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January 30, 2010

Raise high the roofbeam carpenters

Phoebe Caulfield was Holden’s nine-year old sister, plucky as a red-headed orphan, just lacking appropriate pigmentation and tragedy. Even Holden would affirm that, “if you don’t think she’s smart, you’re mad.”

Pheobe was a writer, composing the stories of “Hazel Weatherfield” in her multiple notebooks. As an actor, she was ecstatic to have the largest part in her class play, even if it involved playing Benedict Arnold. “Elephants knock[ed] her out.” Phoebe Caulfield was a force to be reckoned with, pouring ink down the windbreaker of anyone who dare cross her path and she could recite Robbie Burns on command.

She was also a realist. While her brother Holden tried to deny his bleak reality, Phoebe made a point of thrusting the thing in his face. Not allowing him the luxury of his skewed perspective, sick of tirades about phoniness, she says bluntly, “You don’t like anything.” In contrast, Pheobe herself was able to make the best of her difficulties. Holden’s drunken shattering of record he’d bought for her failed to hinder her enthusiasm for the gift: “‘Gimme the pieces,’ she said. ‘I’m saving them.'”

A beacon in her brother’s lonely existence, Phoebe’s love makes clear Holden’s real emotional capacity and the depth of his troubles. Upon learning that he’d been expelled from yet another school, hers is the first display of genuine, grounded concern anyone shows him. Her maturity outmatches Holden’s, and his tender feelings towards her highlight his own vulnerability.

In Phoebe, Holden also sees the innocence he has lost, but elsewhere in Salinger’s oeuvre is evidence that Phoebe Caulfield was wise rather than naive, and that her wisdom beyond her years (“Old Phoebe”) might never have disappeared. I like to think that if Salinger had continued the saga of the Caulfield family, Phoebe would have grown up to be someone much like Boo Boo Glass.

Of course, the details of Salinger’s salacious personal life widely reported him as something of a letch, and his stories contain their share of one-dimensional female characters. But he knew something about women, or perhaps something about sisters is more what I mean.

Boo-Boo appears in the background of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters. She also makes an appearance in “Down at the Dinghy” from Nine Stories, in which “[h]er general unprettiness aside,” writes Salinger, “she was a stunning and final girl.” Ever capable, Boo-Boo flew with the Woman’s Air Force in World War Two, bravely tackled anti-Semitism in her marriage to a Jewish man, and mothered her young son with the same insightful sensitivity Phoebe provides to her brother Holden.

In a tortured world of Seymour and perfect days for bananafish, Boo-Boo stands on the side of justice, for all things bright and good, however much in vain. And I am insistent upon optimism, so for me, it is her spirit that pervades Salinger’s best writing and makes me love it so. Her presence in Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters consists solely of a note left on the bathroom mirror of her brothers’ New York apartment. “‘Raise high the roofbeam carpenters… Please be happy happy happy. This is an order. I outrank everyone on the block.”

(an earlier version of this piece appeared in the independent weekly on September 6 2001.)

3 thoughts on “Raise high the roofbeam carpenters”

  1. Rona Maynard says:

    In the onslaught of musings about Salinger and Holden, wonderful Phoebe has gone mostly unnoticed. You've done her proud with this insightful piece.

  2. Anonymous says:

    What a great little essay. I love Salinger's siblings and both Boo-boo and Phoebe break my heart, so thank you for this.

    Gillian Wigmore

  3. Kerry says:

    So glad this spoke to you. Boo-Boo is my hero.

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