Edenby Olympia Vernon
“Daring [and] explosively supernatural. . . . [Eden is] a startling reminder of how forceful Southern magic can be.” –The New York Times Book Review
A fearless and wildly original debut, a powerhouse of a novel that explodes on the first page and sustains a tightrope intensity until the last.
When fourteen-year-old Maddy Dangerfield draws a naked woman on the pages of Genesis in fire-engine-red lipstick during Sunday school, the rural black community of Pyke County, Mississippi, is scandalized. Her mother, mortified by the small-town gossip and determined to teach Maddy the perils of her youthful intelligence, forces her from then on to spend weekends caring for her estranged Aunt Pip, an outcast who lives on the wrong side of town and is dying of cancer. The lessons Maddy learns are ones that could not be taught in any church.
Shuttling between the home she shares with her parents–endlessly locked in a cycle of resentment, violence, and only sporadic tenderness–and the house of tough, strong-minded Aunt Pip out on Commitment Road, Maddy feels her eyes gradually opening to the complicated dynamics that inform her world. As the once self-possessed, fiery Pip wastes away in body and spirit, Maddy is forced to confront the brutal finality of death and to contend with the ghosts that hover over Pyke County–the violated body of Laurel Pillar, a young white girl raped in the field years before; Uncle Sugar, the black man said to have Laurel’s blood on his hands, in prison for life; Justice Bates, Sugar’s alleged accomplice, his broken body strung up and hanging from a tree; and the community of dead and dying women who have been ravaged by disease, in whom Maddy finds a terrible sort of comfort.
In lush, vivid brush strokes, Olympia Vernon conjures a world that is both intoxicating and cruel, and illuminates the bittersweet transformation of the young girl who must bear the burden and blessing of its secrets too soon. Eden is a haunting, memorable novel propelled by the poetry and power of a voice that is complex, lyrical, and utterly true.
“Daring [and] explosively supernatural. . . . [Eden is] a startling reminder of how forceful Southern magic can be. . . . The message is simple, though profound: love and death destroy difference, devouring us all. . . . Vernon’s talent . . . is as green and growing as those country fields where her ghosts lurk.” –Ann Powers, The New York Times Book Review
“Astonishing. . . . These are the primal scenes, the bare elements of melodrama, the Morrisonian, Faulknerian, Southern Gothic family secrets, familiar in their very atrocity. . . . Vernon’s voice sometimes takes on an Orphic authority, rising from vigilant observation and the magical force of language to make the ordinary new. . . . With wild specificity, Vernon re-creates a universal existential moment: the quailing of the spirit in confrontation with ‘death, my death.”” –Anya Kamentz, Village Voice
“A profoundly raw and gripping read: Vernon’s is a new African-American and Southern voice with sustaining dramatic power that magnifies the human condition.” –Jean Thompson, The Baltimore Sun
“The rural black Southern culture comes alive through language that is direct, sometimes raw, and frequently sensual and sexually explicit; character limited by their lack of education, the poverty, and ongoing racial prejudice; and plot detils that are both shocking and pathetic. . . . Eden is a powerful novel in the tradition of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s work.” –Susan Allison, Kliatt
“Sensual and disturbing, Vernon’s debut novel has an intensity and lyricism. . . . Vernon writes with a scary, deep knowledge of a very primitive place. . . . The rural countryside of Pyke County, Miss., resembles a scorched paradise–an Eden after the fall, after the snake has brought darkness, disease and decay into the world.” –Hal Jacobs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“An important story, not to be categorized by race or gender or region. Its truths are universal. . . . Vernon relies on the highest philosophies of spirit to tell this story of the body, and she does so in a way that does not take it from the hands of the people of Pyke County, but shares it graciously with the hands of all. . . . Vernon’s prose is unapologetic; it rushes forward, soaring at times, grounded at others, unfettered by a strict genre of reality.” –Kate Cantrill, The Austin Chronicle
“[Vernon is] a remarkable new voice. . . . Eden offers symbolism galore: a lizard-like scar from breast cancer, the fattening hog oblivious to its own fate, Chevrolet’s lost arm. But it’s not the symbolism that is the strength of this book, it’s the raw and fearless voice of Maddy whose candid observations turn the ordinary into the poetic.” –Greg Langley, The Baton Rouge Advocate
‘vernon’s exquisite, original language is pure poetry. She is a fearless writer, as unafraid of the graphic sexual image as she is of the tender gesture. One grows to love these characters, to become haunted by their losses, their desires, their hopes. . . . [A] wild and unforgettable and utterly new, strong language for tough truths.” –Susan Larson, The New Orleans Times-Picayune
“An empowering coming-of-age story based on acquiring the knowledge that all choices are going to cost you something. . . . Vernon’s writing is sensual and tactile. . . . What she does best is delve behind the scenes of a racially charged environment. She shows how the real effects of racism take hold behind closed doors and how racial oppression is intimately linked to sexuality, power, and self-love. Vernon leads the reader in to the most intimate places unflinchingly and without apology.” –Cara Hopkins, The Colorado Daily
“Eden takes the reader through a strange and religious experience. . . . [It] deals heavily with how Maddy confronts mortality and learns to deal with the burdens of adulthood at an early age.” –John Saucier, The Daily Mississippi
“Conjuring a world that is both intoxicating and cruel. . . . Eden is an unforgettable novel impelled by the poetry and power of a voice that is complex, lyrical and utterly true.” –The Portland Skanner
“Vernon’s use of symbolism is so well done that the reader must pause to consider it. Her characters are at once familiar and unique. . . . There is much wisdom in this novel.” –Brenda Morey, The Long Island Press
“A gripping first novel. . . . Vernon’s visceral prose commingles dirt, blood and other human stains to convey a haunting, and often erotic, sense of the blues as lived.” –Bill Friskics-Warren, Nashville Scene
“Powerful and raw. . . . Vernon’s language is totally uninhibited . . .. . . . At times Vernon writes as if she were reinventing the language. . . . She blends real with the surreal and merges the mythical and the supernatural as do Garc”a M”rquez, Alejo Carpentier, and Toni Morrison.” –Diana Anhalt, The Texas Observer
“A powerful coming of age tale. It is an extraordinary novel, one that offers magnificent artistry in addition to the unveiling of Olympia Vernon as a gifted new writer. Eden is a reason to celebrate and is one of the highlights of my reading year.” –Thumper, aalbc.com
“Exemplary. . . . Be prepared for a magical, enthralling, and lyrical foray through a forest of well-chosen, purposeful words. . . . Eden proves to be enlightening, engaging, and awesome in its economy, its utter beauty, its truth. . . . There is no question that Vernon is poised to share shelf space and a place in history with the blessed few classic literary greats.” –Tonya Marie Evans, QBR
“An angry, viscerally felt debut tale. . . . Vernon’s prose is colloquial and fleshed with figurative leaps, the brutality of her images alternately fascinating and repellant. . . . An eloquent, if bizarrely childlike, and unflinching coming-of-ager that bears mountains of grief, passion, and guilt.” –Kirkus Reviews
“With raw power and insight. . . . Vernon’s idiosyncratic prose style . . . and Maddy’s stark, often surreal perception of the world. . . . makes [Eden] stand out.” –Publishers Weekly
“As emotionally powerful as it is poetic, Vernon’s raw and fierce first novel possesses a beautiful, albeit brutal, lyricism and introduces a strong new Southern voice. Highly recommended.” –Library Journal
‘vernon’s writing is lyrical and emotionally powerful as she captures the tensions between the races and sexes in a small community of blacks eking out whatever living and dignity they can manage.” –Vanessa Bush, Booklist
“Olympia Vernon’s fiction is suffused with a profound poetry that is both uniquely placed and unforgettable. Her writing grows out of an insurgent magical-realist tradition, represented by Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, but also by Gabriel Garc”a M”rquez. Her characters come fully clothed in an angry and articulate poetry that only the greatest sensibilities have so far managed. In Olympia’s world the archetypal Afro-Americans of her predecessors meet the unfolding mysteries of Latin America. I believe that this young writer is joining that august company with stunning authority. Her fiction raises the already high bar of American fiction to a new level. I feel privileged to witness the coming onstage of such a talent.” –Andrei Codrescu
“Eden is that rare first novel incorporating raw energy as well as compelling characters and lovely prose. With erotic and spiritual vitality this novel’s narrative unfurls.” –Darcey Steinke
“Olympia Vernon writes of a rural, Southern town where women live so close to the land and so bold in their hearts that they share the pain, passion and occasionally, the peace, of all the nature that surrounds them. This is a world alive with rainstorms, green lizards, magnolia trees and love, in all it’s seasons. Eden marks the debut of a singular young writer.” –Veronica Chambers, author of Mama’s Girl
Winner of the 2004 American Academy of Arts and Letters Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award
Selected as a Best Book of 2003 for Southern reading by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
One Sunday morning, during Bible study, I took a tube of Aunt Pip’s fire-engine-red lipstick and drew a naked lady over the first page of Genesis. Her chest was as flat as a man’s, her face blank and clear. The language was loose around me, as I remember the sound of Mama’s voice and the question that came along with it, the one that counted: ‘don’t you know that blood and milk is the same?” She shook me between her words. “They can’t sit out long before the world get wind o’ “em and the next thing you know they caught in the tubes and the devil come out and you end up titty sick; “cause he be red, red like this here mess you done made.”
The clouds were dark. I sensed that it would, indeed, rain because of the birthmark on Mama’s forehead. It was a long, winding, tornado-shaped birthmark below her widow’s peak. It was a red stirring of her soul. She always pulled it back before the storm to witness its color change in the mirror.
“I keep at you, Maddy,” said Mama as she pulled a bucket of collard greens between her legs and took a small batch of them between her thick, round fingers. “Ain’t nothing going to waste now. It’s all a part of itself.”
She worked the garden behind our house barefoot. I walked behind her sometimes to measure the weight of my bones in her footprints: the imperfect arch, the heel curved into the marrow of an athlete’s laughter–where the side of his face is flat at the jawbone like an old habit, wide, invisible. Every now and then, she’d laugh and hold her chest and tell me that my hips were as clear as Jesus’.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
Grandma passed away years earlier. Sometimes a gust of wind drifted through the screen door and I could smell her wrinkled, pale body when she had taken off her panties to draw a bath. And the green lizard in her hands that she’d kept in a mason jar for hours at a time because it was the closest thing to the earth and the people in it.
The house was warm. I once heard that whatever god a person believed in, that god would look just like him. But something was wrong with the gods in my house. None of them looked like me. They were blue-eyed and dirty-blond. Upright, narrow-jawed. Those same gods I saw during communion where there was no wine or cracker if I didn’t first praise Him and believe that He gave me life. I did until I went to take Miss Hattie Mae, the neighbor, a bowl of sugar for her potato pone. There I saw, for the first time, a black God.
Miss Hattie Mae, a widow who never let anyone inside her house, walked forward with the bones in her hands covered by a thin layer of ointment. “It’s the arthritis,” she said. “Put the sugar on the kitchen table.” I saw Him there behind her, His arms on the cross, His orange eyes. Miss Hattie Mae was a thin, cautious woman with the scent of bananas trailing a pattern throughout her house. “Go on,” she said as the fumes of the ointment made my eyes watery. “Go.”
Mama wiped the sweat from her forehead with a table napkin. It was white with blue horizontal lines going through it. She walked over to the kitchen sink and paused. All that flesh to haul around weighed down on her. She hated being a big woman, being out of breath all the time with that loose fat draining all of her energy. ‘reckon your Daddy be home soon?”
“Yes, ma”am,” I said. “He’s been out since Thursday.”
Now it was Saturday. He had gone to Morgan City, Louisiana, to slaughter a hog that he’d fattened. Everyone in town knew that it didn’t take three days to kill no hog. He lied. He told Mama that it took so long because he and the boys had to bless the meat.
“I’m wishing we had the killing,” said Mama. “It’ll go right nice with these here collards.”
She had traded her life for him. I had seen her in pictures at sixteen before the fatness of her body swallowed her. One arm wrapped around Daddy’s throat from behind, the laughter on her face as light and delicate as lint on a child’s clothes. Because her belly was flat then and there were no babies to swell her. Because she loved him the way he was and had taught him the vocabulary of the liquor labels, the clear from the dark. She had fallen in love with an illiterate man, her fingers now mocking the shapes of caterpillars from hard work, a maid’s work. Because she knew that there would be times when she’d drop him off at Mr. Sandifer’s, his boss at the scrap yard, and his feet would never touch the ground.
“I smell Grandma,” I said.
Again she paused, looking out at the empty hog pen, remembering the night that Grandma chopped off Daddy’s arm with the ax because he smelled like thievery. Thievery to Grandma was anything less than Mama and nothing greater. The blood stayed in the house for three days. She made him step over it every morning on his way to work. It seemed like forever before the smell of blood and maggots cleared the air.
“I smell her too,” she said.
There fell a moment of silence between us.
Mama looked at her hands and moaned. She was made of a glass vase. Her throat was sharp and fragile, her lips clear, smooth. She picked up a porcelain paragraph filled with the words of Jesus. Grandma always said that an object in a woman’s hands was the way she chose to lose a headache. She said this, that women who did not use their words caught a headache of the mind and spirit. If a woman was too weak to use her voice, her vocabulary got trapped in her temples and formed a blood clot. And with this came the disaster of silence.
She was thinking of Aunt Pip now, the evening the church folk came by for a cold drink of lemonade and a helping of potato pone, the moment she noticed that Daddy and Aunt Pip were missing and found an empty bottle of whiskey on the kitchen table. She was a woman with a need for moving things in her life. My father was her balance. He was her baptism. Before long, she was turning away from the voices, the gravity of gossip in the front yard, only to find Daddy’s fingers going up the hole in Aunt Pip’s vagina. She said nothing. She knew the difference between a man wanting her and needing her. What could she have done? She was a maid for damn near every white man in Pyke County. And men loved Aunt Pip. She knew how to walk with her shoulders up. She was a thin woman, useful. Mama thought of many things: the time she caught Daddy at the pool hall with that Jefferson girl, when she broke his collarbone in two places and no doctor would fix it because of his reputation, Jesus. She did nothing. Just stood there in the backyard for hours holding the tube of fire-engine-red lipstick that Aunt Pip had left behind, crying silently.
Eventually, she spoke. Daddy had been at a cockfight all evening. And for some reason, he forgot that Mama was a woman who didn’t forget things. He thought her words would stay pinned up in her head. But I knew that she didn’t forget things: iron the sheets, stretch the towels out on the line, stop by the post office, remember the numbers. Lord, have mercy. Don’t ever forget the numbers. Never get a white man’s mail mixed up with a Negro’s. No man’s numbers were ever the same. His numbers were his life. And do those white man’s favors and remember to use that weariness against your sister. Remember to curse her out for sleeping with your husband. And don’t ever listen. Curse until your lungs close in on you and shut you down.
I could still hear the words, the cursing Mama put on Aunt Pip. She didn’t know words like that. Not Mama. She was a quiet woman, useful to the world. She didn’t curse. I told myself a lot of things. A lot of wrong, but rational things to keep from killing them like the dead bird that I’d found in the road: the eyes covered by a white film, the dark pupil underneath, circular. On that particular day, the day Mama chose to use her voice, I brought the dead bird home and threw it against my bedroom mirror until the eyes closed and it knew nothing else of the world. It did not stop the sound of the voices; my grandma held her chest and stretched her arms out to Mama and Aunt Pip, ordering them to stop hollering inside her house. The sound of the screen door slamming and the flies buzzed over a piece of sliced watermelon on the front porch. Grandma clenched her blouse and mumbled, “Y”all gone kill me.” A couple of days later, Aunt Pip sent me in the house to get Grandma. But I told her that she was too sick to get up. In her place, she had given me a green garden lizard to put inside Aunt Pip’s hands, saying: “This is my home. I left my heart here.”
Yeah, it was a man who had separated Mama and Aunt Pip. Daddy had met them both at the pool hall. He was a young, well-built man with an odor on him. I’d heard men from Morgan City ask him about his fingers, if the smell of pussy was still on them. They said that he’d push his fingers so far up a woman’s stomach that he pulled the cord out. And when she went to pee, blood came from her. He had used his fingers to embarrass. This gave him power.
“The rain’ll be here the reckon,” said Mama. “Get the clothes off the line.”
The spring air floated upward. My fingers were wrinkled from the bucket of water, the collard greens. I missed the hog. I liked having something active around. The night before Daddy took the hog to Morgan City, I walked over to the gate and opened it. The hog licked her fur in the corner of the pen. She was afraid of me that night. Something kept her there. I opened the gate to free her. She didn’t move. “The men will kill you,” I said. “They will eat you and take your fur.” I hadn’t used my fingers enough to touch her. I was human. She didn’t trust human hands. Humans killed. They killed and ate what they killed. She felt that as I stared into her eyes and found myself there dying to find the part of me that belonged, that wasn’t green and afraid. I saw love in her eyes. She knew how to love. A hog who ate and loved what loved her. I slowly walked backward to find her so afraid of freedom that when the gate was completely open, she found herself cradled inside the sharpest corner of the pen, licking her private parts.
Grandma had walked clean out the back door with Daddy’s arm in her hand. I remember the commotion, the loud voices, Daddy telling Grandma to shut her old ass up. Phrases, secrets that went right over my head. Mama crying for Grandma to stop before her heart stopped working. “I chop my own wood,” said Grandma. “I’ve always chopped my own wood!” She was a strong woman. She hated the weak. “It’s all right if you can’t see my heart from the inside,” she said. ‘my child is my business. It’s her heart they stare at when you can’t pay the bills.” She called on God. “Her heart is on the outside now. You took her pride. It’s not even her pain no more. Now she belong to the world.” She yelled those words over and over again as if she’d rehearsed them. Daddy said something. Next thing I know, Daddy’s screaming and there’s a pool of blood on the floor.
Everything was so blurry. Mama hanging over Daddy’s chest and pushing me against the walls. Her saying that Daddy’s life was missing. Grandma took his life. The backyard covered in a blanket of blue. The eye sees most when it’s not looking, as I witnessed the shape of my grandma’s crawling hair marching out to the hog pen with Daddy’s arm in her hand. She didn’t just turn around. She stayed there awhile with Daddy’s arm in one hand and an ax in the other. Daddy’s arm: the radius of a complete body, the portion of a man that every man needed, his trouble, a six-sided dice throw against the wall, an acoustic guitar’s whine, half his life. Grandma dumped it into the trough. I was sure of it. That’s why my daddy hated that hog so much. After that night, he fed it anything he could get his hands on. That hog had eaten his arm, his manhood, his work. Yeah, he fattened that hog up real nice before he drove all the way to Morgan City to kill it, because it had lived too close to his memory, so close to his house to have owned his house, owned him.
I gathered a load of sheets in my arms before going back into the house.
“Are they sour?” Mama asked.
I smelled them. “No, ma”am.”
The rain came pouring down. I went to my room to listen to it, to become a part of my God, to leave behind the quiet silence between a mother and child who didn’t know how to talk to each other, how to fully communicate about the dead, the cheating, the alcoholic father, the whispers in town about a sinful child with no respect for God’s house, His rules.
I always had my encyclopedias. I hated history. If it hadn’t been for that one subject, I would have been an honor student. I read everything. Paid more attention to Negroes than they had to themselves. I knew why that hog didn’t come to me too. I read things about those white scientists and how people, animals, were conditioned to a sort of “used to’ type of living. That hog was so used to being locked up that she didn’t know how to move or break the rules. She lay there like that because she was used to being confined, eating slop. I mean she was so used to eating slop that my daddy’s arm went right down her throat, fingers and all.
“I got a telegram today,” said Mama. I folded my arms and leaned my head to one side as her shadow grew larger over the edge of my bed. Finally, she sat down. The pot on the stove was boiling over, full. “Pip’s sick.”
I heard that line over and over again in my head. That “Pip’s sick” and there was something she wanted me to do about it, something I, a fourteen-year-old child, was supposed to do about it.
“Pack your things,” she said. “You going to Commitment.”
There was a nerve of electricity in her mouth, a tiny movement of activity riding the side of her jawbone as if a parasite had gotten trapped inside.
“What kind of sick?” I asked.
She went for the door again. Her shadow halted. She had not seen Aunt Pip since Grandma’s funeral. Even then, they did not say one word to each other.
“Graveyard sick,” she said.
Later that evening, we drove to the outskirts of Pyke County. Aunt Pip lived on Commitment Road with one other lady who didn’t belong to any church for miles around. And she used her social security check to pay her bills. She, like Miss Hattie Mae, was a widow.
‘maddy,” said Mama, pulling her Goodwill hat over to one side and giving me the eye in the rearview mirror. ‘make sure that if you and Pip leave the house, you put on some underclothes. Never know what could happen these days.”
There were tiny holes in the floor panel. When she drove, the dirt road underneath my feet reminded me of time and its passing. After Grandma died, the folks at the funeral home sent word that Mama needed to bring her some more comfortable shoes to be buried in. Only the oldest child was allowed to see the dead. Nobody else. The telegram said that Grandma’s feet were swollen. I sat in that very seat, drawing the letters of my name on the windows, looking down at Grandma’s shoes, hoping that she’d come alive in them. It was muddy that day. The sky didn’t have a color in it.
Two church members followed closely behind us in the rearview mirror. A woman in a white hat threw her hands up. Every so often, her husband, in his brown suit, would take one hand off the wheel and bring it to his forehead. The wife was holding a Bible up now. They were like Adam and Eve discussing sin. Whose voice mattered most I did not know. The husband, his face microscopic, lit a cigar.
The road was wet as leaves of thick, fat pine trees grazed the windshield. Mama slowed down, complaining about the car’s hanging muffler. “Lawd,” she said, “the only good your daddy give me was a nine-month-old seed.”
“Even that doesn’t count,” I said.
She didn’t understand me. We didn’t understand each other. “What?” she said.
“Women hold babies for almost a year,” I said. “And when it comes out, they have to start all over again.” My nose itched. “That’s not fair.”
“Well,” said Mama, ‘some babies come out early. You was so small I thought the flies would eat you alive.”
“But Ma,” I said, “almost a year?”
“That’s the way God made us, Maddy.”
“I’m actually fifteen,” I said. “A year older than I’m supposed to be.”
“You lose something with age,” she said, slowing down to escape a large hole in the road. She didn’t know anything else. She knew only what she lost. ‘don’t ask for more than you need if you can help it.”
She watched as the cows hovered over blocks of salt in the pasture, the glass vase in her throat vibrating. “No other part will ever matter as much as the outside part,” she said. The electricity was in her hands now; she nursed it and rubbed it inside her hands like a dead bird with dead eyes. “What’s going on?” she said.
One of Pillar’s cows blocked the road. She blew the horn, but the cow didn’t move. A big, grown cow with one of Pillar’s tags clamped on her. Something so slow and patient belonged to a troubled man. A backslider like Pillar.
‘ma,” I said, “roll your window down.”
‘so I can touch her,” I said.
“Are you out o’ your mind, Maddy?” Mama turned around and pulled my hair down. “Grease this stuff up real good before you go to bed. And don’t forget to take the rubber bands out. They’ll give you a headache something wicked.”
‘she won’t hurt me,” I said.
The sound of my voice irritated her. I embarrassed her in front of the church. Everybody knew that her sister had slept with her husband. They knew who the fire-engine-red lipstick belonged to. “The devil sent you,” said one of the ushers. I’ll never forget the feeling of her hands on my wrists; it was like a single leaded bullet trapped beneath the wings of a dead bird, mechanical.
“Cows hate red,” said Mama. “You know that.”
“But I’m not wearing red, Ma.”
She pretended not to notice me. She was a Christian woman. The devil tried her. He wanted her to mess up that good religion of hers and come to him. He wanted her but sent for Aunt Pip.
“I wonder if Mr. Clyde knows that one o’ his cows is out,” Mama said. “I wouldn’t want nobody to have no accident out here. Something that big could kill.”
The cow didn’t budge. A gnat flew around her ass, followed by other gnats that clung to the brown patches of her skin; her nipples sagged. “Come on now,” said Mama as she pressed down on the horn. Mama grew distant. She didn’t have to tell me. Aunt Pip’s milk had turned sour. A lump was growing inside of her, a lump the size of a headache.
I had seen it in the encyclopedias that Mama had bought for me, how the milk was born to the mammal of a woman, running up through the tubes of her stomach, ending up in her breasts, forming a clot. The encyclopedias had been my language, the language that I spoke of only inside my head.
“Lawd, have mercy,” said Mama, putting pressure on the horn.
The husband and wife were somewhere on the connecting roads now, talking about the naked lady, how well the fur between her legs was drawn but that her breasts were missing. I wasn’t a normal fourteen-year-old. Something was wrong with me, let them tell it. A woman with no breasts? The sound of the wife and husband’s motor went ricocheting through the trees, spreading gossip from house to house like a line of smoke from a sinner’s pipe.
We turned down the road to Aunt Pip’s place. The widow across the way had every light on in her house, it seemed. The shingles were lapped, one on top of the other, like sleeping men of old age. It was rare that a house had so much light on a rainy day. Negroes mostly found a safe spot, a bedroom, and went to sleep until the storm was over. But not her. As we passed her house, I turned my head and watched the curtains slowly open; her large index finger emerged.
“Behave yourself,” said Mama. “I don’t want nobody telling me you didn’t mind.”
She dropped me off in front of Aunt Pip’s place and told me to go inside. “Take care,” she said as she drove down the road with the fat of her arm hanging from the driver’s side.
I was at the house where the dying lived. There was a sort of cold gray energy around me. The slow wind at my shoulders was loose, tiring.
The door opened. Aunt Pip stepped on the front porch, her face tender and dry around the edges. The bones in her neck were sharp, visible. A fragile woman with the skeletal framework of her body moving forward as if the metamorphosis of the hour kept her lungs weak and without breath.
“You just gone stand there, Maddy?” she asked. “Come on in.”
She was the beginning.
‘mama would’ve come in,” I said, stepping inside the house, “but she had a pot of greens on the stove.”
The room was intimate, rectangular. Everything seemed motionless: the mute pattern of a record player, the dust of paragraphs written on solid objects, a porcelain doll with her mouth open. Inanimate things that fit inside the tiny room because a woman needed something to talk to. She had positioned them in an order of speech, as if this were her room of solitude where her voice could match perfectly the placing of paragraphs and record players and dolls.
A strong odor of VapoRub came through. The couch where Big Mama had died after getting her legs amputated was still there. Big Mama was an independent woman. She couldn’t deal with her legs being gone and having people around the place pushing her around and sniffing her panties to see if she had peed on herself. A woman who, like her daughter, was used to chopping her own wood and stacking it against the side of the house. That’s what happened to her. Having to be dependent on mankind killed her.
The house was warm. The dark clouds were fading behind the magnolias. The earth had become pregnant with silence, a few birds flying through the trees, the occasional barking of a dog in the distance. There was a fireplace in the middle of the rectangular room. Ashes had mounted up inside it. It was the first sign of loneliness, detachment. I looked around at the photos. One in particular: a black-and-white photograph of two small children. The bright hue of the cotton field smothered the light in their eyes. A coldness that I couldn’t pinpoint.
“Turnips or collards?” asked Aunt Pip; her voice sounded distant, battered.
“What grade of greens? Turnips or collards?”
We had been close once; she had given me the drag of my first cigarette, taught me things about my period and boys. And how to tell the difference between shit and diarrhea when it came to a man. ‘shit,” she’d say, “is what they get stuck into, but diarrhea is when one lie turns into another one and they all become one great big lie. Trust me, child. All men lie. In one way or another, they all do.”
“One minute,” said Aunt Pip.
The bed next to the fireplace was covered in ants. I killed them with my fingers and waited for Aunt Pip to emerge from the connecting room. Big Mama’s curtains were still there. The rods were not made of aluminum or iron. They’d been made from the twigs of a magnolia. Big Mama loved magnolias. Once the flowers wilted, she took them inside the house and stripped the branches bare. She would show me the curves. “This is a woman’s body,” she’d say. “I’m putting her clothes on. She will live here with me until I’m gone. She will never leave me.” I felt her spirit in the house as I ran my fingers across the dead ants. I don’t know why I killed them. One by one, I put them in the windowsill, aligning them as if they were crushed powder or bone.
I ran my fingers over the shape of Aunt Pip’s body; a pattern was deeply molded into the bedspread. The long arms. The covey hole from the weight of her elbow. A small, distinct hole that showed clearly where her pain sank down into her elbows at night. Beside the bed sat a Styrofoam bust of a lady’s head and shoulders covered with a pink scarf. Rainwater came down on it; the roof had a hole in it.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said.
I was growing older. At fourteen, I had never kissed a boy or let him stroke my pubic hair. I had seen a penis only when I walked in on my daddy using the john. I knew very little about myself. I knew little because there were things I was not supposed to do as a Negro child, questions I was not supposed to ask. I knew one thing and wore it alone. I knew to act Negro when other Negroes were around, not to talk about the bones I studied in the encyclopedia, the different species of animals, the words that Negroes in Pyke County never used. I was not to know why my ideas, my thoughts, my body were often too much for me. Or why I came home from school one day with a dead bird inside my hands, why I killed it to save it.
“Come see,” said Aunt Pip.
The rectangular room was blocked off by a thin paisley-printed sheet. It bore an odor that was strange, haunting.
“Do you reckon it’s on wrong?” asked Aunt Pip.
Aunt Pip stood before me with her gown pulled down to her waist, her bra exposed. I looked first at her face, the light eyebrows, the chiseled nose above her lips, how the yellow eyes turned away, focusing on a distant thing with no name. Down toward the neck, the throat, the aisle of bones in the middle of her chest. And there it was, a scar where her left breast used to be, running across her skin in the shape of a glass-trapped lizard, quiet, disturbed.
She walked over to the king-size bed and sat down. It angered me that she didn’t have the energy to do it herself. She wasn’t this way. What happened to her strength? Where were her lovers? Where was Mama? They all sent me: Mama, the town, my father, Jesus.
“I’ll help you,” I said.
My hands trembled. I was afraid of the disease, the cancer. The heat from her body was warm. Willie Patterson, a boy whose parents died because his mama was breast-feeding him while driving, was called retarded by the boys at school. And what of Aunt Pip? If the boys had seen her now, she’d be another retarded Willie. Retarded. A word I never looked up in the dictionary because it was worse than being called a nigger. A word with its own dysfunction, an ugly, bare-faced word that went straight from a child’s mouth and into the cruel, nasty world that gave birth to it.
‘don’t be ashamed,” said Aunt Pip. “We got the same things.”
I wanted to hate her for asking me to come around from the backside, to witness her body from the front where the lizard on her chest lay motionless; it was her life. Not mine.
What happened to a woman with half her life? Where did it go? What did the doctors do with the breast after they took it away? Men talked about women with only one breast. One wasn’t enough. Women needed two breasts. Because men needed flesh.
“Touch it,” she said.
“No,” I said, “I can’t.”
“Here,” she said, with my hand in hers.
I touched where her left breast used to be, where the lizard lay half asleep, his stomach flat across the flesh, his tail frozen. And the other breast–the full one–as it sagged in the mirror; it was the head of a swan. It was warm like the blue-eyed Christ.
It was God.
“It’s needed, child,” she said. “You can’t ignore change if it’s teething.”
Daddy took a chance with her because she was brave. Courage didn’t live in Pyke County, Mississippi, if you were a woman. You got it the best way you knew how. Aunt Pip didn’t take lessons. She hustled. She hustled so much that she could afford to let her sister’s old man put his fingers up her vagina. The women in Pyke County didn’t use their eyes. Like Mama, they used their hearts. Daddy was hip to that. Men gossiped about it. They killed other men for stealing their lady’s eyes. Daddy was a drunk who grew tired of Mama and her God. The late nights bothered him. The times when he begged Mama to get off her knees and come to bed, make love to him for the man he was. Not the man he was not.
“This ain’t misery, Maddy,” Aunt Pip said. “We’ve got till Sunday and every other weekend until school is out. You have to do this. You have to because you want to. Otherwise, you’re no good for me. I need somebody to be good for me.”
She coughed from her lungs, holding on to me. Her bones were so light that I could have picked her up and carried her anywhere in the house she wanted to go. “It’s the machines,” she said. “Them doctors put my titty in the system.”
Her bones were unencyclopedic. Yeah, I had seen the pictures of mammals and milk going up through the stomach. But nowhere had man put into image what happened to a woman’s body after the milk in her breasts had spoiled.
This is the way that it was in the beginning. Aunt Pip had gotten caught in the tubes of my grandmother’s stomach, and a midwife had to run and pull her out. And when she came to be, she was given to my great-grandmother to raise. Big Mama had been raped by a white man in the cornfields of Pyke County, Mississippi. She had known what it was to lift a baby’s shoulders because her own had been lifted. She was given the duty of lifting Aunt Pip’s shoulders because she knew that her daughter didn’t have it in her to sleep with a lost baby, the smell of near death on her, reminding her of how close they had both come to dying, mortality.
Aunt Pip’s scalp was naked. The veins sprouted into a small muscle underneath her scalp, as if someone had traced a route to California on there with the sharp lead of a no. 2 pencil. The world was a cruel place to be at death, especially when the town of your birth had condemned you into the shape of a harlot, unworthy of the hand of God to release you from the thing that diseased you.
“It’s handling me, Maddy,” she said with her head over the toilet, tears flowing. A thin line of saliva hung from the porcelain to her mouth. “Lawd, help me.”
Her body was fragile. The bones felt like powder. To touch them was to bruise them. A tear formed on my inner eyelid. The water came up from the pit of my stomach through the cartilage of my entire body. And were it to slip from my eye and join hers, it would have caused her own to fill even more so with tears.
She vomited a stream of liquid. The saliva around her mouth was as I had seen in cattle, the mouth wide open to a position of uncertainty, the tongue coated white like the body of grease on a newborn baby.
A dog barked in the distance. The sound of its vocal cords was sharp, as if something had hit her. The bark turned into a cry that floated across the earth and landed on the surface of a distant thing.
Up high, the magnolia tree stood away from the window. The petals of alabaster flowers were beginning to sprout. The coming heat had rotted them into a limp brown state like the upper torso of an old woman reaching down to retrieve her husband’s house slippers.
Aunt Pip wiped her mouth. “Jesus,” she said.
When her hand landed on the porcelain, she noticed the veins of her wrists spreading up to her palm like a baywood tree. This is when the curiosity of her anatomy caused her to forget, in a childlike way, the existence of her crying. Her face was drawn downward, her mouth open.
“Look,” she said. “I have a ditch in my bones.”
At which point I felt the two tiny vertical bones of powder. They were underneath the baywood tree. She took my index finger and hard-pressed them. I ran it southward until I could no longer feel them. They had invisibly found themselves in a motion of blood and muscle going up to her elbow.
“No,” she said, “this here.” Between the powdered bones was a gap wide enough for a fingernail to run through it. I held her wrist in my hand and satisfied her.
“Yeah,” I said, “I feel it.”
I wanted to tell her the truth, not that I’d felt a ditch in her bones but what Daddy had told me when I was just nine years old. Nine was important. Three multiplied times three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Daddy gave me what he called “the reason why titties got so sick.” He said that when he used to milk cattle, sometimes the mama cows would get so loud and heavy that you’d have thought the devil got clean inside of them. He said he’d go to squeezing their titties and they’d go to kicking and screaming until a hard lump came out of them. It was leftover milk that the calves didn’t drink. It was wasted, spoiled and sour. It had hardened inside their titties and created a grown, painful lump of cancer.
An unexpected wind came through the bathroom window, causing one of the medicine bottles to fall from the exposed shelf. It rolled toward Aunt Pip’s feet, across the wooden floor, rocking back and forth. She listened to the roaring of the pills inside a closed space. Her skin was dark from the therapy, the doctors being rough with her.
She touched her bald head and sighed, turning away from the settling pills. ‘my hair is gone,” she said. “The doctors. They took my lady.” She grabbed my clothes. “Is my hair gone, Maddy?” Her face fell downward toward the vomit that had coated the water like the yellow reflection of pee from a bladder. “Where my hair?”
Her insanity somehow pleased her. It belonged to her. As empty and burrowed as she had become, this was the only thing she was sure of, that she had a right to lose her mind because dementia was as certain as death.
‘somewhere naked,” I said. “It’ll grow again in another time.”
She took these words and repeated them, looking back at the medicine bottle, at her reflection. “In my dreams,” she said, “I sit between Jesus” legs, and he plait me into two.”
I smiled, watching her hands leave her scalp. She took one finger and poked the vomit that lay restless on the spine of the toilet water. Her reflection rippled from the inside to the controlled edges of the porcelain. “Yeah,” she said. “I get it back in another life.”
I learned to fill her glass with hot water, as it caused the pain pills to dissolve quicker. When she went to undress herself, the other breast was still tattooed with circles where the doctors in Jackson had experimented on her. She said they put round Band-Aids there. They were connected to wires, thin wires that were hooked up to a machine.
She lay on the bed next to the open door, purring through the walls of the house like a baby after a nipple slips out of its mouth. She lay fetally positioned, her toes curled beneath her. The muscles in her legs carried a perfect arch, the calves hardening at her discomfort. I went to drape a wool blanket over her. “No,” she said. “Leave me be.”
At that moment, her eyes were fixed on the dead-end wall. She had covered her head with a pink scarf. She had not yet become used to lying on pillows with a naked scalp.
“Okay,” I said.
What had the doctors done to her strength? It was as brutal as Samson to trust the thing that stole his power. I felt this way. Some part of her had trusted the doctors. One breast was gone without any experiments at all. The other she relied on hope, that God would put the miracle of His faith in a lighted machine, operable by a trained hand of medicine, that would free her from death.
I was sitting on the porch when midnight came down. The widow appeared through the darkness, holding a lantern and something else that I could not see. Her feet were heavy on the earth. Her body made its own noise, as if she was sure of the purpose of her steps, the way the moon hung over the magnolias. She went to the mailbox and put the thing in her hand inside and walked away.
“Appreciate it,” I yelled.
My voice carried, but even this did not stop her, the lantern in her hand leading her back to the house where I’d first seen her finger emerge from the curtains. I brought the package inside: three tubes of fire-engine-red lipstick with a note that read: ‘stay alive to enjoy this.”
Excerpted from Eden
©2002 by Olympia Vernon. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Eden is a fearless and wildly original debut, a powerhouse of a novel that explodes on the first page and sustains a tightrope intensity until the last. When fourteen-year-old Maddy Dangerfield draws a naked woman on the pages of Genesis in fire-engine-red lipstick during Sunday school, the rural black community of Pyke County, Mississippi, is scandalized. Her mother, mortified by the small-town gossip and determined to teach Maddy the perils of her youthful intelligence, forces her from then on to spend weekends caring for her estranged Aunt Pip, an outcast who lives on the wrong side of town and is dying of cancer. The lessons Maddy learns are ones that could not be taught in any church.
Shuttling between the home she shares with her parents–endlessly locked in a cycle of resentment, violence, and only sporadic tenderness–and the house of tough, strong-minded Aunt Pip out on Commitment Road, Maddy feels her eyes gradually opening to the complicated dynamics that inform her world.
As the once self-possessed, fiery Pip wastes away in body and spirit, Maddy is forced to confront the brutal finality of death and to contend with the ghosts that hover over Pyke County–the violated body of Laurel Pillar, a young white girl raped in the field years before; Uncle Sugar, the black man said to have Laurel’s blood on his hands, in prison for life; Justice Bates, Sugar’s alleged accomplice, his broken body strung up and hanging from a tree; and the community of dead and dying women who have been ravaged by disease, in whom Maddy finds a terrible sort of comfort.
1) In Eden, Vernon introduces Maddy, a singularly inspired narrator who relates her whole universe with an earthy sensuality. Over the course of the novel, Maddy matures from a girl, unseeing and naive to the ways of the adult world, into a person with an understanding of good and evil, of womanhood and race, born through deep impressions of the adults she sees around her. These adults are people she has always known, but they take on new roles as life models. What about these people has changed them in Maddy’s eyes, from shadowy adults to be respected and obeyed, into frail human beings? What are the signal events that forge her new consciousness?
2) Maddy learns particularly from the women around her, both seeing and foreseeing herself in Mama, Aunt Pip and Fat. How does each of these women contribute to Maddy’s vision of how her life will be or how it should be?
3) Willie, retarded, orphaned, exploited, yet maintains a dignity and fortitude that impress Maddy. (One character who dares to be kind to Willie is Miss Birch, the school bus driver who sets an example of goodness in a bullying community.) Willie also plays a crucial role in the plot. What does he know and what happens to him as a result? Willie’s grandfather offers an antithesis to the villainous Jesus. It is the grandfather who seems to forgive the violence to his grandson; it is he who anoints Mama with oil in church and who blesses Pip at her end. What does Maddy notice at that moment? What is it that both Willie and his grandfather represent that might offer paths out of the anger and frustration of both black and white people? Is it more than “blessed are the meek?”
4) Aunt Pip’s breast cancer and slow demise are central to the theme and structure of Eden. Maddy, Fat, her mother and even memory-driven Daddy come and go to Pip’s house as she lies dying. Much of the action is internal, in memory as the lives of women are intertwined with each other and with the men around them. How does Vernon sustain the momentum of current and past events?
Time in the novel appears to be more cyclical than linear. Events and attitudes are destined to recur. Is Vernon, in her interplay of past and present, showing how inexorably we are linked to our histories? Magic realism, in art theory and literary tradition (Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, for example) fuses the concrete and the fantastic. It is not so much that Vernon goes back and forth between worlds of the normal and the mythical, even nightmarish, but that she insistently blends opposites. The rational is counter-posed with the dreamlike, as in the paintings of Magritte. It is a technique peculiarly suited to the mind of a child in transition, one who clings to observed reality even as she is faced by incomprehensible violence and injustice.
5) Echoes from other black women authors appear in Eden. Consider the mad dog in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison’s young protagonist The Bluest Eye. Ethel Waters, like burdened black women in this novel, consoled herself with the idea that God watches the least of us; she chose as her title His Eye Is On The Sparrow. Lorraine Hansberry in Raisin In The Sun has her Mama slapping her daughter and proclaiming, “In my house there is still God!” What is the import of these analogies to EDEN? What are the ways in which Vernon links herself to other narratives from black women? Further, how can we link her to a larger feminist context?
6) Perhaps the strongest tradition that informs the novel is the Biblical. Both Old Testament (especially Deuteronomy) and New (Jesus–always) prevail in these black people’s lives. They wear the Book thin reading it. They quote verses and sing hymns to sustain themselves. The character Jesus functions as an antichrist. How? And how does the church serve as a riveting setting for revealing character? Mama’s? Daddy’s? Others’?”Fat, widow of Justice Bates, is determined to chop down a fine old oak tree. Why? When Maddy offers to help, “a faint smile came over Fat’s face. “You can’t wash out a killing. . . . When you get grown, get saved ‘Cause the end come quick. And it ain’t a matter of time and clocks no more. You be dead” (p. 232).
What are the roles of religion in the novel? Is it folk remedy? Palliative? What seems to be Maddy’s attitude? Olympia Vernon’s as suggested in her characters?
7) It is the Koran that provides the epigraph for the novel. “Do you think you shall enter the garden of bliss without such trials as those who have passed before you?” Does the quotation give a key to the lives of the characters, especially Maddy’s? Is Vernon saying that the present must be forged in the past? If Islam means surrender to God, is Vernon also creating in her novel a new spirituality that embraces both Islam and Christianity, as well as a sense of the natural world?
8) What is the significance of the prevailing absorption with female anatomy? Are the stains and odors, on the surface repellant, also to be seen as brands of pride, endurance perhaps? Insistent links among all women? Perhaps like the blisters and bunions that testify to the hard labor Mama is proud of? As in Garcia-Marquez, the physicality of being human is unavoidably disgust with the body but also celebration.
9) One of the defining characteristics of all women, indeed all female animals, (including the dog in the woods in this book) is the breast. The breast is a force for nurturing and good, but it can also kill. Milk and breast cancer are consistently tied together.) But milk that sustains life can also sour and clot and, they believe, turn to corruption and mortal disease. How did you react as a reader to this central paradox?
10) Perhaps the most powerful development of disease as a symbol appears in the great scene of Revelation. Eden is the place where Pip wants to be taken when she dies. It is also to this center that Maddy is brought in an epiphany, a kind of Matisse dance with mothers and daughters and grandmothers stricken by breast cancer. How does the disease work as a symbol of not only destruction but also bonding?
11) A further part of the Revelation is Maddy’s finding, in the center of the forest. An open grave hole into which she climbs as lightning crashes. She also crawls into an open casket and closes the lid. Thus Maddy enters into death as she earlier imagined or experienced her own birth in a whirlwind. Are these hallucinations? After the apocalyptic forest scene, Maddy emerges naked, and re-enters Pip’s house. “My heart had begun to pound as I felt the women going back into the sky where their bodies turned to stars” (p.239). The mysticism blends with the concrete. Do you find this surreal imagery an effective device, particularly at this moment of awakening for Maddy? Can we sustain our disbelief in order to enter into this world of spiritual intensity?
12) Much of Vernon’s writing is charged with powerful, even bizarre imagery. Other times she writes with quiet sparseness. “The air began to penetrate the room. You cannot imagine the silence. Not even a barking dog with rabies to pierce the clouds, no tractors or white men in the green field beside us, the propellers of a faraway plane in the sky. Nothing. Just the rotation of an antique fan sending its wind upon the covers” (p. 243) . What other scenes of understated power do you recall? Consider, for instance, Maddy’s moment of truth as she learns that Landy has impediments in New Orleans, and he himself has drawn a line. “He picked up the chainsaw again, turning in the direction of a grown pine tree. The earth was silent. The crickets were no longer chirping. And Fat had slammed the door of her house long ago. I was alone in the world” (p. 135)?
It is a moment that conjures memories for anyone who has ever loved, or almost loved, and lost.” I could never have him. He looked at me that way. I had some growing up to do, long after being a witness to a sickness and passing history” (p.162).
13) Two creatures appear throughout the book: the hog and the dog in the woods. How are these animals important to both theme and plot? What are Maddy’s own reactions to each of them? The hog, doomed to its own death, is fed the remnant of Grandma’s grisly deed. The hog is also “conditioned to a sort of ‘used to’ type of living” (p. 10) like Negroes in Maddy’s observing and reading, (the reading that constitutes her secret life that as a black child she dare not share.) Another analogy is that of the condemned boy in Ernest Gaines’ Lesson Before Dying; he, too, is regarded as a hog by his white accusers until his humanity is redeemed. In this book, the hog, to Daddy, is the symbol of his mutilation, but to Maddy there is also love in its eyes. It is this same hog that exemplifies the bestiality of lynching in a memorable scene. The dog, also an object of Maddy’s pity, (miraculously eluding slaughter in the road) crawls to the woods to give birth and later howls its own battle with rabies. These animals both recur throughout the book. How is Vernon linking the human and animal worlds? Is she successful?
14) Is there hope of reconciliation or even understanding between the black and white worlds in the book? What are the major points of conflict on the day-to-day level as well as more dramatic crises? Is there a sense that Maddy’s world might be different? Is there an instance you can cite?
15) The opening image is a fire engine red naked lady drawn in lipstick on the opening page of Genesis. It is a challenge emblazoned by Maddy on the first page of her own story. It both brands her in the church and empowers her as her mother understands. (Is this defiant act why Maddy is sent to minister to Aunt Pip, the sinner sister Maddy’s mother cannot forgive?) Mama shake Maddy but is proud of her at the same time. This is her child who may have a voice in ways that she herself could not. Is this idea built upon in the rest of the novel?
16) Do women and men view sex differently in Eden? For instance, it is Mama’s duty, but the delight of Pip and Fat, laughing in their memories of wicked haydays in New Orleans, “where they had both laughed with men who did not deserve them.” Sex is how Daddy tries to redeem his manhood, and it is sex run amuck that drives the rapes. There are early stirrings in Mandy’s longings for Landy. How else does Vernon explore this topic?
17) A poor illiterate black man with bad gambling habits is what Daddy is. He was a man with “the low self esteem of a man with no insurance. . . . a man who didn’t own his own house.” But Maddy can see underlying causes for his catastrophes. “A black man didn’t have time to be gentle with his woman. He had enough stress already. Staying alive was stressful. Waking up with that black skin and that nappy black head that showed to the roots, those rough black hands that they couldn’t do nothing about, was enough stress to break him, no matter how much man he thought he was.” To what degree do you think Daddy and perhaps Sugar are handed their cards, their fates determined?
18) In what ways are blacks and whites different in the novel? How do these differences affect Maddy’s family? Her father who works for a white man who barely tolerates him? Her mother who cleans their houses? To Maddy, the whites are different. “They stood like white men…All the white men in town knew one another…. I wished my daddy could just sit around in his pride, debt-free, and shoot the breeze about something so trivial as miles to the gallon. White men had it easy. They worked just enough to call themselves men and went home and laid across their flat ironed sheets with their long legs propped up on the bed rail, chatting and kissing the cleanliness from their white wives” (p. 87).
How else do the whites demonstrate their self-declared superiority? What are the consequences of white attitudes and actions? Give examples. Is there any ultimate justice brought to bear on whites in the novel?
19) What is the significance of the title? Eden is where Pip wants to be taken when she dies. Eden is also a place where Eve is born from a man into a life often determined by men. Could the title be largely ironic? Does Maddy carve out her own meaning for it? At Pip’s death Maddy recognizes her own limits of comprehension. “It was far beyond me. I was still green. Green like the land of Eden where the flesh was confused, where green was so beautiful that nobody noticed it…our lives were limited and unbalanced in human understanding. Not knowing that there was no understanding in human language. Only greenness and death” (p. 261).
Does Vernon turn traditional meanings of the place Eden on end as she opens up its connotations?
20) What do you think Maddy thinks about her destiny –is she resigned to it, or does she embrace it? Does her attitude change over the course of the novel? Apart from her reading, Maddy finds her meaning on a continuum with the women around her. “How could I have counted every star in the sky that night, the unusually bright one, forming a circle between the others? Was it this way with women? One bright star upon another, each circulating in a pattern of dependence? The gathering of light, one holding the other, in an attitude of sickness, faithful to the earth around it…I was a child of opinion. Every thought created within me, from birth, was like this one bright star” (p. 140). Do you find other points in the novel when Maddy seems to have a strong sense of her own destiny?
21) At the heart of the novel is what the dead and dying have to teach us. Death, in yet another paradox, is both mourned and celebrated. “You must hold the dead in their last days. Look into their eyes and listen to their voices…They live in the spirit. They can no longer speak your language. Your words mean nothing to their bones. It is their spirit that listens” (p. 261). A further paradox for Maddy who values literacy and language is that spiritual truth seems to transcend such man-made constructs. Has Vernon, a writer after all, had it both ways in the book? How do you react as a reader to these essential contradictions?