Reading at the Beach is hosting A-Z Wednesday where bloggers take the time to highlight one book that starts with the letter of the day. This week is the letter R.
Shirley Jackson is best known for her creepy story The Lottery but as I'm a total coward, when people started tossing that around as something to not be missed, I purposely missed it with the feeble reasoning that it would terrify me too much. But in a nod to Ms. Jackson's much vaunted writing prowess, I picked up her account of raising her children instead. This is actually the second of the books (Life Among the Savages was the first) dealing with Jackson's children and it is hilarious.
A reviewer at amazon has written a wonderful synopsis that seems a shame not to share: RAISING DEMONS is the second and last of mystery writer Shirley Jackson's autobiographical accounts of her life as a small-town mommy in bucolic Bennington, Vermont in the Baby Boomer Fifties. Although many of the chapters in this book were originally published as short stories in various women's magazines and the NEW YORKER, in final form together the work functions as a good chronological novel set in the "Together-ness" mid-fifties.
But if the prospective reader thinks that Shirley Jackson's acceptance of the roles of Housewife, Mother of Four and Faculty Wife doomed her to an empty-headed vacuity, think again: there's a universe of verbal subversion going on in her mind and on these pages.
At the time RAISING DEMONS opens little Barry, with the remarkably flexible nomenclature characteristic of this family now called "Mr. Beekman," is headed firmly toward toddlerhood and the older children (counting upwards Sally, Jannie, and elder son Laurie) are all spaced conveniently three years apart. And that, to hear her tell it, may be just about the only orderly domestic act Mrs. Stanley Hyman, the social and familial name for Our Heroine Shirley Jackson, saw to conclusion. Not that her children were outrageously disruptive or combative (but perhaps a bit more than other people's kids, she worries) -- but they certainly had their own ways of talking and thinking.
Laurie fell in love with jazz and jivester slang, to the point where his father started fining him for that "oleaginous jargon" as though terms like "real cool" were real obscenity. Jannie's take on logic was to enter a house filled with toxic gas from a dead, antique refrigerator and when her mother confronted her with "That sign says DO NOT ENTER," countered with "I didn't think you meant me." (And I thought that trait only emerged in adolescence!) Sally so desperately wanted to help Laurie find a critical gym shoe for his basketball game that she ignored Dad's edict not to perform white magic:
" 'Laurie's shoe is weaker and creaker and cleaker and breaker and fleaker and greaker . . .' Sally wound through the study, eyes shut, chanting. Barry came behind her, doing an odd little two-step. . . 'Now wait a minute here,' my husband began. . . . 'We're just untending,' Barry explained reassuringly."
Quite often Shirley graciously consents to make herself the butt of the humor--and then, like a good mystery writer, offers a twist ending as she barbs her way out. When her husband joins the faculty at Bennington College, watch how la Jackson confesses mixed feelings about hubby's (all-girl) students as she breaks dams of faint praise: "I never saw any student, of whatever year, kick a sick cat. They were, as I say, neat, well-mannered, and demure. Their clothes were subdued, sometimes so much as to be invisible. . . "
As with LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES, even the most trivial of domestic upsets turn, in Jackson's high prowess, into high drama. And RAISING DEMONS is consistently funny and consistently filled with a wide variety of humor: sitcom-but-twisty outcomes, barbed repartee, and perhaps best of all the legendary Shirley Jackson revelations of the occult on brilliant display, here a kind of mythical kiddie-occult that at times out-Tolkiens Tolkien. All from their own little minds, too, which makes it all the more endearing and frightening. I know Modern Moms who have read RAISING DEMONS and love it for its pinpoint accuracy of family life, archaic references to dry-clutch automobiles and afternoon newspapers notwithstanding.