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.
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.
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