Tag Archives: 1950s

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair

Rattlebone is a black neighbourhood in Kansas City. This novel is set in the city in the 1950s when Maxine Clair was growing up there. It follows the childhood of Irene Wilson and draws in events from the lives of others in the community. I find myself wanting to use words that imply concepts of tweeness, sweetness, naivety and so forth in thinking about this book. But this novel packs quite a punch. It contains little about relations between different ethnic groups. But we are aware that the families who live in Rattlebone have a hard life, do some of the worst jobs and for rubbish wages. At the same time they have built up a strong and developing sense of community. When the high school is destroyed by a rogue aeroplane, local communities contribute to its reconstruction. 

The incident is the most dramatic in the novel. This extract gives us a sense of Maxine Clair’s skill as a writer. Irene is watching the planes from her high school classroom.

They were coming in dangerously low, coming, coming. The pilot in one plane must have been trying to urge the other to pull up. Then the one climbed the sky in a sharp angle, exposing its silver belly to the sun. The other appeared to be locked into a steady plunge. Mr Cox spun around and yelled ‘Run!’ The plane had rotated slightly, so that it seemed to be coming broadside straight for us. By the time we considered running, it was too late. The whole room exploded in a fury of glass. (216)

The incident is included in the final chapter of the novel and leads to a new beginning for Irene, outside of Rattlebone.

Rattlebone

Looked at one way, this is a collection of short stories, but they are all connected to Irene and to the suburb of Rattlebone which makes this more than a collection. There are eleven stories, some of them very short, others extended. Some are retold by characters who appear elsewhere and some are given some perspective by being told in the third person. Some, like the final episode, are narrated by Irene. 

The first chapter is also narrated by Irene and features her new teacher. Interestingly it links her community of Rattlebone with the child herself by starting off in the first-person plural: ‘we’. Here is the first sentence of the opening chapter.

We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eyewitness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart. (1)

October Brown comes from outside of Rattlebone, and she immediately begins to change the orderly pattern of Irene’s life. She introduces current affairs and French into the classroom, and her father leaves the family to pursue an affair with her. She appears in other stories, with another errant husband, but also she finally provides Irene with a route out of her narrow life in Rattlebone. 

The perspective in the stories changes as Irene matures, not always making her the focus of the episode. For example, her father is caught up in a flood after work and goes to help with others to build up the levées to protect their families. In another dramatic episode he is forced to face up to what is important in his life. In later stories we find he has returned home, and how his troubled relationship with his wife is resolved, not to Irene’s satisfaction. 

Some of the most touching stories involve the fate of the children of Irene’s age, who experience accidents, or who are so challenged that they are removed from Rattlebone, much to the sadness of mother and sister. The children have considerable leeway over their lives for their parents are always busy working. There is the strange story about the visits of ‘the white woman’. The children are out playing, observing their elders, and enjoying an ordinary day.

Then she drove up in a raggedy-trap, old-time car with no top, black slits in the side of the hood, running boards, rumble seat stuffed with what looked like broken furniture, and a horn blasting Aah-hooga! Aah-hooga!
She stepped out of the car, unfolding her flat self to be taller than any of our mothers. Except for her face, all of her was covered up in white: a long-sleeved, church-ushering dress, white nurse’s shoes, white stockings, white gloves, white thing twist-wrapped around her head with no hair showing. She was the whitest – not beige, not pink, not rouge or lipstick – white woman we had ever seen. (26)

Sister Joan is preaching some kind of religion, but the mothers see her off. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

I have quoted several times from the book because I find Maxine Clair’s prose and her descriptions and the voices she uses to be strong and vivid and entirely suitable to her material. 

Maxine Clair

Born in 1939 and raised in Kansas City, Maxine Clair was 55 when Rattlebone was first published. It received good attention but was not a best-seller. She had been pursuing a career in medical technology, but changed to creative writing, publishing poems and a novel called October Suite, featuring the schoolteacher October Brown – not available in the UK. She is still teaching creative writing. 

The Guardian Review by Nick Duerden in June 2023 refers to Rattlebone as ‘a small perfectly formed classic’.

It was also reviewed on her blog by Heaven Ali in August 2023. You can read that review here. She says, ‘What Maxine Clair does beautifully though is to give us a snapshot of a place in time, that sense of time and place is present in every word she writes.’

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair, first published in the US in 1994. Now available in the UK, published by Daunt Books in 2023, with an introduction by Okechukwu Nzelu. 138pp 

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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

It’s a good story – a journalist investigates a claim of a virgin birth. It’s 1957 and the world is a different place. There were local newspapers and no knowledge of DNA and no internet to help with research. Everyone smoked. London was frequently obscured by fog. At work it was a man’s world, and the story was seen by the editorial group of the North Kent Echo as a women’s interest item and was therefore given to Jean to investigate. 

Jean is the character whose fortunes we follow in this book. Her life has been going along evenly, with considerable boredom, until she has to investigate Mrs Tilbury’s claim of parthenogenesis.

Small Pleasures

Jean is nearly 40 and sees her life slipping away, having failed in the matter of finding a husband and establishing a family and a home. Instead, she looks after her dependant and neurotic mother in their semi in the suburbs south of London. Theirs is a life governed by routine and modest expenditure. Quiet desperation, one might almost say. 

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer … (328)

And then Jean goes to see the young woman who claims that there was no father involved in the conception of her child. Gretchen Tilbury is an attractive young woman and a competent seamstress. It is unclear to Jean why Gretchen wants her story investigated. Gretchen tells Jean that at the time when the baby would have been conceived she was in a private clinic, St Cecilia’s Nursing Home, being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. Since Margaret’s birth Gretchen had married Howard, who believed her story. Jean decides to visit the husband at his shop near Covent Garden, and to meet with the matron and fellow patients who occupied the ward in St Cecelia’s alongside Gretchen at the time when the baby would have been conceived. 

As the investigation proceeds Jean is befriended by Gretchen and her much older husband. And she finds Margaret, the child at the centre of the story, very appealing too. Jean begins to spend time at the weekend with the family. Gretchen makes her a dress and Jean buys Margaret a pet rabbit in return. She also finds herself being drawn to Howard Tilbury. And it begins to look as though there was a virgin birth.

I love this about fiction: I know that there has been no proven case of a virgin birth, but I was prepared to accept the possibility that Gretchen Tilbury had a good claim, because it was within a novel.

As Gretchen’s claims become harder to dismiss the reader comes to see that trouble lies ahead for Jean: she and Howard fall in love; her mother has a turn and goes to hospital for a few days; the doctors’ tests continue; Jean begins to hope for a better future than one only enlivened by small pleasures. I won’t relate the rest of the story. It is well told, and tension is kept to the end.

There is a lot about duty and decency in this novel, what was expected of people in the 1950s and what had to be hidden. The author shows the sexism of the time, but the most attractive male characters are those that treat women well: Roy Drake the editor of the North Kent Echo; and Howard Tilbury, the stepfather of Margaret. The sexism of the other reporters, the headmaster she meets and the doctors conducting the tests is pretty dreadful, but it reminds us of how much has changed in 50 years.

Small Pleasures has been chosen by my book group for discussion soon. I am sure we will find that there are many aspects of this novel that we can discuss. It was also longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, published in 2020 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 350pp

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