I have been on hiatus from writing this particular blog for three months. My apologies; I was deep in the throes of finishing my third novel, The Storyteller’s Bracelet, and some things had to be set aside to allow me the time to finish writing my book. I am happy to have that behind me now, and have the time to review some of the books I read during these months when I could write no more.
Reading Main Street Stories is a little bit like moving to a small town from the big city. At first you feel a little disoriented, with too many names, too many people, too many stories to keep straight, just like you’d feel moving to a new town.
It’s 1954 in the town of Massey, Texas, where high school football reigns supreme and gossip is the equivalent of a town newspaper. The characters: Nadine Coulter, the town hairdresser who is carrying on with a younger man while worrying about her teenaged daughter Renee’s bad reputation. Janice Tuttle, who fell into a deep depression when her daughter Laura was born and never recovered. Joe Eliot, who hallucinates enemies and is in and out of an Amarillo psychiatric hospital, who nearly kills his brother-in-law with a shotgun. Then there’s the town’s lesbian couple, Dorothy Harmon and Pat Eliot, who can live openly in Massey because it doesn’t dawn on anyone the couple is gay. Even Pat’s own family turns the other way when they realize the couple share a bedroom. Danny Tomlin and his girlfriend Jeannie live in a small trailer outside of town with their infant daughter, who turns up dead one morning with no obvious bruising or marks on her. Did Danny kill his own daughter? Did Jeannie?
This is only a small handful of the characters whose lives intertwine like a spider’s web in the town of Massey. No wonder the reader can easily become confused.
But slowly, you realize you’ve sorted out who is who, and whose stories are tied to whom. The effect is that of becoming a resident of the town. These characters’ stories become important to you, the reader, because you’ve come to care about them as people. You are, at last, one of them—a small town resident, up on all the latest gossip.
Having once lived in a small Midwestern town, I could easily relate to many of the characters. After her baby’s death, Jeannie just wanted to escape Massey, to go somewhere, anywhere but Massey. Carolyn, the baby’s grandmother, had already made her escape; why would she let a little thing like her granddaughter’s death force her back into her marriage, which to her was like living as a caged animal? Did Janice Tuttle feel the same way about her marriage? Would her life have turned out differently if she’d been given the opportunity to escape Massey instead of doing what everyone did—marry her high school sweetheart and settle down to raise a family, just as her own parents had done, and probably their parents before them?
Massey, like so many small towns, is like a living, breathing organism, with a pathology capable of sweep intelligent, ambitious people over the brink of sanity and into the abyss of dark depression. So many sad people. So many who long to escape. Is anyone truly content in this town, or do they all feel like trapped rats?
Main Street Stories is an excellent examination of small town life during the 1950s, when women were expected to stay home and look pretty for their husbands and husbands were expected to bring home the bacon. It’s the world of Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver, only in the case of the book, you will find yourself engrossed in what real life was like during that decade rather than the idealized version transmitted into living rooms everywhere by that wonderful new invention, the television set.
It is not an easy read, true. I wish there were a character list in the front of the book, perhaps with notes of who is related to whom, and how. Had I realized how complex the plot was, how many individuals I would get to know reading it, I would have written out my own character list to keep them all straight.
But in the end, it didn’t matter that I had no such list. Eventually, I got all the characters straightened out in my head. I figured out who to love, who to despise, and who I just wanted to knock some common sense into.
I could not adequately describe what the town of Massey, Texas, looked like, nor could I give precise physical descriptions of most of the characters. But their personalities, what made each character tick? That I could give you in a heartbeat. Perhaps the fact that author Phyllis LaPlante is a Jungian analyst accounts for the heavy emphasis on the inner character and less on their outer appearances. We get to know these characters, and by the end of the book, we know them well. We feel a part of them, one of the group.
And that, I believe, was precisely the point.
Would I have picked up Main Street Stories had I seen it at the library or in a book store? Probably not. Having lived so many years in a small town not unlike every other small town in America, why would I want to read about one?
But I would have missed out on a fascinating read had I passed over this book, for it is a gem, both sad and funny, and a worthwhile summer read.