Gathering "Scattered Allegiances": The Alther Heroine's Journey "in Search of Labels"
Harriette C. Buchanan Appalachian State University

Lisa Alther's novels, for the most part, concern young women coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a time whose turmoil is amply reflected in their lives as they struggle for a sense of personal identity. Alther defines some of this struggle in the essay "Border States" as she grapples with images from her Appalachian heritage. The essay organizes itself around the story of AltherÕs paternal grandmother Hattie Elizabeth Vanover Reed who descended from farmers and coal miners in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia, but who invented for herself a patrician Tidewater Virginia heritage. In describing the personal experiences against which she formulates her stories, Alther says, "Almost everything I know about creating fiction is a legacy from [Hattie Elizabeth Vanover Reed]. Faced with the void, or with a reality too grim or too complicated to endure, she simply decided that she was a Tidewater lady and then turned herself into one" ("Border States," 30). In her fictions, Alther's heroines engage in a process similar to that Alther describes for her grandmother, but with varying degrees of success. Beginning with Kinflicks and ending with Five Minutes in Heaven, the Alther heroine, to date, has traced a number of paths through her heritage in an attempt to establish an identity with which she can live. She has, like Ginny Babcock in Kinflicks gathered the "scattered allegiances" (70) of her upbringing in pursuit, like Ginny's mother, "of labels" (91) with which to define herself.

The first Alther heroine whose journey we follow, through Kinflicks, is Ginny Babcock Bliss. We meet Ginny as she flies home to her mother's hospital bedside, summoned by an attentive neighbor whose own vigil is interrupted for a trip to the Holy Land with the National Baptist Women's Union (20). Ginny's history gradually unfolds in first person flashback chapters that intersperse with third person chapters that narrate the frame story of Ginny's return to her childhood home, Hullsport, Tennessee, and of her attempts to communicate with her mother. Ginny's mother, afflicted with the obscurely named "idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura" (80), prickles under the indignity both of her ailment, characterized by uncontrollable bleeding and bruising, and of the necessity of submitting to the hospital regime. Over the weeks of her mother's dying, Ginny works to come to terms with her past and with her mother. The "scattered allegiances" to which Ginny thinks she refers are those of her heritage. As a child she would visit with her grandfather who had come down from the mountains of Virginia to the valley of Tennessee and founded the munitions factory that his son in law came from Boston to manage. Repudiating his success as a manufacturer, grandfather Zed had retreated to the cabin he built when he was first married and, as the locals said, had "done gone mental" (70). His advice to Ginny is, "don't you never try to be what you ain't," to which her anguished reply is, "but what am I" (70). Ginny's review of her personal history includes:

being born in a farm cabin in Virginia with a rural southern mother and an industrialist father from Boston, and with refugees from the coal mines for grandparents; growing up in a fake antebellum mansion in a factory town in the New South with a dairy farm out her back door; being christened ÒVirginiaÓ by her mother in a burst of geographic chauvinism and ÒBabcockÓ by her father, which name emblazoned the walls of a hall at Harvard. Being a human melting pot, to what one god--social or economic or geographic--was she to direct her scattered allegiances? (70)

Ginny initially identifies her scattered allegiances as being between her Southern mother's heritage and her Yankee father's heritage, but as we read on, we realize the allegiances are more confused and more scattered than even Ginny herself realizes. The novel becomes Ginny's attempt to sift through her memories and longings to try to sort herself out.

Ginny's confusion is, to a certain extent, mirrored by that of her mother who has been for nine years reading her way through the volumes of the family's encyclopedia. When the third person narrator allows us into Mrs. Babcock's mind, we learn that she, like Ginny, is searching. We learn that, despite her affinity for the "uplifting literature" of the Book of Common Prayer and for the "soothing ritual" of the Episcopal services, Mrs. Babcock's faith "resided elsewhere, in the form of a mute confidence in the scheme of things. However much she might question some of its manifestations, she had maintained a silent conviction that there was a point to life, and to having lived. She had begun reading the encyclopedia in search of labels" (91). Mrs. Babcock's search for labels, like Ginny's attempts to focus her scattered allegiances, is an attempt to find meaning and to reconcile with that meaning. The pattern established by Ginny and her mother as they remember their lives and attempt to come to terms with one another is a pattern that pervades Alther's fiction.

Ginny's review of her past begins with high school memories. Her first achievements are as a flag swinger and as the girl friend of the football hero Joe Bob Sparks. During this period of her life, Ginny sported her "Never-Tell padded bra" (32), cordovan tassel loafers, and madras plaid shirtwaist dresses with Peter Pan collars (33) to win approval from the high school set that worshipped its football heroes. Her success is represented by her acquisition of Joe Bob's class ring and his letter jacket, which her enraged father, the Major, makes her return. The Major's vigilance, combined with Coach's surveillance of Joe Bob's activities, eventually dooms this relationship, which has degenerated to hand jobs in the photography dark room and in the trunk of their friend's car. Partly in retaliation, Ginny begins dating her childhood friend Clem Cloyd, the motor cycle riding crippled son of the Major's tenant farmer. As this relationship becomes more intense, resulting in Ginny's final loss of virginity, Ginny changes wardrobe. She adopts Maxine Pruitt's teen rebel wardrobe of "a long sleeved sweater buttoned up the back, with a bra [referred to later as a "'Do-It' Pruitt bra" (142)] that had pointed cups like party hats; . . .[and] a too-tight straight skirt" (137). The disaster that ends this relationship comes when Ginny escapes from the Persimmon Plains Queen contest, which she must attend as the previous year's winner, on the back of Clem's motor cycle, protected only by Clem's red silk windbreaker. Predictably they crash and Ginny, in despair from a hospital bed, writes applications for northern colleges under the Major's direction. Her application to Worthley College is characterized by this despair. Her essay, valued by Miss Head for its originality, reads, "I don't really wish to attend Worthley. I'm being held prisoner in a hospital bed. Please send help" (173).

Ginny arrives at Worthley in her teen rebel wardrobe, topped by Clem's mended red silk dragon embroidered jacket. After an initial semester of despair, Ginny once more changes her allegiance and her wardrobe. She comes to admire Miss Head, her philosophy teacher and mentor, and adopts her wardrobe of "wool suits and . . . high-necked nylon blouses, an antique cameo brooch, and some low-heeled simple shoes" (190). Throwing herself into the life of the mind, Ginny immerses herself in Miss Head's favorite philosopher Descartes and engages in efforts to deny the body as part of her search for Cartesian "certainty" (185). This pursuit lasts until, under the influence of her dorm neighbor Edna "Eddie" Holzer, Ginny realizes with dismay that she can feel only philosophical detachment when another dorm resident attempts suicide. Ginny and Eddie engage one another first intellectually and then physically, opening the joy of lesbianism for Ginny. Ginny flees Worthley to a series of communal habitations with Eddie, both living on Ginny's trust fund.

Ginny's wardrobe again changes, with the wool suits being replaced by "wheat jeans and turtlenecks and sandals and a braid like Eddie's" (273). In a chapter entitled "Divided Loyalties" Ginny tells about her life with Eddie, a life that begins with idealistic commitment to communal poverty but ends in conflict between Ginny and Eddie over the business that generates Ginny's trust fund, the goals of the hippie Free Farm in the face of Stark's Bog's conservatism, and the jealousy that Eddie, groundlessly, feels over Ginny's friendship with Ira Bliss. After Eddie's horrible death and the fire that destroys their cabin in the Vermont woods, Ginny is ready for yet another change. Ira rescues her and she falls in love with the security that his position in Stark's Bog can bring. Once more changing allegiance and wardrobe, Ginny dons the polyester pants suit of the suburban housewife and settles into "Wedded Bliss" (Chapter 11, 375-413).

True to her restless nature, domesticity soon palls for Ginny. The birth of her daughter Wendy temporarily satisfies her as she determines that she "at last" had found "a profession I could summon some genuine enthusiasm for: wetnursehood" (399). Wendy too soon, however, outgrows nursing. Ginny feels increasingly divided between her marriage to Ira with its the suburban lifestyle, characterized by an endless round of Tupperware parties, surprise showers, and church socials, and her continuing friendship with and loyalty to her hippie friends. She visits their commune outside Stark's Bog and is reminded of the freedom of being unbound by any conventional need for routine. Suburbanism soon becomes ennui that is broken by the appearance in her back yard of Hawk, a Vietnam War deserter and refugee from Canada where he had sought sanctuary.

With Hawk, Ginny begins her final quest before the frame story's return to Hullsport. Enticed by his apparent mastery of eastern mysticism, embodied in the Mandala tattoo on his arm, Ginny engages in a course of instruction that she hopes will result in the ultimate orgasm. Confused by Hawk's delays in getting to the intercourse that she regards as the main goal, Ginny never truly engages in the eastern-seeming rites on which Hawk insists. When Ginny thinks they are finally going to achieve their mutual goal, she and Hawk get drunk and pass out, only to be awakened by the enraged Ira who drives them both from his home at gun point. This event coincides with the summons to return to Hullsport, so Ginny's internal review of her history has as part of its purpose the determination of whether or not she will return to Ira.

Ginny's internal debate over her own future takes place along with the external attempt she makes to come to terms with her mother. We learn that Mrs. Babcock believes that she has spent her life sacrificing herself to wifehood and motherhood, but Ginny's version of her childhood reveals a distant and disengaged mother. Even as Mrs. Babcock lies dying, she and Ginny have great difficulty in communicating both their current realities and the hopes and dreams that neither has realized. Mrs. Babcock, with Ginny's help, has finished reading the encyclopedia, but the comfort of identifying labels has eluded her. For a while Ginny preserves for her mother the fiction that all is well between her and Ira, but Mrs. Babcock is shrewd enough to realize that Ginny is deeply unhappy and that the cause of that unhappiness is undoubtedly her personal life. Ginny fantasizes about rearing Wendy in the home in which she grew up, but this dream is dashed when Mrs. Babcock reveals that she has sold both the Georgian mansion in which Ginny grew up and the cabin in which Ginny is currently staying. By the novel's end, Mrs. Babcock has died and Ginny is packing her only tangible family heirloom, a clock that has been lovingly preserved and handed down through the generations in Ginny's mother's family. Her divided allegiances have not been fully settled, but for the first time she seems to be acting rather than reacting. Her only positive step is the determination that she wants to divorce Ira. Ginny's history of divided allegiances has been both the internal divisions between her Southern and Yankee heritage and the external loyalties that can be identified with the labels teen queen, teen rebel, Ivy League grind, lesbian hippie, suburban housewife, and new age experimenter. We do not know where Ginny will go next, but we have hope that she has learned enough about herself to begin making positive choices for her life instead of being a passive victim of circumstance.

I have spent this much time explicating Ginny's divided allegiances and search for labels because she provides the model on which other Alther heroines form variations, each searching different aspects of her personality and her world and each arriving at slightly different places as a result of that search. Also I am interested in the pairing Alther makes of her heroines with significant others who provide the type of Hegelian dialectic to which Ginny is attracted. Soon after her return to Hullsport, Ginny considers the heritage from her maternal ancestors, a process of keeping house and bearing children that she fears has no point. She says, "It was exhausting, this process, and in contradiction to Hegel, no progress appeared to be resulting from this recurring juxtaposition of thesis and antithesis" (249). Ginny's assessment that the dialectic is failing is accurate in that thesis-antithesis has been for her a recurring cycle, never resulting in a synthesis that represents growth. Her determination to be independent may be the first synthesis to result from the thesis of her search for meaning in others and the antithesis of her realization that personal meaning cannot be put on externally like a change of wardrobe.

When we meet Caroline Kelley in Other Women (I am omitting Original Sins from this analysis because its main characters are "the Five" (3) and not a single individual or a pair of individuals), we meet a woman who has made some progress from Ginny's position at the end of Kinflicks. Caroline suffers from a depression for which she seeks assistance from Hannah Burke, a psychoanalyst. Caroline believes that part of her depression results from revulsion at the grimness of the external world, embodied in the Jonestown Massacre in which hundreds blindly followed Jim Jones into suicide. HannahÕs therapy leads her to see that her depression is more from internal demons from her childhood that she has repressed or ignored. In the course of this treatment, we learn not only of CarolineÕs demons, but also of the ghosts that haunt Hannah. The readers are put through a series of thesis-antithesis positions as we see first Caroline's pain from being neglected by her parents and from selecting lovers who cannot provide the affirmation that she so desperately needs and see next the guilt from which Hannah suffers as she is pursued by the ghosts of her past in war-torn Europe and of the children that she could not save from carbon monoxide poisoning. Caroline's divided allegiances begin over her loyalties to her unloving parents, to her lover Diana and to her sons, Jackie and Jason. From the story's start, Caroline is consumed with jealousy over Diana's new friendship with Suzanne. This loss, the most recent of many that Caroline tells Hannah and us about, is the ostensible personal cause of the depression for which she consults Hannah. As Caroline knowingly but helplessly establishes a "transference" (65) with Hannah as the authority figure that validates her existence, we see Hannah's ambivalent reactions to the process. Hannah values Caroline for the woman she is and for the wry sense of humor that she brings to the consulting room, but she fears that Caroline will be unable to see the root of all of her problems in unhappy childhood. Caroline seeks Hannah's approval with her winning humor and with the gift of home-baked bread. Hannah enjoys the humor but seems to reject the gift, an object lesson for Caroline to find value in her person rather than in the gifts and favors she can provide.

Caroline's allegiances, like Ginny's, are characterized by the people for whom she feels attachment and by the roles she plays, with their appropriate labels, in those relationships. First with her parents, she is the dutiful daughter on whom they can lay guilt for their own shortcomings and from whom they can reliably expect nurturing care. Because her mother was always too tired from her endless rounds of doing good for others, Caroline became the surrogate mother for her younger brothers. Her nurturing nature finds its natural outlet in her nursing career. There she attaches herself to Arlene, the nursing instructor for whom she becomes the pet student doing personal chores to gain favor. After she graduates from nursing school, Caroline is dismayed when Arlene adopts another student as favorite and their friendship fails. Next Caroline marries Jackson and gains an upscale suburban home and two sons, but as it did for Ginny Babcock, suburban security fades into boredom, and a volunteer job at the hospital leads to an affair with a hippie doctor who is running a storefront clinic for the indigent for which he steals drugs from the hospital. Caroline leaves Jackson for David Michael, but this relationship also fails as she demands a monogamy from David Michael that he is unwilling to provide. This is the point at which she moves in with Diana, a friend from nursing school whose marriage has also failed. They are first roommates, but then become lovers as each discovers the pleasures of the female body. This history is labeled by Caroline herself as being "Miss Kitty to Jackson's Matt Dillon; Maid Marion to David Michael's Robin Hood; Cherry Ames, Rural Nurse, alongside Diana" (240). What Hannah eventually enables her to see is that all of these roles, despite their varying labels, are repetitions of the subservient daughter role that she could never adequately play. During the course of her therapy, Caroline has flirted with Brian, a doctor at the hospital, whom she sees as someone who can rescue her from her quandary. Hannah realizes that Caroline's relationship with Brian, whom she saw professionally during the breakup of his first marriage, will only be a repetition of the masochistic, self-denying servant role with which Caroline has become so comfortable. Hannah's strength as a therapist is that she allows Caroline to realize this and to reject Brian on her own. By the end of Other Women Caroline has successfully, for the most part, completed her therapy. Her future with Diana remains problematic, but she and Hannah are likely to move from being patient and therapist to being friends. Significantly, she is also changing from being an emergency room nurse to being an obstetrical nurse. Her future choices and decisions will, we hope, be made from the perspective of generating life rather than from the often-futile perspective of desperately trying to save lives that the accidents and cruelty of the world threaten. CarolineÕs thesis position of victim of her own lack of self-esteem has been successfully countered by the antithesis of HannahÕs confidence in herself as a therapist. Meanwhile reviewing her responses to Caroline, who is about the same age as her dead daughter Mona would have been, enables Hannah to allay some of her own grief and guilt over the deaths of Mona and Nigel. For Caroline and Hannah, the dialectic process has been successful as each moves forward as a healthier, more integrated person.

Clea Shawn, the main character in Bedrock, like Caroline Kelley, attempts to establish a meaning for her life. Unlike Caroline, Clea presents herself as happily married and is very prosperous and professionally successful. Like Caroline, Clea maintains a relationship of long-standing with a female friend who serves as antithesis to the thesis of her existence. Clea had first met Elke twenty years earlier when she was assigned to do a photo essay on Elke and her sculpture. Although they have become fast friends and respect each other professionally, Elke claims that Clea's photography is relentlessly pretty and superficial, lacking real depth and meaning. Clea sees Elke's sculptures of tortured people and relentlessly gloomy outlook as excessively depressing. Clea and her philandering husband Turner travel constantly, often living in foreign countries for years at a time. Elke hates travel and remains shut in her New York studio and apartment with her overly protective husband Terence. Clea has become as promiscuous as Turner over the years, but has found that role to be unsatisfactory. At the beginning of Bedrock, Clea, with her usual enthusiasm, has fallen in love with the rural loveliness of Roches Ridge, Vermont, and buys the ancestral home of the last Roche, intending to remodel it into an English manor house. She hires a local workman who begins work. Her optimism remains undimmed despite the bathtub falling through the rotten floor into the garbage filled basement and more masses of garbage revealed as winter snows melt from the back yard that she had envisioned as a formal English garden. Seeing the local landscape with her coffee-table book eye, she decides to take scores of photographs and write a book about "The Town That Time Forgot" (65). Her vision of this rural idyll is shattered, however, when the town's idiosyncratic personality asserts itself, specifically in the form of a severed human foot that her puppy discovers on her property. The discovery of this foot throws the relentlessly cheerful Clea into a depression. This depression is so uncharacteristic that it moves Elke to travel to Vermont to see to her friend.

Elke's trip to Vermont is motivated not only by her concern for her friend, but also by the stasis she is feeling in her own work. Her current statue of a bayoneted baby will not come to life, so she destroys it and is unable to muster the creative impulse to begin anything else. In Vermont, the Marsh house next door to Clea's Roche House intrigues Elke. The Marshes, the other founding family of Roches Ridge, have degenerated into a poorly educated clan that sport names like Polly, Esther, Orlon, Rayon, and Dacron because the Marsh matriarch, Waneeta, drew her inspiration from clothing labels (25). Orlon relentlessly hunts and traps and nails his trophies to the sides of the house and out buildings. Clea had discovered that the youngest son, Dack, has an artistic flair for turning these grisly trophies into totemic works of art. When Elke begins caring for Clea, Clea responds by creating a studio for Elke in Roche House. They fall into a comfortable routine, with Clea awakening Elke with coffee in bed. As Elke drinks her coffee, Clea brushes her own hair with ElkeÕs brush. She then pulls their mixed hairs from the brush and lays them on the windowsill for birds to use in nesting. Elke begins working in secret, consulting only Dack Marsh.

Meanwhile, Clea, whose camera trigger finger has been refusing to snap the cheerful pictures she formerly took, has finally begun taking pictures of Roches Ridge that juxtapose the picturesque with the quirky. Clea has come to Elke's awareness that "if you extracted a fragment from its context in time and space, you were falsifying reality, representing a part as the whole, the fleeting as permanent" (287). She begins a new series of pictures of Roches Ridge of which Elke approves. She shows Elke, and us, pictures of

Ishtar before the New Age Travel sign, which hung from the eaves of a handsome old colonial. . . . Gordon, his brother Jared, and his horse before the spray-painted silo, which rose like a graffiti-covered lighthouse from an ocean of swelling mud. The Boudiccas in karate postures before their tepees, the distant mountains lying like a naked woman in the background. Dack with his stern Abenaki features posing proudly with his crowbar atop the mountain of junked cars. (315)

Elke is proud of Clea's accomplishment and urges her to publish these, more authentic pictures as the real Roches Ridge. Meanwhile Elke finally reveals the sculpture on which she has been working in secret. From junk and animal parts, supplied by Dack, Elke has created a winged female figure rising from a pile of rubble. "It was surreal, representational, and abstract all at once. Maternal tenderness mixed with a fierce primal exuberance, strength with pity. The woman seemed at once firmly grounded--earthbound even, buried to her waist in ruins, seemingly assembled from the debris itself--yet poised for flight" (313). Both women, coming from nearly opposite perspectives have arrived at a kind of middle ground. Clea's glossy, superficial thesis that creates advertisements and glossy coffee-table books has been countered by Elke's antithesis that wallows in the grimness and destruction of war and violence. The resulting synthesis has Clea creating more realistic images of flawed, yet hopeful, reality and has Elke creating, from similar found objects as those she has always used, a more positively energetic form of sculpture. Clea and Elke have each abandoned some of the posturing of their previous lives and come together more strongly, both physically and emotionally.

In Five Minutes in Heaven Alther focuses on one central character, Jude, whose significant others are a series of friends from whom she seeks protection and personal definition. The first section of the novel, titled "Molly," details Jude's friendship with Molly, who is a year older, from the time they are five and six until Molly's death as a teenager. Molly protects Jude from the Commie Killers, a neighborhood gang of boys, and they become fast friends, even after the teen-aged Molly starts dating the chief Commie Killer. Jude's dreamy fearfulness is countered by Molly's intrepid aggression against all elements of her world. After Molly's death, we next see Jude as she begins graduate school in New York and renews her friendship with Sandy. Sandy had befriended Jude and Molly in their combat against the Commie Killers and had remained a distant friend. Jude moves in with him and his assortment of friends in New York. She is somewhat surprised to learn of his homosexuality and is devastated when he is beaten to death, apparently by a homophobic thug who has been taunting him near their subway stop. After SandyÕs death, Jude drops out of graduate school and accepts an editorial job with the firm for which his lover Simon works. There she meets Anna, a poet and poetry workshop leader, whose collection of student poems Jude edits. Anna's glamour attracts Jude and they become first friends and then lovers. Too late Jude realizes that Anna has a serious drinking problem and seems to willingly accept her husbandÕs physical abuse. Once more a close friend dies and Jude is left alone. Jude's life has been marked by the deaths of significant others, beginning with her mother's death when Jude was four. Losing first her mother, then Molly, then Sandy, and finally Anna has sent Jude into a severe depression which Simon proposes to alleviate by sending her to Paris to work with his associate Jasmine. Jasmine tries to incorporate Jude into her coterie, but with limited success. Jude's despair is not alleviated by her French co-workers' endless discussions of love and life. One of these discussions turns into a discussion of language itself.

Ah non," murmured Martine. "To label is to unmask, and to unmask is to alter."

Jude realizes that these arguments are presented merely as intellectual exercise, and she cannot find the revivifying stimulation that Simon had hoped Paris would bring. Jude finally feels herself coming alive when she develops a crush on an exotic dancer named Olivia. Like a lovesick teen, Jude follows Olivia through Paris, even having a one-night stand with her. Olivia rejects Jude's attempts to deepen their relationship and Jude again despairs. Jude, in the final part of the story entitled "Jude," begins to come to terms with herself and to realize that she, herself, is her own most reliable source of strength. She literally descends into the Paris underground catacombs and dreams of the loved ones who have died, wishing to join them in her own death. The will to live is, however, too strong and she revives, emerging to learn that she has spent two days underground. As she returns to her apartment, "she wandered down the shopping street, dazed like Rip van Winkle by the foodstuffs spilling from the shops . . . exotic fruits and vegetables from the former colonies, which she squeezed and poked as though she knew what she was doing. Suddenly, she was ravenous" (359). Jude's revitalization is accompanied with an increased self-confidence that enables her to participate in the lunchtime debates that Jasmine and her associates conduct. Long perplexed by the French temperament,

Jude had finally figured out that the route to conversational brilliance here was to take an assumption, such as that sex shows were sexy, and contradict it. So, launching her first plunge into the waters of lunchtime controversy, she suggested haltingly that Americans were often more interested in the pleasurable sensations their bodies experienced during lovemaking than in power manipulations. (364)

Infuriated by the French conviction that only they understand the vagaries of love, Jude goes on the attack, bolstered by her awareness that she "had earned her spurs in the rodeo of l'amour. She had won several purple hearts on the killing fields of love. She had crawled on her belly through the trenches of despair. She had faced down death in the foxholes of failed affection. She had stripped off her armor to parade unafraid on the battlements of passion" (365). In short, she is no longer wallowing in the self-pity of these failed loves but is now marching to their tunes. With renewed confidence Jude returns to New York to reclaim her grandmother's Francis I silverware from Simon's attic and to resume her life. Through her failed loves, each presenting a different type of antithesis to her thesis of need and loneliness, Jude has finally arrived at a kind of synthesis.

The Alther heroine is frequently paired with an antithetical foil character who contains strengths and/or qualities that she envies, to whom she feels the "scattered allegiances" of tradition and loyalty. Over the course of the four novels detailed here, she moves from the uncertainty of Ginny Babcock Bliss, to the greater confidence developed by both Caroline Kelley and Hannah Burke, to the synthesis achieved by Clea Shawn and her friend Elke, to the recapitulation of this process with Jude who moves from dependence on Molly, Sandy, and Anna, to an independence from which she no longer seeks rescue by ghosts. On this journey, the Alther heroine tries on and rejects various labels, coming eventually to a realization that the labels falsify. What emerges through these novels is a sense that allegiances and labels do, as Robert's facetious argument indicates, limit and destroy. An even more compelling image emerges through metaphors for growth and change.

One of the metaphors that run through most of the stories is the metaphor of the birds. In Kinflicks Ginny is distressed to discover some baby birds whose nest has fallen down the chimney of her cabin. She makes abortive attempts to have the parent birds reclaim the babies, screaming at their parental neglect. Finally she takes over the nurturance of the babies, only to have them begin to die. Some of the few who survive on her feeding regime, die as she attempts to give them flying lessons, with her chief strategy being to toss them into the air and watch as they crash to earth. One finally survives and learns to fly, but meets an untimely end. Unsure whether or not her mother is awake enough to hear, Ginny tells her, "The last bird died yesterday. . . . It just hopped off my finger and started darting around, trying to get out. Finally it crashed into the window, and fell on the floor dead. Mother . . . the bird beat itself to death on a closed window. But the door next to it was wide open" (508). This bird story is metaphoric for Ginny's sense of her life. She feels that her own mother was as inept in rearing her as she was in knowing how to nurture the baby birds. Like the final baby bird, she too feels that she has crashed into closed windows without knowing that an open door was nearby. Unlike the baby bird, however, she may, we hope, find the open door of personal independence before beating herself to death against the closed windows of the allegiances she has previously made to Joe Bob, Clem, Miss Head, Eddie, Ira, and Hawk.

In Other Women the metaphoric bird is the pileated woodpecker that Caroline sees in the woods as she ponders Hannah's advice that reality is controlled by how we choose to see things. Skiing with her sons, she sees a dead tree and worries that a falling branch might hurt someone. Then she stops herself: "Suddenly it occurred to her that she didn't have to think about ravaging owls or amputated legs on such a beautiful afternoon. She could think instead about sculpted snow gleaming in the sun. Hannah had said that whether you were depressed depended on what you saw when you looked around" (95). Soon after this revelation, she spots the rare pileated woodpecker. The pileated woodpecker appears again later in the story to remind her that "what you saw depended on how you focused" (367). Different birds reappear, with clearly symbolic force, in the novel's final scene. Caroline and Hannah walk outdoors together and see "that the branches, swollen with new buds, were filled with chattering yellow evening grosbeaks, fresh back from more balmy lands, sporting their jaunty masks like revelers returning from a Caribbean carnival" (380). On this optimistic note, we leave Caroline and Hannah, hoping that each will always hear the birds chattering.

The birds that factor in Bedrock are somewhat different. First there are the disembodied bird wings that Orlon has nailed onto the walls of the Marsh house. These are first seen as bizarre trophies, but later they lend themselves to Elke's magnificent sculpture. Then there is the outrageous parrot belonging to Starshine, the self-appointed guru of the Boudiccas. This parrot, named Che after Che Guevara whose name he keeps announcing, along with other "political slogans from the sixties" (119), including "We Shall Overcome!" (119) and "Make Love, Not War!" (121), is Starshine's brightly colored companion whom she has futilely been trying to teach the feminist slogan "The Personal Is Political" (119). Che provides comic relief to the starkness of Orlon's bird corpses. Finally there are the Baltimore orioles whose nest is being woven from the mixed hairs that Clea has offered from Elke's brush. After showing Elke her new pictures of Roches Ridge, Clea sees the pair of birds working and calls Elke to the window. "Elke tiptoed over in her robe and looked out at the birds' nest. It was almost entirely composed of interwoven hairs--Elke's silver ones, and Clea's black and gray." Clea marvels, "I think it's an omen" (315-316). This moment enables Clea and Elke to consummate the sexual attraction that has always existed between them and sets the stage for the novel's final scene in which the entire community of Roches Ridge celebrates its bicentennial with a Bossy Bingo cow patty contest. As they watch together, Waneeta Marsh comments, "Ever stop to think this whole dang town might be a few logs short of a cord?" To which Clea replies, "Well, it's not what I expected when I first arrived here. But it'll do just fine" (325). Clea has found her ideal community, even if it is not what she had initially envisioned.

Five Minutes in Heaven shifts from birds as metaphors for growth and change to more mythic references. There are, in Bedrock, mythic overtones to Elke's final sculpture. The winged woman that she has created is reminiscent of the famous Nike, Winged Victory of Samothrace, sculpture. The mythic metaphor in Five Minutes in Heaven occurs in the overall pattern and in the sculptures that Jude notices in Paris. Jude's journey is reminiscent of that followed by the hero of what Joseph Campbell identifies as the monomyth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell says that "the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation--initiation--return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth" (30). Part of the initiation phase of the cycle may be a descent into an underworld where the hero confronts ghosts or demons. This aspect of Jude's story is seen when she goes into the catacombs. The return, in Campbell's version of the monomyth, is usually with a boon or gift; we see this in Jude's return with a renewed enthusiasm and strength to reenter the lists of love.

Through all of these stories, one theme dominates, the effort required of the women who are our main characters to forge together an identity from the "scattered allegiances" and the "labels" with which they have worked. They have all come of age during the 1960s, an era in American history when traditional values were being questioned and stereotyped roles for women found to be wanting. Each of the main characters I have discussed has tried on a number of roles in search of an identity to truly call her own. To a greater or lesser extent, each has gone through what Wallace Stevens, in "Of Modern Poetry," calls "The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice" (1-2). Stevens follows this opening with lines that are echoed by what we have seen in Alther's heroines' lives.

The poem of the mind in the act of finding

What will suffice. It has not always had

To find: the scene was set; it repeated what

Was in the script.

To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

Stevens continues his meditation of how changing times necessitate changing attitudes and poetic metaphors. He ends with a series of metaphors that again are echoed in Alther's fiction:

Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may

Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman

Combing. The poem of the act of the mind. (218-219)

Alther's heroines fight their ways through the minefields of modern life. Like Stevens' fictive poet, they too are in search of "what will suffice." Alther's maternal grandmother invented herself as a lady from the Virginia Tidewater. Alther's heroines achieve various degrees of success in reviewing their "scattered allegiances" and the "labels" available to them in order to invent identities that will enable them to be most fully themselves physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Works Cited

Alther, Lisa. Bedrock. 1990. New York: Plume, 1996.

---. "Border States." Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers. Ed. Joyce Dyer. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998. 21-30.

---. Five Minutes in Heaven. 1995. New York: Plume, 1996.

---. Kinflicks. 1975. New York: New American Library, 1977.

---. Original Sins. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

---. Other Women. 1984. New York: New American Library, 1985.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Bollingen Series XVII. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: The Library of America, 1997.


IRON MOUNTAIN REVIEW 17 (Spring, 2001). Emory, VA: Emory and Henry College.

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