Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Book Review: Life Among the Savages & Raising Demons

Most people know Shirley Jackson, if they know her at all, as the author of The Lottery. I first met her when I read the Reader's Digest Condensed version of these two books. I was ten or eleven and this was a family I could relate to: lots of books, especially mystery stories, and a household just this side of chaos. The only weird thing was the oldest son was named "Laurie" and all the Lauries I knew were girls. Shirley Jackson was the first author I knew of who wrote about ordinary family life, but in a way that made it seem funny and touching.

Imagine my surprise when I read The Lottery and discovered this writer of domestic vignettes wrote some pretty dark stuff! (We also read An Ordinary Day, With Peanuts, which is also very, very strange.)

Since then, I have read several of Ms. Jackson's short stories as well as We've Always Lived in the Castle.

I jumped at the chance to buy the un-Digested version of Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons when I saw it on the remainder table. I find I have a different appreciation for these books now that I am a mother myself. And I have a certain amount of nostalgia for that simpler time when kids came home from lunch and television was limited to three snowy channels.

Ms. Jackson rarely dates her stories, but working backwards from when her youngest son was born, Savages takes place in the mid-1940's and Demons takes place in the early to mid-'50's.
Still, some things are universal. There is never enough bookshelf space. Closets never stay organized and their doors never shut. Kids bring home other kids and pets. Appliances break at the most inconvenient moment. I am never as sophisticated as I want to be.

Savages and Demons, of course, only show the light-hearted side of family life. No mention is made of family conflicts, of past hurts between mother and daughter. Because it is the '40's and '50's, smoking and drinking are part of life. Ms. Jackson also used (and possibly abuses) amphetamines and sedatives--this, too, was not uncommon during the '50's and '60's, as amphetamines were often prescribed for weight control and sedatives (usually barbituates) were needed to bring one down. Think Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, President Kennedy.

But they are well worth the read, if only because they do celebrate family life: first day of school, learning to read, battles with balky appliances, unexpected guests--both animal and human--brought home by the children. And if you only know The Lottery, this serves as a reminder of the woman behind it.

On the March Hare scale: 4 bookmarks