I like Doris Day films. Sometimes, life is ugly and injustice leads me to rail, so I escape into a Doris Day rom-com. I choose Doris, however, because despite the whimpering-simpering storyline, she always sets her chin defiantly, pulls a funny face and provides character. She is not alarmingly beautiful, but a talented comedienne who can belt out a tune and looks great in chaps. This is also how I feel about Anne Tyler. She is often accused of being ‘cosy’. The world of her books is ‘small’ and ‘everyday’. But Tyler can also poke her tongue out, display great comic timing and draw attention to strength as well as frailty.
A Spool of Blue Thread is an exemplar of these abilities.
It is a family saga. It can be read as a simple tale of love over generations, with the silly mishaps and misunderstandings found in real life, and over-played in romantic comedy. It was a great delight to me that it also referenced Doris:
“I didn’t know that was how you met,” Abby said. “That’s kind of like a movie! Like a Rock Hudson – Doris Day movie where they start out hating each other.”
And like a Doris Day movie, this novel has a dominant cosiness that is threaded with a weft of defiance; the stories that we tell about ourselves and the genuine struggle underplaying them.
Abby is the central matriarchal figure. She is a social worker (how convenient for this blog). Her husband Red accuses her of being “too understanding”, with her collection of waifs and strays and her need to help. That is one story: Social worker equals understanding, Abby as do-gooder. But woven through this is a sharper, deeper, less comfortable understanding of the helping role.
When one of the construction workers employed by Red falls ill and dies, the family take in his little boy. Well, what else could they do?
“Call Social Services?”
“Oh God forbid!”
This is the thread of defiance. Abby used to work for social services. This was the way in which she could fulfil her urge to help others. Yet, there is a recognition that whilst we talk about social care and looked after children, that notions of being looked after, of being cared-for, get lost within a system: that theories of support too easily become practices of power. What Tyler explores is the unconditional love that Abby feels when she falls for the delicate stem of the boy’s two-year-old neck, alongside the determination to keep his natural mother at bay. This is not a straightforward romantic depiction of adoption as rescue and love. As Abby’s son says:
“He is not my brother. He is not remotely related to me, and for you to tell me he is, is like… like those pretend-to-be liberals who claim they never notice whether a person is black or white. Don’t they have eyes? Don’t you? Were you so keen on doing good in the outside world that you didn’t stop to wonder if this would be good for us?”
This is not cosy. Adoption as love. Adoption as pretence. Adoption as struggle.
Central to the story is a house, a large, family house with a wide, open porch. Whist it is now beginning to lose its functionality with no air-conditioning and possessions over-running the available storage space, it is a symbol of the family’s prosperity, suggestive of the efforts and labour of previous generations. The large porch is a symbol of hospitality and generosity. However, it is doubtful whether it was ever fully comfortable for the Whitshank family. It was a place of struggle – in particular over the colour of a swing. Junior Whitshank sees the home as a place to assert his ‘taste’ and the Swedish Blue preferred by his wife is a ‘common’ colour. Bourdieu states that ‘taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 6). Junior attempts to be the classifier of good taste, to provide legitimacy for his position within the neighbourhood. A legitimacy he craves out of the knowledge that he is often judged not good enough.
“Oh always, always it was us-and-them. Whether it was the town kids in school or the rich people in Roland Park, always someone to point out that he wasn’t quite measuring up, he didn’t quite make the grade. And it was assumed to be his own fault, because he lived in a nation where theoretically, he could make the grade. There was nothing to hold him back. Except that there was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. There was always some little tiny trick of dress or of speech that kept him on the outside looking in.”
Pointing to the class system, as Tyler does here, is not cosy. Pointed to the pretended meritocracy, however gently, has the potential to be revolutionary.
Class as real, everyday experiences. Meritocracy as pretence. Acceptance as struggle.
This is what Tyler does. She gently persuades of the defiance and resistance behind every good story. And so to social policy. This is also what social policy can do. It can question the dominant cosiness of ‘hard-working families’, ‘tax-payers’, ‘troubled families’ and highlight pretence and struggle.
My chosen means of doing this, is through narratives and narrative analysis. Narration usually entails an attempt to smooth the edges of experiences to perform a cohesive account of choices and events. Analysis is the attention to the telling, to pay attention to what is shaping the account – the individual, genre, power. However, narrative in social policy is not just about individual stories, it is also about the relationship between stories, how marginalised voices weave themselves into dominant accounts. Social policy is a collective discipline and balancing the individual details with wider trends is the where the science meets the art.
Sara Ahmed (2014: 21) writes about this in her discussion of willful subjects:
“Although some of the stories of willfulness are individual, the project of the book is collective: it is not only about bringing individual stories together, but hearing each as a thread of a shared history. Strays, when heard together, are noisy”.
Tyler recreates that clamour and noise in an uncomfortable exchange between Denny and one of Abby’s ‘irksome orphans’, Atta:
“I think you’ve made a mistake”
“Oh?” she said “’Two-faced’ is an incorrect term”
“In this situation, yes. ‘Polite’ would be more accurate. They’re trying to be polite. They don’t much like you, so they don’t invite you to their homes, but they’re doing their best to be nice to you, and so that’s why they ask how you are and tell you it is good to see you.”
The uncomfortable cymbal crash as cultures collide, beautifully observed, as two combatants try to weave a thread of resistance against the dominant story of American friendliness: of how to be a host and how to be a guest.
Despite the generally accepted belief that Doris Day is a cosy figure, there is nothing comfortable about watching Calamity Jane being forced to give up her gun. Tyler is also assumed to be cosy because her subject matter is the everyday, but there is nothing cosy about the sharp edges of family life. Social policy could also be cosy and simply reproduce social trends, but good social policy should also document the edges of resistance and the voices from within and against the trend.
Ahmed, S. (2014) Wilful Subjects Durham and London: Duke University Press
Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction : a social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge.
Tyler, A. (2015) A Spool of Blue Thread London: Penguin