Fields of Clover
Salt Press , 2002. Trade paperback:
Suggested retail price: $16.95 (US)
Fields of Clover sets forth its theme in a quote from theApocrypha included just after the dedication page:
My child, help your father in his old age,
And do not grieve him, as long as he lives.
If his understanding fails, be considerate.
And do not humiliate him, when you are in all your strength.
It's a book that tackles some important and timely themes: caring foraging parents, and the ties that bind a family together past allunderstanding. But in the end it was a book that frustrated me as areader. "Uneven" would be my one word synopsis.
The book reminded me somewhat of Barbara Kingsolver's ProdigalSummer. It changed point of view in each chapter, moving from the93 year old Oscar Carpenter and his equally elderly wife, Edith, toeach of their three off-spring, as well as some minor characters. ThePOV shifts weren't confusing, but it was obvious that the author wasmore comfortable in some minds than others. Some of the characterswere fully fleshed out and compelling. Others seemed like little morethan plot devices to tie something of an LDS theme into the book.
Marilyn Arnold is at her best when writing the rambling thoughtprocesses of senile Oscar Carpenter. Edith, his wife, is alsobrilliantly drawn. In fact, many of Edith's musings were "a-ha"moments for me, making me want to read them again just to savor them.
For instance, when she's mentally deconstructing her house and all theitems her daughter, Stella, will be forced to sort through and disposeof now that Oscar and Edith have been placed in an extended carefacility, Edith thinks about some old army footlockers in thebasement. "Edith knew what the lockers contained, even though it hadbeen years since she had bothered to clear their lids and openthem. Ghosts, she muttered silently. Like the house itself, thoselockers are full of ghosts from a life that died before we did."
Arnold has captured the poignant winding down of two lives and deftlyuses that passage to reunite the three estranged Carpenter children --Everett, Stella, and Joshua. However, the book is weakest when wespend too much time in Stella's point of view. Stella is a characterwith definite quirks, but they remained unexplained. Why does she havesuch poor marriages? She doesn't take much care of her physical self,often described as frumpy through the eyes of other characters. Wereally want to like her, to empathize with her, but in the end, theinformation is too scarce to really understand her. We know she writestrashy novels, that she has a history of being late on her pot-boilerdeadlines, that she can't keep a marriage together (but whether frompoor choices in mates, or her own deficiencies we're never sure), thatshe keeps dogs. Stella seemed to me the plot-device the author uses tomake unnecessary pronouncements that come across in a natural way inthe story and don't need to be reiterated to the reader. "On theinstant, Stella knew, as if Edith Carpenter had appeared in heavenlyrobes and said it, the meaning of her parents' long and difficultjourney to final release." And then the author tells us what she justspent 279 pages showing us. Moments like that frustrated me and mademe less accepting of Stella as a character -- a dangerous thing, sincemost of the book is told through Stella's eyes.
But there were many strong moments in the book, moments that made methink about my own responsibilities towards my parents andin-laws. Moments that helped me see beauty in a fully-lived life andclarified what is truly important. One of the best changes of heart inthe book comes though the oldest brother, Everett Carpenter. Astuffed-shirt academic, a snob, a satirical critic; one is set todislike Everett thoroughly. In the end, he was softened by theexperience. I liked Everett by the end of the book. He was real. Incontrast, my feelings toward Stella remained ambiguous at best.
One small time-line issue bothered me throughout the book. Everett,Joshua and Stella are described as "middle aged". Their parents are intheir early 90's. If the Carpenter children are in their late 40's and50's, that means Edith Carpenter started having children in her late40's and 50's. If the author considers 60's to be middle aged, thechildren don't ring true. Their concerns with jobs/children/spouseslead me to believe they are in their mid to late 40's, early 50's, butnot their 60's. If so, they are the most emotionally stuck andimmature 60-something's I've encountered. One would hope life wouldteach a person more by their sixth decade. Why doesn't the author makethis clear? There was no explanation offered as to why the Carpentersmarried and had children later in life, if indeed that's the author'sintent. As a reader, I long for books that create a dream that I don'twake easily from. The age issue was one thing that continually brokeinto "the dream" for me and made me aware of the author, forcing me toquestion, to skim back to see if I'd missed something.
Another thing that struck me as strange in a book of LDS fiction wasthe lack of any LDS references. I'm not sure how I feel about it. Atfirst, I was impressed, thinking "at last, a book that weaves the LDSmindset so subtly into the plot, you don't notice it." But by the endof the book, I realized this book only has one very minor LDScharacter in it, and I was left wondering why the author felt the needto include that. Religion is not a priority in the book, but it issubtly present in the background. I don't mind that -- in fact, Icheer it, but I was left thinking "Hmmm. I guess this is not LDSfiction after all." Perhaps that was Marilyn Arnold's goal, to write abook with more "universal appeal". It seems to me that the publishinghouse and distribution channels of this book may not jive with thatgoal.
Or is it a "western" book -- as in the Wallace Stegner westerntradition? The book IS set in rural areas of Colorado and Arizona. Butthe sense of place isn't tremendously important to the bookeither. It's a book about aging, a human condition that could havetaken place anywhere, with any set of cultural beliefs. Maybe that wasthe author's point.
All in all, I would recommend any middle-aged adult with aging parentsread the book. I'll bet you're more kind, patient and caring of thoseparents as a result. What more could an author aspire to -- to changethe world for the better?
© 2002 Kim Madsen