George Dennison is best known as the author of The Lives of Children (1969), a narrative account of twenty-three students at Manhattan’s First Street School, where he was a teacher. He is also an accomplished writer of fiction; his previous works include Oilers and Sweepers (1979), a collection of stories, and Shawno (1984), a short novel.
“It was this call that set in motion the events of that weekend,” says the unnamed narrator of Luisa Domic. The telephone call to which he refers is from Harold Ashby, a longtime friend of the narrator, who has appeared unexpectedly to spend the weekend with the narrator, his wife, Patricia, and their three children, Ida, Liza, and Jacob. The family is already expecting another friend, Marshall Berringer, a Marxist poet, and Luisa Domic, a refugee from the Chilean military coup that has toppled Salvador Allende.
The world into which these guests come has been established in the first pages of the book as a Maine paradise, complete with turning leaves, ripening apples, and ponies free to race their own course. The narrator has found happiness with Patricia, his second wife, marred only slightly by her ventures into the outside world as a nuclear protestor and by what he sometimes thinks is her too-cavalier attitude toward his writing. Such disagreements, though, are as insignificant as the squabbles of the children, in the context of a life in harmony with nature and most of the time in harmony with each other. That life is symbolized by the spider mentioned on the second page of the book, which clings to its filament as it moves, for every member of the Maine family can move as he wills, knowing that he is still attached to nature and to those he loves.
The first person to bring an alien world into this atmosphere is Harold Ashby. The narrator had known Harold many years before, when Harold was a famous composer. More recently, Harold has abandoned that career and now works with disturbed children, using his music to make contact with them. In the narrator’s accounts of the work of Harold and his lover, Richard Rasmussen, he dramatizes the plight of children who feel intense pain but cannot express it except in cries or screams. Somehow the music imitates those cries and thus joins each child in his tortured isolation. The narrator comments, “What I had just witnessed in the basement of the church, that calling out of souls from perdition, or of the unformed from their chaos of mere sensation, was not like anything I had ever seen before.” Out of pain, Harold and Richard bring joy. Even though Richard’s world has been darkened by the death of his mother, it was a natural death, he still has Harold, and it is clear that the grief can be followed by a cessation of grief and by a renewal of joy. It is significant that this section of the book is concluded by Harold’s story, told for the children, about one of Harry Houdini’s successful escapes. The narrator’s earlier unhappiness, the pain of disturbed children, Richard’s grief, Houdini’s entrapment—all can be or have been cured by human efforts.
When the activist Marshall Berringer appears with the Chilean refugee Luisa Domic, it is with the hope that the idyllic natural environment, the uninhibited children, dogs, and ponies, and the tactful concern of other people will begin to make her pain bearable. Berringer does not know what has happened to Luisa’s husband and children; he knows that she is silent and sedated. At first, there is hope. Luisa seems to feel a bond with Patricia, probably because she is also a mother, and she enjoys the children. When Ida falls down the stairs, however, frightening the family and skinning her arm, Luisa begins to scream uncontrollably. Only Harold’s music, joining her, can bridge the abyss between her consuming pain and the world of ordinary life. She is calmed, and after a long sleep, she returns to the group, discovers that the pianist is a musician whom she has long admired, and talks happily about her teenage musical children. When she leaves, she speaks of her happiness in knowing Harold and of her joy in her new friendship with Patricia. Again, it seems that human efforts have succeeded in effecting a cure, that her...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)