Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797

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By focusing on a pair of orphaned siblings, Phillips raises questions of what it means to grow up while experiencing a profound absence. Lark and Termite both feel a yearning for their parents, but through their relationship with each other as well as their relationships with Nonie and Charlie, they create a new kind of family. Through Termite’s love of music and Lark’s drawing, Phillips shows how the presence of dead family members can still be felt. Leavitt and Lola may be gone, but they exert a considerable influence on those who are left.

The relationship between Charlie and Lark is further evidence of Phillips’s theme of unconventional families. Lark has grown up with Charlie acting as a father figure, yet their blood relationship was kept secret from her. Phillips shows that a conventional father–daughter situation is not a prerequisite for a meaningful paternal relationship.

These relationships grow up in spite of traditional barriers such as class and social conventions. Gladys refuses to believe that Lark is Charlie’s daughter, and she never warms to the woman Charlie loves, Nonie. Gladys believes a person should only marry someone from their own station who shares the same social class and religious beliefs, but the love between Nonie and Charlie thwarts these strict rules. Similar to the way Gladys stands between Nonie and Charlie, the people working for Winfield’s Social Services attempt to dismantle the familial relationship between Lark and Termite by demanding that Termite be sent to a school for the mentally handicapped.

Phillips employs different literary motifs to illustrate her ideas about family, love, and time. In the sections from Termite’s point of view, an orange alley cat frequently appears. Termite seems to be mesmerized by the cat; the animal is a specter to which no one but Lark gives much notice. In the final section of the book, which introduces Lola’s point of view, Phillips writes a line broken away in its own paragraph: “Lola’s the cat.” Although the idea that Lola is the orange cat is not meant to be taken literally, it emphasizes that Lola remains a presence in Termite’s life even though she is not physically with him.

Connection Across Time

This sense of spiritual, emotional connection across time and space is further shown in the passages where Leavitt seems to sense that his son is being born. As Leavitt dies, “his spine opens up like a star” and “he can feel Lola split apart, the baby fighting her, tearing away.” Termite’s presence is predicted both by Leavitt’s wounds (Termite has a spine ailment which prevents him from walking) as well as the mentally impaired, emotionally acute Korean boy whom Leavitt saves.

Connections between Leavitt’s experience in Korea and the family in West Virginia are further highlighted by the similarities in the physical setting. Leavitt is trapped in a tunnel underneath a rail bridge, and Lark and Termite often visit a similar tunnel near their hometown of Winfield. Termite seems to be drawn to the tunnel as well as to the trains in the rail yard. He is drawn to these places as if by a spiritual instinct—a piece of his father that he carries within him. The tunnel is the site of Lark’s sexual experiences with Solly, and the tunnel in Korea is likened to a birth canal, the site where Termite is born (physically and metaphorically).

By constructing a plot with repeating elements and characters who mirror each other, Phillips presents a theory of time that is dramatically different from a linear version of events. Characters who may be separated by years, continents, or life itself are nevertheless bonded together in a deep, spiritual way.

Similar to jazz, time has a set pattern and form that allows for deviation and improvisation. By having to take care of Termite and growing up without a mother, Lark bears the consequences of her mother’s decisions. By inheriting Lola’s beauty, Lark is also forced to undergo the same barrage of sexual attention. But Lark is able to learn from her mother’s mistakes, to build a better life for herself, and to escape from hardship in a way her mother could not. Lark’s happy ending is also Lola’s happy ending—this is indicated in the final lines of the book, in which Lola becomes tranquil and relaxed in the moments before her suicide:

They’ll take care of everything. She knows the baby is safe and she’ll think of Bobby. She’ll be on her way.

Lark and Termite features the paradoxical message that although the past exerts tremendous pressure, people have the power to break out of the old patterns and live new lives.

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Characters