I just reread The House of the Seven Gables by Hawthorne. We'd been in Salem and I hadn't cracked that book since I was so young that I could barely even remember the characters' names--well, except for Hepzibah. You cannot forget a name like Hepzibah Pyncheon. We visited the novel's setting--something my musician husband surprised me by really wanting to do--and I picked up the Modern Library edition of the novel, the one with the good Mary Oliver forward. Salem being what it's become, I also bought a new pack of Tarot cards, but that's a matter for another blog.
I was prepared to enjoy rereading The House of Seven Gables. I wasn't prepared for how hard the book grabbed me. I found myself rationing it out--read some outside Sunday afternoon, enjoying the heat and the sleepy sounds of early August in my back yard. And I finished most of the rest of it in one long gulp, down by the Hudson River in my old home town of Dobbs Ferry early on Tuesday morning, before I went to spend time with my 91-year-old mom. I would look up, watch the river glistening, read a while, space out on the river a while, read... It was as close to Heaven as I've been with a book.
Often, when I'm reading fiction, I'm quietly editing it in my head, or groaning at a too-creaky plot development. Gah, the end of Curtis Sittenfeld's otherwise really imaginative and tart Sisterland--did anyone else besides me find it kind of soapy? Even my beloved Role Models of Classic YA: Madeleine L'Engle and Lucy Maud Montgomery--I love them, but too often I can see that plot twist steaming down the track! Really, in all the novels I've read, only Sarah Waters consistently astonishes me with her mastery of The Tale--and she's writing historic fiction, besides, for Heaven's sake. Although my Hedgebrook teacher Karen Joy Fowler's book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is pretty spotless, too.
So why did I have patience with Hawthorne's tell-don't-show authorial intrusiveness, and what I'd been taught is an unseemly, tacked-on Happy Ending? I think it was because I just loved living in The Seven Gables. Even though I thought "Aha--The Daguerreotypist--a symbol of Self Reliance and Changing Times!" and other things along those lines as I read, I took Hawthorne at his every word. That includes Pheobe's upcoming wedding and plenty of money for Hepzibah and her tragic brother Clifford--and much nicer digs for all, even including the Seven Gables hens!
"But, but, but!" say the Learned Men, "Surely these characters are falling back into the corruption that produced the ruin of the Pyncheon family! It's as if some hack had written that ending!" Nope. It's not a hack's ending. It's a smart person's ending. What the heck is wrong with redemption? I used to write short stories as a junior high schooler. They all had tragic endings. Endless tragedy is a young person's game. There's no sustenance in it. As an Old Cuss, I'm beginning to think that happiness can be simple after all, and not believing that is depriving yourself and your readers of if not ice cream after dinner, than at least a good-night kiss.
And I don't want to be schoolmarmish about it, but I don't think young people should be rolling in endless tragedy. 'Cause, you know, I used to be a schoolmarm. Teenagers are sad. I think they like to read stuff that reflects their sadness sometimes. My kids finally got Blake's Songs of Experience once I explained Blakean Innocence and Experience to them. I had this Big Moment, and realized as I was standing there with the chalk in my hand that Blake held a huge truth for them. "You're supposed to be kind of miserable at this point in your life," I told them, and they laughed. I told them that Blake knew that, and they should, too.
But I also really, really think that too many sad endings aren't good for kids. And too much dystopia, no matter how noble the struggle of the protagonists against it is, breeds a sort of impotence.
Which is, I guess, why my own YA novel has a happy ending. I happen to believe that Stuff Generally Works Out. Even pretty extreme stuff, like time travel! I'm sketching out the sequel to Time Runs Away With Her right now, and I don't know about the ending of that one yet. We'll see. I'm not Hawthorne!! But I'm awfully glad I reread The House of the Seven Gables.