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March 20, 2016

Becoming Lin, by Tricia Dower

becoming-linAlthough coming-of-age books tend to feature adolescent protagonists, Tricia Dower’s novel Becoming Lin not only demonstrates that such “becomings” can occur elsewhere (and even more than once) in a lifetime, but also represents an arrival for the author herself. For this book, Dower’s third—after the acclaimed 2008 story collection Silent Girl, which put feminist spins on Shakespearean narratives; and the 2012 novel Stony River with its sinfully delicious Peyton Place bent—is absolutely her finest yet. Becoming Lin is the kind of book that you’re sorry when it’s finished, bereft to leave behind a world that has held you so fast.

It’s a novel about the 1960s, about idealism and reality, about the narrow confines of a wife’s identity and that of a mother. Familiar themes, all of these if you’ve read books like Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers or watched Mad Men, but themes made fresh with the nuances of the novel’s point of view, the carefulness with which these ideas are examined. In Becoming Lin, the prose is mostly inconspicuous, but what grips the reader is the evolution of Lin’s consciousness, and the complexity that arises from the absence of polarities—unusual for a history of a decade so constructed of extremes.

Linda Wise is sheltered, overprotected by her parents in their sleepy New Jersey town, particularly since her sexual assault years before (which occurred in the novel, Stony River). At the age of 23, she sees an opportunity for herself when she meets the charismatic Ron Brunson, a guest pastor at her family’s church one summer. Ron preaches social justice, and shares stories of his experiences on Freedom Rides, for which he spent time in jail. Ron’s values seem to accord with Linda’s own, but with the addition of the possibility of actual action, something she’s found hard-to-come-by in her hometown, studying at a women’s college toward a social work qualification. The two end up sitting side-by-side at a church dinner, and Dower marvellously constructs the dialogue that brings them even closer. Ron mentions to their table that his chances of getting a church of his own are lessened without a wife, who’s expected to take on (unpaid) roles in the congregation—among them counsellor or administrator-typist. Someone mentions he should put a wife-wanted ad in the newspaper, and Linda’s not quite listening to this.

“I type. I can do the bulletins,” she volunteers, with characteristic bad timing, in essence responding to the want-ad, and while the moment is awkward, Ron Brunson is game.

After a whirlwind courtship, they are married, and Linda (who is happy to have her new husband truncate her name to the more sophisticated-sounding “Lin”) follows Ron to his congregation far across the country to rural Minnesota, where she soon finds herself playing the careful and conservative role of the minister’s wife—not quite what she’d signed up for. Typing bulletins is not even the half of it. Most troublingly though is her husband’s reticence to voice his opposition to the Vietnam War, a point of view that could put his job at risk. And here is where a lesser novel would have irrevocably split the couple, wife going off to radical pursuits and leaving her dull husband behind, but instead Dower has Lin give Ron the courage to realize that opposing the war is his duty as a minister and as a Christian. Theirs is a true partnership, however much a complicated one.

And it is complicated, this we know from the outset, as chapters for the first half of Becoming Lin alternate between two timelines, one of the newlyweds negotiating their new life together, and the other of Lin half a decade later, now a mother to a young son with whom she is moving to the nearby city of Hopkins to begin a new life for herself. A temporary experiment, this is meant to be, though the reader is not made privy to the details at the outset—we know that she and Ron are still married, it’s his name on her apartment lease, that he takes for granted she’ll return home to a year from then. And the story here is familiar to me as well, because I grew up watching Three’s Company and One Day at the Time on television—sitcom scenes of single moms and apartment complex social dynamics. Though the problems Lin is grappling with here—and so too are the other single mom friends she encounters—are not so easily resolved in neat half hour episodes. It’s a brave new world of women’s lib, access to abortion, and career gals, though the notions of justice that have followed Lin throughout her life continue—she’s working for a company in which promotion is not accessible to women employees; her friends contend with deadbeat dads who don’t support their families, she gets groped on busses and feels somewhat unsafe just walking around in her own life.

In the intervening years, Lin and Ron had been wrapped up in the anti-war movement, stirring up resistance from their neighbours and gaining the unfortunate attention of the FBI. Her faith in God and religion has wavered, her husband’s remaining steadfast, and this has become a great divide between them. Their year apart then is an attempt to bridge that space, Ron wishing her to take the freedom and responsibility she longs for, and again, it’s a strength of the novel that he remains (for the most part) a sympathetic character, their connection a true one, albeit one with weak spots and failings. And that the religious character (he’s such a square, man!) does not become the bad guy, that he too is on the side of social justice, but his position is complicated too, just like life is.

In essence, Lin has two becomings in this story, and it’s important to note that one is not necessarily the undoing of the other. That progress is a process, and so is it for feminism, coming in waves as it does, some change rolling back on other kinds, and there is contradiction and disagreement, which might look like disarray from a distance, but it’s a becoming, indeed.

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