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The Optimist's Daughter - Eudora Welty
"Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams."

Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1973. It was written much later than the bulk of the rest of her work. She had, as it turned out, one more little gem left in her pen. I've read some other reviews and realize that the book was confusing to some people even to the point that they gave up relatively early in the book. I understand because you see we are outsiders in this book. We are missing the beginning and really a lot of the beginning. Conversations are flying around our heads that we have no basis of knowledge to fully understand. The people in this book have known each other their entire lives and their conversations flitter from decade to decade without pausing to fill in the gaps for those of us just visiting.

It was hard to have sympathy for the character Fay McKelva, but it was only after I had finished the book and had pondered on my feelings for a while that I realized how crazy that town was driving this little girl from Madrid, Texas. Fay wasn't bright enough or patient enough to just listen, nod, and accumulate knowledge. I always think of myself in these situations as the Antonio Banderas character from the superb movie The thirteenth Warrior. He is an Arab who is placed with twelve Norse warriors on a quest and he doesn't know a single word of their language, but he keeps listening.

So the key to this book was to keep listening.

Antonio Banderas as Ahmad ibn Fadlan

Laurel Hand comes back home to Mississippi to be a support for her father, Judge McKelva, during a minor surgery to correct a torn retina in his eye. His wife, Fay McKelva, younger than his daughter is also there to offer support, but really seems to be more of a hindrance than a help to the recover of her 72 year old husband.

Unexpectedly the Judge takes a turn for the worse and Laurel feels the need to stay at the hospital hoping he will start to get better. I've spent time at a hospital waiting for people to die and the hospital becomes this condensed warped existence that I'll let Laurel explain.

"A strange milky radiance shone in a hospital corridor at night, like moonlight on some deserted street. The whitened floor, the whitened wall and ceiling, were set with narrow bands of black receding into the distance, along which the spaced-out doors, graduated from large to small, were all closed. But of course the last door on the right of the corridor, the one standing partway open as usual, was still her father's."

She reads to her father, trying to find the right book that will help him return to health. One of her fondest memories as a child was listening to her father and mother read to one another.

"When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams."

Judge McKelva dies and then the struggle between the daughter that has known him her entire life, and the new wife that has only known him a short time becomes painful. The wife makes all the arraignments.

In the words of Fay:

"How could the biggest fool think I was going to bury my husband with his old wife? He's going in the new part."

I took that slap to the face right along with Laurel. I felt the heat rise in my neck and the need to say "you have no right", but the fact of the matter is Fay does have the right.

Laurel has lost her mother, her husband, and her father. It made me think about the people I have lost. I lost a sister, who died on my birthday. She only breathed for three days. I lost a saintly grandmother who died in such horrific pain that I have never forgiven the religion that she spent so much time nurturing. I've lost friends who died way too young, Chris Blue at 31, Mike Achilles at 55, and David Thompson at 38. My father's twin sister, Shirley, who was my favorite aunt died at 46. I went to see her near the end. She was a husk of her former beauty. A woman that knew I was coming and wanted lipstick for her lips. She always wanted to look her best even after cancer had shrunk her features tight against her skull and had taken her lustrous dark brown hair. She told me I looked like a movie star and how proud she was of me. I will never forget her bony fingers in my hand as fragile as glass. To say that this book got under my skin might be an understatement.

Laurel remembers her husband Phillip and what she remembers is his hands. I can identify with his double-jointed issues see picture below. Phillip had large, good hands, and extraordinary thumbs--double-jointed where they left the palms, nearly at right angles; their long, blunt tips curved strongly back. When she watched his right hand go about its work, it looked to her like the Hand of his name.

One of my Freaky Double-Jointed Thumbs

This can be a confusing book, but my advice is to hang in there. Let the language become more familiar as the book advances. We don't know these people. We are strangers in a small town in Mississippi. We need time to catch up with what we need to know to even support our end of a conversation. This book may very well haunt you. A day later after finishing it I'm still thinking about it and having rolling tides of emotions. I'm mad at Judge McKelva for giving up too easily. Laurel has lost too much too soon in life and she really needed him to come back. He needed to let her read him back to health.

The people are telling stories about Judge McKelva at the viewing and Laurel is amazed at how little they seemed to understand about his real accomplishments. "And everybody had already forgotten about that part of his life, his work, his drudgery. This town deserved him no more than Fay deserved him, she thought, her finger in the dust on what he'd written." It is scary to think about being so misunderstood after we are gone. We can only hope our children understand and can tell the stories the right way to our grandchildren.