SONGS IN ORDINARY TIME
by Mary McGarry Morris
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In Mary McGarry Morris' intricately constructed novel, many lives intersect and connect, much like the strains of a symphonic ode. But it is the Fermoyle family who lends the story its resonance and presents the reader with a multitude of passions, ironies, tragedies, poor choices, and triumphs from which one can trace every element of the human condition. Marie Fermoyle's life is a daily struggle not only to feed and clothe her children, but to imbue them with the strength and determination she knows they will need to forge their way in the hardscrabble world they inhabit. And though she seems thwarted at every turn by her alcoholic ex-husband's embarrassing public displays, her shabby eyesore of a house, the explosive temper of her oldest son, or the pathetic passivity of her youngest Marie never gives up.
Omar Duvall enters the lives of Atkinson's citizens with the impact of a car crashing through a plate glass window. Although he is deceitful, unctuous, and sly, he manages to ingratiate himself into the hearts and homes of the town's lost souls, as well as its more upstanding citizens. From Benjy's fervent belief that Omar, messiah-like, will rescue his mother from her profound unhappiness, to Bernadette Mansaw's pragmatic and untrusting embrace, to Marie's blind yearnings for the attentions of a man who seems truly devoted to her, the citizens of Atkinson find what they are looking for in Duvall's promises of wealth and good fortune. All it takes is a little faith, and a lot of their hard-earned cash.
We find Atkinson on the brink of a new era. It's 1960 a relatively calm year with only hints of the tumult and disorder assassination, war, and civil unrest that are near at hand. The complacent acceptance of authority that dominated the previous decade is coming to an end. The signs of economic imbalance, sexual freedom, and rebellion against the status quo are everywhere: in Father Gannon's un-priest like demeanor, in Renie LaChance's failing appliance store, in the provocative sway of Jessie Klubock's hips, in Carol Stoner's stoic acceptance of her husband's infidelity. These are ordinary people, and certainly Atkinson is a typical American town. But the struggles we witness during this long and eventful summer are as fundamental and epic as those found in the works of Dickens and Steinbeck. And as the citizens of Atkinson contend with their deepest fears and their strongest desires, they offer us an extraordinary portrait of the human condition at its most frail and its most triumphant. Taken individually their songs are bittersweet strains of disappointment and longing; together they form a lyrical masterwork of hope, perseverance and spirit.
Cast of Characters
Arkaday, Kathleen: Housekeeper at St. Mary's Rectory.
Mary McGarry Morris is married and the mother of five children. She lives in Massachusetts. She is the author of two earlier novels: Vanished, nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and A Dangerous Woman, which was made into a major motion picture. Both books are available in Penguin paperback editions.
"A dazzling first novel....Events are presented with such authority that they hum with both the authenticity of real life and the mythic power of fable." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
A Dangerous Woman
"At once thrilling and deeply affecting...should burnish Ms. Morris's reputation as one the most skillful new writers at work in America today." The New York Times
How did you come to create the town of Atkinson, Vermont, and all its characters?
Many of the characters have been in my head for years and years. As I went along in the novel they grew in both personality and detail. Others came on board later in the novel's life.
How did you keep track of all of the characters' individual stories?
I kept lists and charts taped to the wall over my desk, and I even used index cards which were numbered and which contained events or scenes so I would know where each person was at any given time. Then, if a scene was to be juxtaposed with another I could tell where the people were and what was happening in their lives. This of course came later in the writing of the novel.
The seeds of these stories were with me from the beginning, as were certain characters, such as the Fermoyle family and Omar Duvall, and they made up the emotional core of the novel. The more mechanical parts, where I had to keep track of all the characters, were actually more difficult to write.
Which character do you consider to be the novel's moral compass?
So many of the characters are struggling with morality; I'm not sure there is any one character I'd consider the moral compass. Norm Fermoyle, for instance, is very socially responsible and he has a great frustration trying to save his mother and his siblings. He wants to do the right thing but that's very difficult for him. Of course, you would expect Father Gannon would be someone you could look to for moral opinion but he's having a terrible time himself. Sonny Stoner is struggling as well, and is probably more a failure in his own eyes than in the judgement of his fellow townspeople. The band leader, Jarden Greene, feels that it's his responsibility to set the moral tone for the community, to save it from the kind of decline represented by Joey Seldon's dilapidated popcorn stand on the edge of the lovely town park.
What is Benjy looking for?
I saw many of the characters as looking for a kind of a salvation and for Benjy it would have been Omar to whom he looks. Benjy tends to refashion reality there's his petty thievery, all the television he watches he wants to give his mother a hero, someone who will change their world for them.
You've written two previous novels. What did you learn from writing those novels that helped you with this one?
Obviously, brevity was not one of them. If anything, probably the ways and importance of giving characters depth no matter how minor they might be. Even if it's just a few details, that kind of attention can lend many dimensions to the main stories you want to tell.
What does the novel's title mean?
There are many ways to interpret the title. The Songs are various stories of ordinary people in Atkinson: I wanted them to have a lyrical feeling so that each character's voice could tell their story, and as the various segments of these stories ended there would be this subtle ebb, and then another character's tale could take up the melody, and I envisioned the effect of this being a kind of chorusing, a consonance of pain and joy.
In Christian Liturgy, Ordinary Time is that period of time in which there are no major holy days. This book takes place in summer, the only complete season in Ordinary Time. Also, that year 1960 was still a very calm and peaceful time, which in a few short years, would change completely. It was a time of naïveté that we'll never see again, and yet it was also a time when some of the more basic rules of morality were starting to be questioned. These are really the stories of ordinary lives, of people caught in the everyday struggles of everyday life.