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February 9, 2012

Of Myths and Mad Men: Rereading Joan Bodger's The Crack in the Teacup

It was only two years ago that I first read Joan Bodger’s The Crack in the Teacup, but revisiting it was an experience that was altogether new. First, because my interest in children’s literature has become so much deeper since then (mostly due to what I learned from reading this book the first time, and from Bodger’s other book How the Heather Looks) and also because of Mad Men. But we’ll get to that.

I do think that A Crack in the Teacup might be one of my favourite books ever. I read it over five days last week, and absolutely would not shut up about it. You will see. The beginning is a little slow, if only because Bodger’s childhood is spent at a remove from the rest of the world. Which is what makes it interesting of course, but she examines it in such minute detail, perhaps because these details of a happy time are so much more pleasant to examine than what comes later.

I think it is inevitable that one becomes a storyteller when one can write about her grandfather’s first wife who was killed in a shipwreck in 1877. Really, all the ingredients here are the stuff of storybooks: her mother is English, the daughter of a sailor whose third wife is a quarter Chinese, who grows up in a stately home surrounded by books but no schooling, spends her teenage years crippled after being flung from a horse, and then recovers enough to drive an ambulance during WW1 (without a license). She marries an American at the end of the War, moves across the sea, and has three daughters (with Bodger in the middle). Her husband joins the US coast guard chasing rum runners and leading ships out of Arctic ice after failed polar expeditions, and they spend the ’20s and ’30s moving up and down east and west coasts.

It was a happy enough childhood, rich with stories and lore, but also an isolated one. Bodger’s immigrant mother held herself apart from American society, and that the family moved around so much didn’t help matters. From early on, Bodger had a hard time fitting in, accepting authority, understanding how the world worked outside the Higbee family. There was also so much that was never talked about– her mother’s health problems, father’s infidelities, her own burgeoning sexuality, her yearning for the education her father didn’t feel was necessary for a daughter to have. Bodger and her sisters were being groomed to be ladies, roles none of them would easily fulfil.

Bodger’s college plans are diverted by WW2, she joins the army, and becomes a bumbling decoder (“I put my hand in the grab bag and pulled out a message about a place spelled Yalta. Obviously a mistake! I changed the Y to M.”) She goes back to school once the war is finished, and meets John Bodger, a graduate student and fellow veteran. She’s head over heels, and without a doubt that their life together will be a happy one as he completes his PhD (with her love and support, of course), and becomes internationally recognized as the brilliant mind he obviously is.

Which is where Mad Men comes into play. Apart from a few years in California, the Bodgers spend the ’50s and early ’60s living in and around Westchester County NY, which is Cheever-country, the world of Mad Men. And though the Bodgers could not pretend to be the cookie cutter figures their suburban surroundings suggested, it”s the same backdrop, healthy kids and big green lawns, the war in the past now, educated mothers idle in the afternoons, philandering husbands, cracks becoming apparent in all kinds of veneers. It soon becomes apparent that not all is right with John Bodger: he struggles to hold down a job at all, has to give up his academic aspirations, begins to display signs of paranoia. Joan Bodger makes life-long connections with the women in her neighbourhood, many of whom have similary troubled marriages and dissatisfaction with their lives. But she doesn’t connect with all her neighbours:

“Bette told me that another woman in the neighbourhood was writing a book– a sort of update to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Her name was Betty Friedan. She lived just down the street from us; her little girl was in Lucy’s class. I telephoned her. I felt silly doing it, yet I longed to talk shop with someone. How do you manage to write with kids around? Betty Friedan said she was too busy to talk to every suburban housewife who called her.”

The book Bodger was writing, of course, was How the Heather Looks, the story of a trip her family takes to England in 1958 to rediscover worlds they only knew from storybooks, to make end paper maps come alive. A book whose portrayal of ideal family life belies the real story of her family– John Bodger would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, he and Joan would eventually divorce. Before their divorce, their daughter Lucy would die of a brain tumour, and their son Ian would battle his own demons, with mental illness and drug addiction. And throughout these tragedies, it is Bodger’s faith in story that enables her to survive. And not neat stories either, with beginnings, middle and ends, but rather the dark archetypal stories with no end that occur over and over in cultures all around the world, and which give our own experiences depth and meaning, that help us to understand the things that happen to us in our lives.

But story, of course,  is useful in a more practical sense as well. Eager for diversions after Lucy’s death, Bodger becomes involved in an education program to promote graduation rates for black students in her town of Nyack NY. She realizes that although she lives in the very same town, she knows nothing about the lives of the black people around her. She starts sitting on the steps of a church in the black neighbourhood, armed with candy and picture books to give away (because by this time, she’s become a children’s book reviewer, and has plenty of review copies to spare), ready to make some connections. She quickly discerns that the picture books she’s brought are useless– they reflect nothing of the lives of the children she’s trying to reach, and many of the children don’t know how to relate to or connect with a book anyway. So she starts telling stories instead, and she’s good at it. Eventually a police man contacts her and says he’s concerned she’s going to stop telling stories when the weather gets cold. He’s with the NAACP and they want to help her out– could they get her an indoor place where the children can go to hear her?

Bodger uses what she learns from this experience to set up a free nursery school in the neighbourhood, and continues to learn about what children’s literature can do. She writes about the impact of black children seeing somebody like themselves in storybooks for the first time in Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, and about her own conversations with Keats about resisting their liberal impulses and acknowledging the childrens’ race. (“Not until we gave ourselves permission to see their blackness could these children give themselves permission to see themselves.”) Similarly about the powers of books like Where the Wild Things Are and A Apple Pie to encourage children to express their own feelings of rage, anger and aggression. To begin to tell stories themselves, to make the stories their own.

Her husband and son drift far away from her as she becomes more involved in early literacy and storytelling. Eventually Bodger leaves New York and for short time works for the library association of Missouri (where her ability to make waves is less accepted than it had been in New York, and she is eventually dismissed from her job, somewhat farfetchedly, for being “a communist pornographer” [and her second husband would jokingly complain of the false advertising of that title]). She head back east and works in editing and consulting for Random House, though still shell-shocked and heartbroken by the tragedy she’d had to weather: “Just a few years before, I had had a husband, two children, a house on the Hudson River. Wave a magic wand and I’m spending half my life in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, complete with cockroaches in the fridge and drug addicts on the stairs.”

On a business trip to Detroit, she sidelines to Toronto to visit the famous Osborne Collection of Children’s Literature. On June 18, 1970 (which was, I should note, thirty-five years to the day before I got married), she was standing under an awning waiting out a sun-shower when a man came up behind her and commented on her reading, which was Stuart Little. He wondered why she was marking up the pages with proofreaders marks, which he recognized because he worked in publishing too. “‘Anyone who would change one jot or title of EB White’s prose, I could have nothing to do with,’ he said.” The man was Alan Mercer, a writer and photographer, and the love of Bodger’s life. Within two weeks, they knew they would be getting married, Bodger resettling to Toronto and the two of them establishing a marriage of much support and love, but also independence. Mercer died in 1985 of cancer, and though the loss would ever be a scar she bore, she would never be as broken as she’d been before she found him. She tells him, “When I met you, I felt as though I were walking around with a gaping wound. You healed me.”

The rest of the book narrates Bodger’s involvement with establishing the Storytellers School of Toronto, and also some of her travels. I found the end of the book less compelling than the middle, though I’m not sure it could have been any other way. And it’s fitting really– Rick Salutin is wrong and so is Diane Sawyer. Stories aren’t about endings at all, but about how they weave our experiences into the tapestry of human existence, and the strands twist and turn in incredible ways, and no connection is without meaning– so that it is significant that Bodger meets her husband on my wedding anniversary, how she connects the narrative of her own life to folk tales, about how her experiences are microcosmic of the mid-20th century with civil rights and the women’s movement. (I suppose it’s also significant that Ian Bodger was convicted of blowing up a police car last month to protest state healthcare cuts. There are no happy endings indeed.)

Another thing that has changed in my life since I read this book in April 2010 is that at least once a week I visit the Lillian H. Smith Library now, where the Osborne Collection is now located and where Bodger scattered her husband’s ashes after his death. (He’d wanted them scattered in the foundation for the opera house at Bay and Wellesley, which they’d be able to see from their apartment balcony on Church Street, but the opera house was never built. When the Lillian H. Smith Library was under construction, Bodger deemed the site a bit too far west, but otherwise perfect.) I finished reading The Crack in the Teacup last Sunday evening, and was under a Bodger-spell when we went to the library the following morning. We got there a few minutes early and went upstairs to the Obsborne Centre before the toddler program started. I wanted to see the lectern where the guestbook is kept, a guestbook I’ve even signed and seen so many times, but whose significance I’d never noted until I read this book again. Inscribed on a plaque upon it: “Alan Nelson Mercer, 1920-1985. He loved a good sentence.”

As Bodger writes of this library that is such an important part of my family life, investing this place with infinite meaning (and this is the stuff of story, don’t you think?):

“…I was finally allowed, after months of committee meetings, to present a Hepplewhite-style lectern where the guestbook would repose. The committee, of course, was kept ignorant of my grander plan: to make the airy, playful, much-used library building into a fitting mausoleum for a man who loved cities, loved book, and words, loved me.”

7 thoughts on “Of Myths and Mad Men: Rereading Joan Bodger's The Crack in the Teacup”

  1. Sara says:

    Kerry, I’m a huge Bodger fan too – I think we’ve spoken about this before. I remember the horrific shock of reading The Crack in the Teacup just after reading How the Heather Looks, but am grateful I met the books in that order and was able in some sense to enter into the beauty of the world portrayed there-that idyllic vision of literary-minded parenting-without being forced to acknowledge the shadow-world that lay behind it.

  2. Sara says:

    Hit submit too soon! Wanted to ask you in which order you read the two books and whether that changed them for you.

  3. Kerry says:

    I read in the same order, Sara, though my edition of How the Heather Looks has an afterword in which Bodger explains that her memoir is hardly the whole story. Which I think was helpful too, to not be lulled into thinking of it as a guide to raising your children perfectly, that there IS no such a guide, to not take it all too seriously. But yes, I appreciate the world without shadow Heather granted me. Both books are extraordinary.

  4. Nathalie says:

    I found this at Willow Books right after running into you at the ice cream place! So great to find a book right after trusted reader has so strongly recommended it.

  5. Kerry, years ago I wrote a long article about Bodger for the LRC. She refused to be interviewed for it, saying she felt she would influence the process too much. Later, when the article was written and published, she wrote to thank me and asked me to come visit her at her apartment on Church street. it was such a lovely visit and there are many things I will never forget about it. At the end, she showed me a picture of herself as an old lady, outside, naked. I think it might have been raining in the picture. She said it was only when she saw the statues of the venus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_figurines) that she came to accept her body. She hoped I could love myself sooner. Amazing woman. I cried all over my front porch when she died.

    1. Kerry says:

      I’d love to read your piece, Kathryn. Is there a copy somewhere I could get my eyes on?

  6. I used to have it on my website but it’s gone missing. It’s from 2001 and I have paper copies somewhere. Maybe I can track it in an old hard drive. Will look.

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