Fri April 18, 2014
'During The Reign,' A Dissolving Family Retells Its History
Originally published on Fri April 18, 2014 9:55 am
A meditation on the lives of one multigenerational family in rural 1950s Ohio, Joan Chase's 1983 debut During the Reign of the Queen of Persia — just reissued — opens up a typical pastoral story with the inventiveness of four young girls, the novel's narrators. Directed by sisters Anne and Katie, and their cousins Celia and Jenny, the narration traces the gradual dissolution of the Krauss family from their grandmother's childhood to the end of their own, after a lifetime on their Ohio farm.
But though it may seem at first to be a coming-of-age novel, During the Reign's purview extends far beyond the inner life and perspective of any single character, past the family and its farm into the way in which yarns are spun. Chase's novel is just as much about family histories and how we invent them as it is about the Krauss family and its young documentarians.
Chase's careful and layered construction, at once self-reflexive and quietly insidious, makes ordinary family tragedies into the stuff of myth, worthy of even the most fantastic tales of faraway places like Persia — or Cleveland. The novel centers on the five Krauss sisters, May, Elinor, Rachel, Grace and Libby, mothers and aunts to the young narrators. Assorted husbands play supporting roles, as does the taciturn and solitary Grandad, who "did not talk to girls or women."
Then there's Gram, head of the family and Queen of the book's title. We first get an indication of Gram's MO when the narrators compare her to Queenie, the farm's wild and stubborn pony: "Uncle Dan said they had a lot in common, and although he didn't say exactly what, we knew Queenie was nearly impossible to catch, had thrown every one of us, racing for the barn. We knew she had what was called a high head."
The crux of Chase's moving portrait is that slippery yet authoritative narration. Though sometimes referring to "our mother" or "their mother," the narrators' "we" delivers a unified observation of family life. As the girls declare, "most of the time it was as though the four of us were one and we lived in days that gathered into one stream of time, undifferentiated and communal." The girls' experiences mostly color the book's descriptions and observations, seeping into the story's corners but rarely dominating the plot. They're a less voyeuristic version of the chorus in Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, who, despite their eventual entanglement in the plot, are never the stars of the story.
The girls also recount family stories from before they were born, and their masterful retelling lends them an eerie omniscience — just like an omniscient narrator, they seem to see everything — and if not quite everything, an awful lot.
It's through the girls' innocent yet wise remembrance that we see things fall apart, as in any myth. It starts when Grace gets sick; her death from cancer makes up the book's middle and the end of the family as they know it. Her suffering is drawn out for dozens of pages, bedside praying interspersed with tense family discussions in the kitchen, thanks in part to the arrival of bitter and mercurial Neil, Grace's mostly estranged husband.
Neil, with "a hot glitter about him that made him look mean" after his wife's funeral, delivers the novel's most biting pronouncement — ostensibly about his daughter, but directed at his sisters-in-law: "She'll always be dreaming about this place and this time, looking backward. Could be all of us should have gone on and died right along with Grace. Might be none of us will ever be quite alive again."
He turns out to be right. Anne and Katie leave the farm to live with their father, only visiting the farm during the summers. Later, after the girls have grown older, the barn burns one night — the only appropriate parallel to the family's gradual dissipation. When Gram decides to sell the farm and move into town, the girls feel "as separated from her as always, living on there, awaiting her decisions, with everything that happened heightened with the poignancy and solemnity of an old tale."
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia may be the darker cousin of the traditional family drama, but its value isn't all in its gloom and doom. Tragedy and violence run up against paeans to the Ohio hills and meditations on memory; kitchen conversations receive as much care and attention as those about death. With its formal inventiveness and wrenching story, Chase's novel is something to be savored, read slowly, thoroughly, and with your own mythical past in mind.