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We Were the Mulvaneys

Joyce Carol Oates - Author

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ISBN 9780452282827 | 464 pages | 24 Jan 2001 | Plume | 6.37 x 8.97in | 18 - AND UP
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Awards
  • New York Times Notable Book
    Oprah's Book Club™ Selection
Summary of We Were the Mulvaneys Summary of We Were the Mulvaneys Reviews for We Were the Mulvaneys An Excerpt from We Were the Mulvaneys
A New York Times Notable Book and a former Oprah Book Club® selection

Moving away from the dark tone of her more recent masterpieces, Joyce Carol Oates turns the tale of a family struggling to cope with its fall from grace into a deeply moving and unforgettable account of the vigor of hope and the power of love to prevail over suffering. The Mulvaneys of High Point Farm in Mt. Ephraim, New York, are a large and fortunate clan, blessed with good looks, abundant charisma, and boundless promise. But over the twenty-five year span of this ambitious novel, the Mulvaneys will slide, almost imperceptibly at first, from the pinnacle of happiness, transformed by the vagaries of fate into a scattered collection of lost and lonely souls. It is the youngest son, Judd, now an adult, who attempts to piece together the fragments of the Mulvaneys' former glory, seeking to uncover and understand the secret violation that occasioned the family's tragic downfall. Each of the Mulvaneys endures some form of exile--physical or spiritual--but in the end they find a way to bridge the chasms that have opened up among them, reuniting in the spirit of love and healing. Profoundly cathartic, Oates' acclaimed novel unfolds as if, in the darkness of the human spirit, she has come upon a source of light at its core. Rarely has a writer made such a startling and inspiring statement about the value of hope and compassion.

We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?

You may have thought our family was larger, often I'd meet people who believed we Mulvaneys were a virtual clan, but in fact there were only six of us: my dad who was Michael John Mulvaney, Sr., my mom Corinne, my brothers Mike Jr. and Patrick and my sister Marianne, and me—Judd.

From summer 1955 to spring 1980 when my dad and mom were forced to sell the property there were Mulvaneys at High Point Farm, on the High Point Road seven miles north and east of the small city of Mt. Ephraim in upstate New York, in the Chautauqua Valley approximately seventy miles south of Lake Ontario.

High Point Farm was a well-known property in the Valley, in time to be designated a historical landmark, and "Mulvaney" was a well-known name.

For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us.

For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!—that's what they deserve.

"Too direct, Judd!"—my mother would say, wringing her hands in discomfort. But I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts. Particularly if it hurts.

For all of my childhood as a Mulvaney I was the baby of the family. To be the baby of such a family is to know you're the last little caboose of a long roaring train. They loved me so, when they paid any attention to me at all. I was like a creature dazed and blinded by intense, searing light that might suddenly switch off and leave me in darkness. I couldn't seem to figure out who I was, if I had an actual name, or many names, all of them affectionate and many of them teasing, like "Dimple," "Pretty Boy" or, alternately, "Sourpuss," or "Ranger"—my favourite. I was "Baby" or "Babyface" much of the time while growing up. "Judd" was a name associated with a certain measure of sternness, sobriety, though in fact we Mulvaney children were rarely scolded and even more rarely punished. "Judson Andrew" which is my baptismal name was a name of such dignity and aspiration I never came to feel it could be mine, only something borrowed like a Hallowe'en mask.

You'd get the impression, at least I did, that "Judd" who was "Baby" almost didn't make it. Getting born, I mean. The train had pulled out, the caboose was being rushed to the track. Not that Corinne Mulvaney was so very old when I was born—she was only thirty-three. Which certainly isn't "old" by today's standards. I was born in 1963, the year Dad used to say, with a grim shake of his head, a sick-at-heart look in his eyes, "tore history in two" for Americans. What worried me was I'd come along so belatedly, everyone else was here except me! A complete Mulvaney family without Judd.

Always it seemed, hard as I tried I could never hope to catch up with all their good times, secrets, jokes—their memories. What is a family, after all, except memories?—haphazard and precious as the contents of a catchall drawer in the kitchen (called the "junk drawer" in our household, for good reason). My handicap, I gradually realized, was that by the time I got around to being born, my brother Mike was already ten years old and for children that's equivalent to another generation. Where's Baby?—who's got Baby? the cry would commence, and whoever was nearest would scoop me up and off we'd go. A scramble of dogs barking, exaggerated as animals are often exaggerations of human beings, emotions so rawly exposed. Who's got Baby? Don't forget Baby!

The dogs, cats, horses, even the cars and pickups Dad and Mom drove before I was born, those big flashy-sexy Fifties models—all these I would pore over in Mom's overstuffed snapshot albums, determined to attach myself to their memories. Sure, I remember! Sure, I was there! Mike's first pony Crackerjack who was a sorrel with sand-coloured markings. Our setter Foxy as a puppy. The time Dad ran the tractor into a ditch. The time Mom threw corncobs to scare away strange dogs she believed were threatening the chickens and the dogs turned out to be a black bear and two cubs. The time Dad invited 150 people to Mulvaney's Fourth of July cookout assuming that only about half would show up, and everyone showed up—and a few more. The time a somewhat disreputable friend of Dad's flew over to High Point Farm from an airport in Marsena in a canary-yellow Piper Cub and landed—"Crash-landed, almost," Mom would say dryly—in one of the pastures, and though the baby in the snapshots commemorating this occasion would have to have been my sister Marianne, in July 1960, I was able to convince myself Yes I was there, I remember. I do!

And when in subsequent years they would speak of the incident, recalling the way the wind buffeted the little plane when Wally Parks, my Dad's friend, took Dad up for a brief flight, I was positive I'd been there, I could recall how excited I was, how excited we all were, Mike, Patrick, Marianne and me, and of course Mom, watching as the Piper Cub rose higher and higher shuddering in the wind, grew smaller and smaller with distance until it was no larger than a sparrow hawk, high above the Valley, looking as if a single strong gust of wind could bring it down. And Mom prayed aloud, "God, bring those lunatics back alive and I'll never complain about anything again, I promise. Amen."

I'd swear even now, I'd been there.

For the Mulvaneys were a family in which everything that happened to them was precous and everything that was precious was stored in memory and everyone had a history.

Which is why many of you envied us, I think. Before the events of 1976 when everything came apart for us and was never again put together in quite the same way.

"It will consume you.” --The Washington Post Book World

“New testimony to Oates' great intelligence and dead-on imaginative powers. It is a book that will break your heart, heal it, then break it again every time you think about it.” --Los Angeles Times Book Review

“What keeps us coming back to Oates Country is her uncanny gift of making the page a window, with something happening on the other side that we’d swear was like life itself.” --The New York Times Book Review

“A major achievement that stands with Oates’ finest studies of American life...the novel is a testament to the tenacious bonds of the family, the restorative power of love and capacity to endure and prevail.” --The Chicago Tribune

What was the germ of the book? Was there a single scene or character or theme that inspired you to write it?

Primarily, I wanted to write about family lifethe mysterious and seemingly autonomous "life" of the family that is made up of individuals yet seems to transcend individuals; the joys, the sorrows, the continuity of jokes and humour; the shared pain; the conflicted yearning for freedom simultaneous with the yearning for domesticity; always, the unspeakable mystery at the heart of the family. I wanted to write about complex lives as they are interwoven with one another, always defining themselves in terms of one another.

Which one of the Mulvaneys is your favorite character?

It's hard to answerMarianne, Patrick, Judd and Corinne are all favorites. Emotionally, I identified with Marianne; intellectually, with Patrick and Judd. My earlier sense of Patrick was that he would prove to be more violent, a terrorist, in a sense, obsessed with exacting justice for his family. But, as Patrick evolved, and came into his own, I saw that he was really a very civilized and judicious young man for whom "an eye for an eye" would be far too primitive a mode of justice.

Corinne, the mother of the family, is such a totally real woman—a mother all of us have known and remember from our childhoods. Is she modeled on any particular woman you have known? On your own mother?

Corinne is only partly modeled after several mothers of my acquaintance, including my own, Carolina Oates. These women are quintessentially maternal: warm, funny, immensely hard-working, generous, identified with their families to the suppression of their own personalities for long periods of their lives. I recall fondly how my mother helped me plant fruits and vegetablesespecially a strawberry patch terribly prone to weeds. We lived north of Buffalo, on a small farm, much smaller than the Mulvaneys', and much less affluent. We had pigs for a while, and always chickens and cats. No horses, unfortunately.

Corinne is so close to Marianne. And then she totally rejects her daughter after the rape—why?

Corinne does not reject Marianne. She chooses her husband over her daughter out of desperation and must live with that choice. But she never ceases loving, and grieving over, Marianne, the child most like herself.

When the Mulvaneys' fall comes, it happens so fast. One day they're riding high and the next they're in the gutter—the American gutter of violence, homelessness, paranoia, law suits. Was there any way they could have averted their family tragedy?

If Michael Sr. had behaved differently, the Mulvaney tragedy would not have occurred. In the past, laws concerning rape and sexual assault were not as liberal as they are today in most states. Marianne knew that it would have been futile to press charges under the circumstances.

Do you think of this as a feminist novel?

The novel is not basically feminist; it has no ideology; it is a story about individuals, not a tract. Marianne exemplifies the way of love, magnanimity and forgiveness; Patrick, the way of intellectual analysis. In general terms, the tension is between a belief in Christianity and a belief in Darwinism: the one so spiritual, the other so intransigent in its physicality. In the end, through the experience of simply living, Patrick comes around to a spiritual transformationthe way of the community, living with others instead of in isolation. He overcomes his resentment and anger and falls in love at last, deeply and without calculation. And belatedly, he discovers his "Mulvaney-ness."

The centre section of the book is so dark and yet it ends on a note of hope and resolution. Where did this ending come from? Did you consider concluding on a darker note?

This is life, generations following generations. The destructive father is gone, and will be remembered, ironically, with affection. Old wounds are forgotten in the excitement and enthusiasm of the future. To be true to life, a novel must have an ending that is inevitable given the specific personalities of the characters involved. The novelist must not impose an ending upon them. What might have been a tragedy in We Were the Mulvaneys becomes something quite different, yet to my mind this bittersweet ending is inevitable.

What about Marianne? She seemed to be heading towards a tragic fate and yet she ends up happy and fulfilled.

Marianne, lacking bitterness, is the sort of a young woman to inspire affection and love in others. Always, people are drawn to young women like Marianne; for her, it was a matter of accepting herself as not despoiled, a matter of her coming to like herself once again. She was fortunate to find just the right man to appreciate her, shrewd Whit West with his background of treating wounded and abused animals. Whit was canny enough to know how to love her without scaring her off.

Animals play a tremendously important part in the book—in a sense the Mulvaneys communicate and love through their animals. Have animals always been important to you? Did you have some larger message in mind that you wanted to express through animals?

I've always loved animals, and have lived with them all my life. As a child I had kittens and cats, and tended quite a large brood of Rhode Island reds (chickens). I've never before written about the emotional interdependence of human beings and animals, though it has been so much a part of my life (and the lives of many of my friends). I hoped to show, in the novel, the intensely connected parallel lives of people and animals. For Marianne, obviously, Muffin is far more than merely a cat; he's her deepest connection to her family and her girlhood, almost an aspect of her soul. In families with animals, there is always tragedy: animals age more quickly than we do, and their lives run out before our eyes. How difficult it is to speak of the secret meaning of animals without sounding sentimental . . . Yet it was a risk I was willing to take in order to tell the story of the Mulvaneys.

What about the house and farm? What is their meaning in the book?

Of course it's a profound shock to lose one's house, one's farm and identity. And one's trees . . . the spiritual connectedness between people and trees is quite emotional, too. I've always lived in a place with a lot of trees. When you lose your trees, you have lost beauty and solace and protection.

Why did you choose Judd, the youngest of the Mulvaneys, to narrate the story? Was it difficult to have him tell so much about the interior lives of characters he did not always understand?

Judd imagines but does not invent. He's the intellectual and moral centre of the novel, as it is presented in terms of language. It's fitting that he's a newspaper editor and writer. Many people in families feel themselves in repositories of the family narrativeas Judd says, he is assembling a kind of family album, not writing a "confession."

Is this one of your favorite books?

We Were the Mulvaneys is perhaps the novel closest to my heart. I think of it as a valentine to a passing way of American life, and to my own particular childand girlhood in upstate New York. Everyone in the novel is enormously close to me, including Marianne's cat, Muffin, who was in fact my own cat. One writes to memorialize, and to bring to life again that which has been lost.


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