Literary Criticism and Significance

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Phillips has said that she sees her “work as a continuum.... One book leads into another.” With its West Virginia setting and its tracing of a family’s evolution across generations and time, Lark and Termite recalls Phillips’s earlier novels Machine Dreams and Shelter as well as her short story collections Fast Lanes and Black Tickets. The book also represents a return to more familiar geographic territory after MotherKing, her previous novel which was set mostly in Boston, Massachusetts.

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While the sections in West Virginia are based on Phillips’s own background—she grew up in West Virginia and has talked about seeing a boy like Termite as a young girl—the inspiration for Leavitt’s story came from the 1999 Associated Press story that broke the massacre at No Gun Ri. Although the character of Leavitt is fictional, his situation is not. A large number of South Korean refugees were strafed by American warplanes and shot at by American soldiers. In the same way that that the motivations of the characters are often hard to discern, the moral senselessness of American actions in this massacre informs the themes of Lark and Termite.

Phillips does not seem to create characters so much as channel them. Her use of poetic language and close interior monologues gives readers a deep look at characters that would be impossible with a more conventional, distanced narrative style. This also leads to fiction that asks more questions than it answers. At the end of Lark and Termite , essential mysteries remain: Why could Lola not live a normal life? What is the nature of Termite’s mental condition? Why has Leavitt been caught under enemy fire? Even though these problems have not been solved, the reader has been given an arena in which to entertain them—and their understanding of life and...

(The entire section contains 464 words.)

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