A Time to Read
Good thing I took a book with me to Nicaragua, because I didn’t take my email password. The book is The Grass Is Singing, by the late British author Doris Lessing. I didn’t know what the password was, and that was a huge
What was I doing in Managua, Nicaragua? Dental work (for me; I’m not a dentist – never even believed in the tooth fairy). My last experience with the ivories was in March in Costa Rica, where I went for five implants. I am realizing my dad’s mantra when I was a kid, always getting into trouble: “You’ve got to learn the hard way.” I had the same email problem, along with several others, on the Costa Rican trip: The emails didn’t transfer, via flash drive, from the desktop to the laptop. You’d think I’d have remembered to get the thing corrected. But that would have made a liar out of my dad.
A friend of mine said he’d been visiting a highly touted dentist couple in Nicaragua for 10 years. The rate for crowns over implants was even cheaper there, so off I went. But access to this country is harder than to Costa Rica, and the COVID restrictions made it even more difficult, forcing a change in plane reservation that cost $324. (And returning, the test cost $150.)
So here I was, stuck in an isolated – though lushly vegetated, with dense tree growth everywhere – motel-like place with little to do. (It was inexpensive, with exceptionally accommodating personnel.) That’s where The Grass Is Singing comes in. Not only did it occupy much of my mucho spare time; it kept me riveted.
The title is enigmatic. Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 at age 88, borrowed it from a line in the epic T.S. Eliot poem The Waste Land. But one can infer, accurately or not, that it alludes to the endless, often losing, battles of white farmers in Southern Rhodesia in the mid-20th century, hoping to get rich, against uncompromising nature. It also speaks to these whites, led by Ian Smith, in their moral failure to treat the blacks whose land they marauded as humans. It was necessary to treat them as savages to justify their exploitation as field laborers, without whose cheap help the farm owners could not have succeeded.
Lessing, a Brit born in Iran who grew up from age six in southern Africa, was anything but an outsider passing judgment on a system from observation on a pedestal. She brought to her novels a personal understanding of a society in which grown men toiling in the fields under the hot sun were referred to as “the boys,” the servant as “the houseboy,” and were treated as animals to be controlled.
The book is somewhat like my own Blood on Their Hands in its portrayal of racial injustice. Until the 1960s, attitudes toward, and treatment of, blacks in America were not much different than what those in southern Africa endured under the English and Dutch settlers, and in many cases were worse. At least the British government had laws against physical mistreatment of blacks in servitude (pardon the redundancy), and, by Lessing’s account, apparently were enforced, unlike the milieu of permissive violence against blacks in the Deep South.
And that’s the only parallel I can draw between Lessing’s work and my own. I’m not so deluded as to pretend I duplicate in any way her poetic brilliance in descriptions of settings, which place the reader in the story, nor her deeply empathetic renderings of characters, especially Mary and Dick (hey, this book won the Pulitzer). Despite the paucity of violence, or even intrigue, the novel draws the reader ineluctably in, making himer* a participant by the sheer drama of human emotions.
Mary is a young, self-confident woman with a successful career as an executive assistant enjoying the urban life
One day, she overhears a group of them discussing her in less than flattering terms, sharing their inability to fathom her, one wondering why, at age 30 or so, she hasn’t married, and another answering that her husband opined she never would because, “She just isn’t like that … Something missing somewhere.”
The remark cuts Mary to the quick, and she begins to doubt herself. At a movie theater, she casually meets Dick Turner, a young farmer who rarely comes to town. He becomes enchanted with her, and makes an excuse to make another trip into town. They end up marrying, he to satisfy his wish for a wife and children, she to dispel the notion that she was “not like that.”
Soon she misses the carefree social life she had enjoyed in town, and friction between her and Dick creeps into their relationship. The house that Dick built has a corrugated tin roof that radiates extreme heat, and he refuses to spend money for a ceiling, preferring to invest in the farm. She becomes increasingly irritable, and begins to take it out on “the boy.” He leaves his employment, as do a succession of other black servants because of her incessant nagging.
Months turn into years, and Mary is becoming increasingly wan and thin, and irrational. But when Dick comes down with malaria, she goes over the books, and realizes that he has been mismanaging the farm, made worse by weather that has continually conspired against him. She ventures into the fields to oversee “the boys,” and behaves as a tyrant toward them, prompting several to leave. “Boys” is one of the humiliations foisted upon the country’s blacks, and the other is the N word, liberally used in casual, matter-of-fact dialogue.
The most recent “houseboy” is Moses, whom Dick values highly. He warns Mary to treat him decently so he won’t leave. But she loses control at one point, and lashes him across the face with a whip, drawing blood. He doesn’t leave, instead becoming increasingly solicitous of her deteriorating mental and physical condition, such that she begins to feel an encroachment of power by a member of the race she hates, and with it a mixture of fear and attraction that she fights, leaving her further disoriented and irrational.
Charles Slatter, the successful neighboring farmer who for years has plotted to take over Dick’s farm for use as cattle grazing, convinces him that, for the sake of him and Mary, who is suffering a breakdown, he should relinquish the farm and take her on a long vacation.
But at the last minute, their plans are thwarted.
Eureka! I’m now well into the immensely popular eat pray love, the New York Times best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, which was sitting on a shelf at my “motel.” The paperback is in decent condition, so I told the manager I’d pay for it, which I will, despite his objections. In Costa Rica seven months earlier, I purloined a ratty, hidden paperback of E.M. Forster’s classic novel A Room With A View. I’m doing penance.
*My personal, gender-free pronoun. Its relatives: hesh, a subjective pronoun for “he” or “she”; hiser, a possessive pronoun for “his” or “her”; hisers, an absolute pronoun for “his” or “hers.” Join me in adopting these to avoid use of the plural pronouns “they” and “their” or “theirs” when the gender of the singular antecedent is unknown. It’s okay; I don’t own a copyright.