s two children by different fathers: After high school Nonie moves to Atlanta, where she works at a department store and marries an insurance executive. Nonie’s marriage ends after four years, and not soon after, Charlie and Lola, Nonie’s younger sister, join her in Atlanta.
A complicated romantic entanglement ensues that will have lasting affects. Nonie marries the nightclub owner Billy Onslow, and Charlie and Lola have a brief affair that results in Lola’s becoming pregnant with Lark. Nonie divorces Onslow after he moves to Louisville, and she returns to Winfield, where she remains devoted to Charlie despite his involvement with her sister and even though his mother stands in the way of their relationship. Lola is singing in Onslow’s club in Louisville and cannot handle the pressures of motherhood, so she sends Lark to live with Nonie. Lark grows up knowing that her mother had to give her up, but she does not know the identity of her father. Termite comes to Nonie when he is still an infant, after Lola commits suicide.
Lark and Termite are alone in Nonie’s house when a flood begins to subsume the town of Winfield. With the help of Solly, a neighbor and Lark’s longtime love interest, Lark is able to safely store most of the family’s belongings in the house’s attic. As Lark and Termite ride out the torrential flood, Larks begins to comb through a collection of Lola’s belongings she discovered in the house’s basement. The boxes of Lola’s belongings include information on a house in Florida. Lark had thought it was Gladys’s vacation home but it turns out to have been Lola’s residence. Lark also discovers that Charlie is her father.
As the flood ravages the town, Nonie stays at Charlie’s restaurant, which is safely positioned on high ground. She is unable to reach her house, but she and a friend take Gladys home. Nonie helps Gladys inside with food from the restaurant. In the kitchen, Gladys explodes at Nonie, demanding that Nonie return the heirloom watch Charlie gave her as a present and accusing Nonie and her sister, Lola, of being “harpies” who have ruined her son’s life. Gladys tries to rip the watch from Nonie’s wrist; in doing so, she trips and falls face-first down her basement steps into the rising floodwater. She dies instantly. Nonie flees the house and does not tell anyone what has happened.
A week later, the floodwaters have receded, and characters deal with the fallout from Gladys’s death. After Nonie is taken by the sheriff to be kept in jail until an inquest is held, Lark fashions a plan for her and Termite to escape to Florida before Termite is taken by Social Services, who have been trying for years to enroll Termite in a special school. Lark confronts Charlie and tells him that she knows he is her father. Charlie gives Lark the deed to the house in Florida, which is in her name, not Lola’s or Gladys’s, and wishes her well. Lark and Termite sneak onto an empty railway car heading for Miami. As the train pulls out of town, they are joined by Solly, who drives his motorcycle into the car in a daring stunt.
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