Songs in Ordinary Time
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.
Bonifante, Eunice: Runs luncheonette. Widow. Was married to brother of Mrs. Stoner.
Brastus, Lucille: Landlady of the Menka twins. Runs Holy Articles Shoppe downstairs.
Briscoe, Ferdinand: Marie Fermoyle's boss at Briscoe's Sporting Goods.
Burke, Msgr. Thomas: Pastor, St. Mary's parish.
Carper, Anthology: Cousin of Blue Mooney. A & X cook.
Carper, Hildie: Mother of Blue Mooney, Kyle, Peter, and Carl.
Carson, Grondine: Garbage man. Runs pig farm in the Flatts.
Clay, Judge Henry: Attorney for Bridget Fermoyle. Long-ago Atkinson mayor.
Corbett, Luther: Magazine-selling crew.
Coughlin, Jerry: A & X manager.
Doyle, Kenny: Foreman of Norm's work crew.
Duvall, Omar: Itinerant salesman.
Earlie: Earl Lapham Jones. Magazine-selling crew. Grandson of Rev. Pease.
Fermoyle, Alice: Teenage daughter of Marie and Sam Fermoyle.
Fermoyle, Benjamin: Son of Marie and Sam Fermoyle.
Fermoyle, Bridget: Mother of Sam Fermoyle and Helen Fermoyle LaChance.
Fermoyle, Marie: Mother of Alice, Norm, and Benjy. Divorced from Sam.
Fermoyle, Norman: Teenage son of Marie and Sam Fermoyle.
Fermoyle, Sam: Marie's ex-husband. Father of Alice, Norm, and Benjy.
Gannon, Father Joe: New priest at St. Mary's parish.
Gold, Roy: Runs Gold Mine Enterprises: Presto Soap franchiser.
Greene, Jarden: Head of the Department of Public Works. Band concert conductor.
Haddad, Astrid: Works at Briscoe's Sporting Goods. Married to Robert Haddad. Former Las Vegas showgirl.
Haddad, Robert: Insurance man. Married to Astrid.
Hinds, Cleveland: Bank president. Married to Nora Cushing.
Hinds, Nora Cushing: Former fianc é e of Sam Fermoyle. Cousin of Msgr. Burke.
Jones, Earl Lapham: See Earlie.
Klubock, Harvey: Next door neighbor of Marie Fermoyle.
Klubock, Jessie: Married to Harvey.
Klubock, Louie: Six-year-old son of Jessie and Harvey.
LaChance, Helen: Sister of Sam Fermoyle. Married to Renie.
LaChance, Renie: Brother-in-law of Sam Fermoyle.
Litchfield, Arnold: Psychiatrist at Applegate.
Mansaw, Bernadette: Works at bowling alley. Teenage mother of Blue Mooney's nieces.
Mayo, Claire: Runs boarding house with sister, May.
Mayo, May: Older sister of Claire.
Menka, Howard: Handyman at St. Mary's Rectory.
Menka, Jozia: Housekeeper for Bridget Fermoyle for thirty years. Twin sister of Howard.
Miller, Janice: Sister of Weeb. College student.
Miller, Mr.: Father of Weeb.
Miller, Mrs.: Mother of Weeb. Nurse to Mrs. Stoner.
Miller, Weeb: Norm's best friend.
Mooney, Blue: Ex-Marine. Son of Hildie Carper.
O'Rourke, Bishop: Superior of Msgr. Burke and Father Gannon.
Pease, Rev. Montague: Magazine-selling crew. Grandfather of Earlie.
Seldon, Joey: Blind. Runs popcorn stand in the park. Former Chief of Police.
Stoner, Carol: Wife of Chief Stoner. Mother of Lester.
Stoner, Lester: Boyfriend of Alice Fermoyle. Son of Carol and Chief Stoner.
Stoner, Sonny: Chief of Police. Married to Carol. Father of Lester.
Towler, Ark: Bootlegger. Married to Winnie. Long-ago friend of Joey Seldon.
Towler, Winnie: Married to Ark.
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.
- Omar Duvall is known to the reader as a dishonest and potentially dangerous man. Why do you think the people of Atkinson are drawn to such a reprehensible figure? What does he offer people like Marie, Benjy, Harvey Klubock, and Bernadette Mansaw? Why do these characters refuse to accept the truth about him, even when it's clearly evident that he has lied to them?
- How do you feel about the character of Marie Fermoyle? Given the circumstances she's had to face the breakup of her marriage to the heir of a prominent family, the economic hardships she's endured, the scrutinizing eyes of neighbors and other members of the community can you sympathize with her actions towards her children, Omar Duvall, and her ex-husband?
- Although most of the novel's characters are flawed, few of them are truly malevolent. Discuss, for instance, Renie LaChance's telephone calls to women, Sonny Stoner's affair with Eunice, Father Gannon's affair with Alice, Robert Haddad's thievery, and Sam's alcoholism. What do these characters, and their failings, have in common? What compels them in their actions?
- What do Joey Seldon and his popcorn stand represent to the novel and/or to the town of Atkinson? Why do you think people feel so strongly about Joey, one way or the other?
- How does Morris use humor to offset the darker events of the novel? Do her humorous passages make you more sympathetic toward characters such as Omar Duvall, Jarden Greene, or Astrid Haddad?
- Why do you think Norm, who had been Omar Duvall's greatest detractor, is taken in by the soap-selling scheme? How does Omar manage to manipulate Norm's feelings about him, and why, eventually, does he fail?
- What does Father Gannon mean when he tells Alice, "I realize that my faith has become a wholeness. It's a unity of mind and soul. And flesh...I finally feel like a real priest!" Do you think he really loves Alice? What does she give him and what, in turn, does he offer her?
- Omar insists that he truly loves Marie, despite all the ways in which he has deceived her. Do you believe him? Do you believe his involvement with the Fermoyle family has changed him? What clues does Morris offer, especially in the final scene involving Omar, Norm, and Benjy, that affect your feelings either way?
- How does the concept of salvation figure in the novel? Which characters can't be saved from their own desperate acts, and which are trying desperately to save themselves?
- What do you think the future holds for Marie Fermoyle and her family? How has the presence of Omar Duvall changed each of them, as well as their relationships with each other?