Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sunday Salon: Senior citizens in books and in life

If you're a book person, you've noticed that publishing tends to have trends. The trends can be titles (e.g. anything with Girl in it), cover images (for a while there were legs on every other cover, then it was either the lower third of a woman's face, a woman's face in silhouette, or a woman from behind), fonts (e.g. art deco type fonts), or the subject matter of the story (WWII anyone?). The trend that I've noticed right now is a different one though. It's the trend of writing about senior citizens. And it's an interesting trend not only because we are all lapping up these tales of rebelling (often, anyway) wrinklies, but because this is a portion of the population that is generally unseen. We pop our older people into retirement homes or assisted living places. We discount their wisdom and experience, only ever imagining they have been old (a sort of euphemism for doddering ineffectiveness) forever. And we paint them as one dimensional, forgetting that there's really nothing new under the sun, at least as far as human nature goes, and they beat us to everything non-technological that we think we're inventing. So bringing them into the spotlight in fiction and non-fiction in such numbers, making them the stars of their own show, so to speak, is fascinating.

Many years ago I read Out to Pasture by Effie Leland Wilder. It's novel about a woman living in a retirement home who chronicles the lives of the other residents and was written by an octogenarian. I found it charming and unusual and I went on to read the rest of the series. It seemed completely original to me when I found it in 1995 and I have always remembered it fondly. So in the past several years when publishing seemed to see the charm and potential in stories written about oldies, I was happy to ride along. A friend I rely on for reading recommendations handed me A Man Called Ove in hard cover and raved about this "grumpy old man" book. I, and much of the rest of the reading public, ate it up. Ove started what I think of as the sort of caper version of these older protagonist stories. They center on an older person misbehaving, or at least not behaving like we expect the elderly to behave. In recent years I've read quite a few of these books: George's Grand Tour, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83 1/4 Years Old, and The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules just to name a few. While these books have been lighthearted and sweet, they have also touched on harder, deeper subjects as well. In a gentle and mostly entertaining way, they've shone a light on issues that will one day effect all of us: the maginalization and invisibility of the aging and the elderly.

Not all of the fiction about this portion of the population centers on mischief and antics though. Some of it is more focused on the more political: the usefulness of the aged, love and companionship in later years, and the right of people of all ages to make their own decisions, to direct their own lives. The Unit, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and Our Souls at Night are just some of the more recent thoughtful and beautifully written books that look seriously at these aspects of aging. Even without the obvious humor of the caper type stories, this trio and others like them show the vitality and importance of those in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. Their protagonists are more than capable of expressing strong emotions and of wanting to live their own lives, indeed, to finish those lives on their own terms.

Non-fiction accounts of the elderly tend to focus on the end of life and on the children who are their caretakers. These do address the reality of aging but are often more about the impact of decline on those who love them than on the people themselves. If they look backwards to a time before, it is almost always about the relationship they had with the child now taking care of them in their final years. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Bettyville, and The Bridge Ladies are just some of the fairly recent entries into this unflinching look at aging.

How long this trend of older or elderly people as main character will last, I don't know. But while it does last, I am enjoying it, enjoying being reminded of the verve and spark, the very humanity of people who deserve to be seen even when we might want to close our eyes to the fact of mortality and all of our inevitable ends. I want to acknowledge the poignancy and the mischievousness and everything else too though. I still have a couple of books that will do for this on my shelves or on my wish list: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and The Heart of Henry Quantum. Are there more that I'm missing? Let me know!

This week my reading travels didn't take me very far at all. I went along with a woman looking back at her past and the boy/man she once loved who ended up in a very different place than she did. I was on Nantucket as a mother grieved the death of her autistic son and the loss of her marriage while another woman contemplated the loss of her own identity in the wake of her husband's infidelity. And now I am in California during the modern day Gold Rush as well as learning about the historical event that preceded it. Where did your reading travels take you this past week?

1 comment:

  1. The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared comes to mind as an example of the elderly 'caper' story that I've read in the last year or so.

    This past week, my reading had taken me on a tour of aristocratic club life in 1936 London England, on a modern-day tour of the canals in France, and back to London - this time in 1980 foster care.


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