At the center of Not the End of the World, Rebecca Stowe’s first novel, stands the mystery of young Maggie Pittsfield’s deep despair. A bright twelve year-old-girl, she seems to possess all the dressings of happiness: a well-off, friendly upper-middle-class family, a nice home facing Lake Huron in Michigan, a quick mind and a lean body, and a close girlfriend with whom she has built a fort in the woods surrounding her comfortable hometown. What begins as an almost lighthearted tale of the trials and tribulations of growing up in the early 1960’s turns by the end of the novel into a bitter but brilliant examination of the roots of evil and perversion.
Through three summer days in 1963, culminating with the Fourth of July, as the town parade triggers the release of Maggie’s long-suppressed primal memories, Stowe gradually leads the reader to the true source of her suffering. Because Not the End of the World is told entirely through Maggie’s own words, however, and its author chooses to keep her protagonist unaware of the truth, the reader finishes the novel with a terrible knowledge that is not yet apparent to its conveyor. To see Maggie herself come to terms with her past, the reader will have to wait for Rebecca Stowe’s promised sequel, whimsically referred to in an interview as Maggie II.
When the reader first encounters Maggie in the town of North Bay, Michigan (the thinly disguised Port Huron of Stowe’s own childhood), she appears to be a splendidly all-American girl. Unfortunately, she is just too bright, too ambitious, and too perceptive to be content with the fate that pre-Women’s Liberation America tried to prescribe for its female population. Not the End of the World opens with a clear act of rebellion, guaranteed to shock the ladies of Marion Pittsfield’s bridge party, who have posed a seemingly innocuous question to Maggie: “‘A man,’ I said when…asked…what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
This desire, Maggie told her best friend Ginger Moore, has nothing to do with sexual urges or “pee-pee envy,” as one of the bridge ladies has it. Instead, it stems from a yearning for opportunity: Maggie dreams of becoming the first woman governor of Michigan. She chooses Julius Caesar as her personal hero for a school paper because “I wanted my hero to be huge, there, out in the world, somebody everybody knew.” She could not find a woman character like that.
Coupled with these high aspirations, which bring condescending smiles to the face of her father, Robert Sweet Pittsfield, there comes a disturbing strain of self-loathing in Maggie. This immediately casts an increasingly dark shadow on her otherwise mischievously funny narrative. Before Maggie escapes from the bridge ladies, she reveals a rather lurid imagination. For her, the mundane and the wildly fanciful mesh to form a startlingly exquisite sense of grotesque horror; she imagines the bridge club as executioners who would stand her against the picnic table and shoot her.
Her frequent daydreams of imminent disaster quickly reveal a very dark impulse, though even the collective nightmares of the Cold War—such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962—that still glow in the back of Maggie’s mind are not really responsible for her sufferings. Instead, the idiosyncratic behavior of her family yields some clues. Stowe’s characters, such as Maggie’s sister Ruthie, an eight-year-old taxidermist skillfully gutting and stuffing dead birds, or her teenage brother Donald, who hides his sexually explicit magazines behind a maze of little traps in his room, serve a dual purpose. Not only do they point at the problems of the Pittsfield family, but they also convey the idea that the Pittsfields are perhaps a universal example of the manifold unsolved problems lurking behind the façade of happiness in the early 1960’s. In this vein, Maggie’s stories about her family members and neighbors relate Not the End of the World to such earlier examinations of the grotesque at the heart of small-town America as Sherwood Anderson’s masterful Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life (1919). Here, Rebecca Stowe works in a rich tradition of American fiction.
The character of Maggie’s mother, who suffers numerous insults and slights at the hand of her tyrannical mother, Kay MacPherson, leads the reader to the specifics of Maggie’s pain. Although not the only domestic tyrant in North Bay—Ginger’s mother gassed the girl’s dog for relieving itself in her bedroom—Maggie’s grandmother is remembered for terminating her daughter’s career as a singer. On her annual summer visits from Florida, she constantly belittles Marion, and she hates Maggie with...
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