Norma Fox Mazer Jill Paton Walsh - Essay

Jill Paton Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "A Figure of Speech" Jenny Pennoyer loves her Grandpa, and finds it tough to get along with the rest of her family. This is hardly surprising, considering what a selfish lot they are. Grandpa lives in the basement, which is damp, but at least it keeps him out of the way. Only Jenny visits with him…. [And] she is horrified at [her family's] fussy and humiliating attitude toward him.

The crisis comes when Jenny's brother drops out of college and comes home with a young wife, and the couple look covetously at Grandpa's basement apartment…. [They] move him upstairs to share a bedroom with Jenny's teen-age brother—where Grandpa is even more in the way.

When the old man asserts himself by running away, back to his remembered past, Jenny goes with him to share the last days of his life. "Didn't suffer a bit," say her parents, talking about his death. "A real comfort to us that he went so easily." But then they have a cozy figure of speech to cover up the truth about anything….

["A Figure of Speech"], written in a quiet, remorselessly realistic style, [is] … infused with a deeply felt compassion and humanity. And yet [it does not quite rise] … to the importance of its subject. Death is always a mystery; when it comes it is a cataclysmic finality. Rightly perhaps, [Norma Mazer concentrates] … on those aspects of aging that can be avoided…. "If we'd thought of it in time, we might have saved him," says Jenny's mother. But the truth is that no one can be saved from death—either his own, or another's. Children, too, must face this; it is one of the conditions of life….

[Yet] "A Figure of Speech" comes [close] to the heart of things…. [The book] offers us an image of death itself: an old man lying in the attitude of sleep on the wet grass under an apple tree.

Jill Paton Walsh, in her review of "A Figure of Speech," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1974, p. 8.