Tuesday, January 03, 2017

"During the Reign of the Queen of Persia"

Northern Ohio, the 1950s, a family living on a farm just beyond a town and not very far from Cleveland: this is the setting of Joan Chase's novel During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. It's a pretty typical book from the early 1980s, a time of colorful family dramas full of slightly eccentric grandparents, aunts, ex-husbands, adolescents, pesky little kids, unfaithful lovers, responsible uncles, irresponsible uncles. Many of these novels have now been forgotten, abandoned by readers who once loved them.

The characters in this book are at the same time familiar and original. I'm struck especially by the very high level of hostility that pervades the dynamics here -- the children resent much about one another, the adults have many conflicts and lots of baggage, the grandparents are hostile to each other and often to their daughters and grandchildren. Family members come and go, finding jobs or dreams in New York or Illinois or Texas, but all the action occurs on the Ohio farm.

Feeding the family plays an important role in the lives of the older family members. Not too surprisingly, there's a lot of hostility in the way food is distributed and consumed. Uncle Dan, for example, has a market in town, and brings home steaks and other nice delicacies just for his wife and two daughters. The other children (nieces) watch from an adjacent room, having been fed inferior food at an earlier dinner time. Here's a description of dinner for the not-so-favored children, and how their grandmother (hurrying to get to her nightly bingo game or movie) interacted with her own dinner:
"Gram was proud of what she'd survived; once she turned eighty she boasted of her age... She poured water on the chops to stop the burning and clamped on a lid, opened green beans she'd canned the last year she'd had a garden -- they had to boil fifteen minutes and she'd wait for that. She'd known more than one family  that had died, every last one, from a taste of spoiled green beans. Everything was now frying and boiling at top speed. Sow-bellied, spike-legged, there was something about her tough management of the supper that  stirred like an exuberant passion that had not been so much used up as outlived. 
"We tried to eat what she'd cooked, working down small bits of the hard dry pork with lots of milk. Gram ignored the meat and ate through a plate of green beans with vinegar ladled on it and then cut herself two slabs of the white Dutch loaf. Its powdery dusting of flour sprinkled the table and her front; she cut it, cradling it in her  arms, sawing the iron butcher knife back and forth across the front of her sunken breasts, squeezing the bread against herself. ... The country butter had little specks of white whey. The bread was so soft we hardly had to chew it. Maybe it was because Gram had lived so long and had so much trouble that she subsisted almost entirely on these soft white loaves." (p. 48-49)
During the first chapter of the book, when the above scene takes place, the four granddaughters/ nieces are adolescents. Their grandfather had died some time before, and the family was no longer running an active farm.

Ritz Ad: 1951
During the second chapter, we go back to when the four girls were younger, and Grandfather was alive and running an active farm. His food preferences show his eccentricity and in my opinion reflect his hostility to a lot of the life they lead:
"Grandad ... finished his cornflakes, then filled the bowl with Ritz crackers and dumped his coffee over them. They bloated and dissolved. Gram said he'd been feeding pigs so long he ate like one. ... Since no one was there to care, we made ourselves sugar sandwiches on white bread and went onto the back porch to eat." (p. 90) 
The book is readable, and the characters are vivid at times, but there's something dated about the book as a whole. I can't quite say why I find it so retro!

1 comment:

Kitchen Riffs said...

I can see why the book is fascinating in a car-wreck sort of way. The food sounds awful! Remember the cookbook from the 80's called _White Trash Cooking_? That's gourmet fare compared to what the people in this book ate! BTW, Happy New Year!