KET
 KET
About KET | TV Schedules | Programs A-Z | Explore by Topic | Support KET  
Arts | Education | Health | Kentucky | Kids & Families | Public Affairs  
Search»
 
 

TV Schedule Book List News by e-Mail About bookclub@ket
Back to bookclub@ket bookclub@ket
December's Book
Clear Springs
by Bobbie Ann Mason

Bill:
A story of three generations—parents, grandparents, and the author herself—and a touching testimony to a lifetime of memories about growing up, leaving, and returning to Western Kentucky. Let’s visit author Bobbie Ann Mason in Clear Springs. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
The conventional wisdom in the literary tradition tells us a memoir is an accounting of something noteworthy. So in this memoir, does this live up to the definition of noteworthiness? We will begin the discussion with Ms. Brown.

Wilma:
[Laughs] Well, I think any life is noteworthy [laughs]. How is that?

Bill:
Good.

Wilma:
Is that good? I mean truly, it is. And one thing that interests me about almost any memoir is that sometimes I think that the author thinks that he or she has a unique story, and it always amazes me how much we are all alike.

Gabrielle:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
You know, the details are different, but we are all very much alike. We have some of the same problems and, growing up in Kentucky, even some of the same incidents. So I think anything is noteworthy, because you can learn something from a person’s life—and especially someone who has had an interesting life like Bobbie Ann Mason.

Bill:
Well, for our two club members who aren’t from Kentucky: It seems certainly a Kentucky story, but I know that this can occur in many other parts of the United States. What about it, Gabrielle? Is this something that you related to in your stories that your grandparents tell you or are telling you now?

Gabrielle:
In some ways it’s a family story. You hear about the three generations, and you are involved as their lives kind of transpire, and there is the family bonding around the meals, so that those types of aspects were very interesting. I think what I found even more interesting was just the insight of what was happening as far as farm life and how they had to deal with Mother Nature and the weather. And they grew all of their own crops that they ate, and I thought that was just as appealing as the family story.

Bill:
Jonathan, what about it? Or Dava—you were going to say, as far as the Kentuckyness of it all, I guess it goes beyond that, too, when people start telling stories about family members and generations.

Dava:
Yes. I think it may be a personal journey, I’m sure, for Bobbie Ann Mason to write this book. I mean, it’s hard for me to imagine how she could sit there and think up so many memories. I mean, they are so vivid the way she tells them, and she remembers so many things. But I think anybody can reach a point in your life where the things you’ve done don’t really mean much about who you are, and so I think this is about thinking about where you came from. And she really focuses on who her mother was, who her grandparents were, and she puts a lot of effort into figuring out how they developed to be the people they were. I think in that it’s not just a Kentucky story. Anyone can do that, and most everybody does this at some point, and so I thoroughly enjoyed it for that reason.

Bill:
Jonathan?

Jonathan:
Yeah, I very much enjoyed it. A very interesting excavation, really, of her own family history, and also an exploration of herself and who she considers herself to be. I think it’s got a lot of important things to say about memory and how we remember things and what we remember and what we forget. Some of the more shocking parts of it were things that the family had forgotten or chosen to forget; for instance, information about the disease in the great-grandparents which had been effectively silenced over the generations. I think that she discovered a lot of new things about who her grandparents and even great-grandparents were. I was interested also in the way that she realized that towards the end of her story—it’s called “A Family Story”—she recognizes how much she resembles her family and how much she has inherited from them. And at one point she says:

“After all my comings and goings, now I see that I am my mother. And all of my forebears. I am plain-spoken like Granny. Sometimes I realize I am talking to myself the way Granddaddy used to do, as if there were two of me. Sometimes I have a thought that I know Daddy must have had. Sometimes I think I have had an original idea, but I know that some great-great-grandmother hunched over a quilt frame quite likely had that same thought.”

And so very nicely, at the end, she links herself and the discoveries that she has made about herself to the discoveries that she made about her forebears.

Bill:
And her mother is sort of the key in the principal part of this memoir and so important in her life. It’s almost going back and sort of telling her story as much as it is the story of Bobbie Ann.

Wilma:
She does, and I thought about that a bit. Some of the reviews of the book do talk about that it’s sort of the mother’s story. In fact, I have heard other friends of mine say this is really her mother’s story. It is, and it isn’t. I mean, it’s her family story, and the way I see it is that Bobbie Ann Mason talked about liking puzzles as a child, and I see it as she is trying to get her life together and fitting all the pieces of puzzle in. And in order to do that, I think you have to look at your background—not just your own, but your parents’; certainly including your mother. So I think it’s Bobbie Ann Mason’s story certainly. Her mother makes it very interesting, especially ... I wondered what the book would be like without the last story: the short story about the mother landing the very huge fish. And that was one of my favorite parts of the book. It’s a very interesting story. It would be an interesting story by itself. And I wondered what you all thought about that story and the mother and trying to bring the big fish in.

Jonathan:
It’s a wonderful way to end the memoir: with that image of a mother, quite old, slightly arthritic, and not so mobile, and all of a sudden impulsively she decides ... Is she in her 70s at this point?

Everyone:
Yes.

Jonathan:
She decides to go fishing, as she used to do many years before but not recently, and she fishes in the ...

Bill:
The old family home.

Jonathan:
... lake, the lake on the family homestead. And she catches a very big catfish that weighed 38 inches or—sorry—was 38 inches in length.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
Over three feet long; she didn’t weigh it. She gets pulled in, or she falls into, the water, and so on. It’s a story about her tenacity, her courage, her perseverance, her cussedness. She refused to let that fish beat her although she might have drowned very easily. She was determined, not just to save herself, but also to make sure she got the fish in. She was in there for hours stuck in that lake, stranded, unable to be rescued. And I think it’s funny finishing with that because it does point to her qualities of endurance and stubbornness and her determinedness to get this fish in. And I think that perhaps the author sees that as a family trait. The other thing I wanted to say about it is that it is beautifully described. You described it as a story. It’s a family story, of course. But that is different from what we usually mean when we say a fictive story which is made up, which is invented. And it was so beautifully written in all its rich detail, it was as if the author—i.e., Bobbie Ann Mason—herself had experienced it, but she hadn’t. She produced this beautiful, seamless, detailed story out of something her mother had told her.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
I mean, even down to the last detail of the color of the mud and fear of the snakes ...

Bill:
Pondweed.

Jonathan:
... beside the willow.

Bill:
Snapping turtles.

Jonathan:
Snapping turtles. It was written like a story. And I think often in this memoir you realize that this is written by a novelist—not that it’s invented, but that all the details of people’s lives are given a kind of seamlessness, but also great detail and accuracy, as if the author were there even though she wasn’t.

Bill:
Let’s talk a little bit about that, because we on the bookclub before have had occasion to talk about re-creations and historical fiction. We’ve had good discussions about that. And if you might be bothered by anything, it would be in the vividness of the way that she does re-create when you know it is a memoir. And yet, particularly in the grandparents’ story, she is really going back and re-creating a great deal. Anybody else bothered by that except Jonathan?

Gabrielle:
I think, like Dava, I was surprised by the amount of detail in some of the stories, but then later in the book you heard her questioning her mother constantly. What color was the dress? Did it have flowers on it? So I think maybe her attention to detail helped her to create and kind of fill in the gaps that weren’t there.

Jonathan:
Yeah, that’s a good point—I mean, when she depicts herself interrogating her mother ...

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
... or father about the past, it’s an image of a novelist at work, really. I mean, she’s a research scholar, she is a historian, she’s a novelist all in one in the way she interrogates a family about things that happened. Not one detail was allowed to pass, and the mother thought she was a little obsessive.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
But I think she’s demonstrating how a novelist works and thinks when she does that.

Wilma:
It’s funny that a thought I had about the book fits in so well here, and that is that I actually liked better the middle part, where she told her own story. I mean, I happened to like that better. I thought it was very natural. She is excellent at dialogue, and she was able to put in so much dialogue there. And that ran, for me, very smoothly. I enjoyed that part immensely. I almost felt as if she were forcing some of the early part about the grandparents and so on. I mean, I could feel the authoring there. And in the middle part, where she is telling her own story, I did not feel the author. I just went flying through there. So I think that maybe she worked at putting in detail and sometimes maybe worked a little too hard at it so that you could feel that. Did you see that at all?

Dava:
Well, I guess maybe it’s just a difference in ways people approach books. I mean, it doesn’t bother me that she fills in details, and really it didn’t lessen my appreciation of the book. I didn’t read it thinking, “OK, what exactly happened to her grandparents? I want to know the whole truth.”

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
Even if some of it isn’t entirely the truth, that’s just how storytelling happens. And you know you can think of stories that have been passed down in your family ...

Bill:
Embellished.

Dava:
Embellished. You know there is no way it actually happened, but I mean ...

Bill:
It makes for a better story, doesn’t it?

Dava:
Right. But I mean somewhere, at some time, that same story could have happened, because we are people and we do the same things over and over, pretty much, so it didn’t bother me.

Bill:
Well, it does make, certainly, a strong statement about the women that she knew and [who] were in that community and the majority of women that were growing up in rural America and rural Kentucky. I want you to ... If you have got a portion of the ’60s in there, if that’s the part that you liked the best ... You know, I heard Bobbie Ann Mason read at the University of Kentucky a few weeks ago, and she happened to read one of those selections, which I don’t have. But I see you have opened your book, and I don’t know if that’s a portion when she is in New York or ...

Wilma:
It’s exactly what you want.

Bill:
Not rehearsed, folks!

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
Exactly what you want. I’m shocked. This was at the time—yes, she is still in New York, and several interesting things happened there, but I just happened to pick this one passage. She had become a graduate student and she was teaching and she was having a great deal of problems with the students because they were very bright and they were questioning her all the time. They wouldn’t just take what she said as the truth. They would question, and that put her off a little bit because she wasn’t used to that, so the professor she was working for ... This is where we are, here; this is on page 145:

“The professor I assisted tried to share his passion for the Greeks with me, so that I could stimulate this sharp gang of valedictorians [the people she was teaching].

“‘I read Plato’s Republic to my wife on our honeymoon,’ he said. ‘There are parts of it that are so beautiful.’

“I couldn’t imagine reading Plato on a honeymoon. I couldn’t think of what to say to the professor. I studied The Republic assiduously. Plato said throw out the poets. He said nothing—a table, a refrigerator—was real, but it had an ideal formed somewhere. I pictured the ideals in orbit, like Sputnik.

“I had the wrong gear for this venture. I was like one of those catfish that could sort of walk on land—awkwardly, using their whiskers like elbows. Previously, I had floated from one enthusiasm to another, and I had often been in charge, with the illusion of power. Now I felt like Granny in Hopkinsville, or Daddy in the Pacific. I was in alien territory and there was a war on. But I persevered, while trying to lose my accent.”

So I like that passage because she can look at herself fairly objectively and know that up until that time, she had kind of breezed through. She had been the best student at school, and she’d had some interesting things happen to her, but all at once she was in a situation where she wasn’t as sure of herself, and I think she lost confidence there for the first time. That’s the same time when, shortly thereafter, some friends of hers come in and tell her they can no longer be friends with her because she’s not real with them and they can’t trust her anymore.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
So I love that part, too.

Bill:
We are really fortunate to have read the authors and the books that we have read, and we have read Bobbie Ann Mason before. We have read her fiction. So in some of her short stories, we have read her humor and what a comedian she can be. And although this is in a lot of instances very serious talking about her family, those portions in New York and all that description about a better time at the University of Kentucky—her professor and then going to New York and traveling and trying to get those jobs and all of that—I just think she does such a good job with that. And although, Wilma, we don’t always agree ...

Wilma:
We agree on this.

Bill:
Well, we will just say that we both like the ’60s or the portion when she left home and was away from home. To me, really, she finds her—it’s almost trite to say—she finds her voice there, but I mean I just think that’s better done.

Jonathan:
Well, yeah.

Bill:
I like the part where she returns.

Jonathan:
I know. I think that was all from her memory. Stuff [about] her great-grandparents and even about her grandparents, she has to reconstruct more, and she has to do research, whether it just means interrogating her elders. So it’s a different kind of thing, really.

Bill:
Let me go back to a little bit earlier than that, and this is when she’s in high school. And I want to read this for two reasons: one, because it mentioned the Hilltoppers, the singing group from Western Kentucky—now University; at that time State College. But also because she mentions ...

Jonathan:
Do you remember them, Bill?

Bill:
Billy Vaughn. I remember their records. I do. Honest I do.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
You know that we are not the same age, but ...

Jonathan:
She kept referring to “P.S. I Love You” ...

Bill:
... we are close.

Jonathan:
... this hit they had.

Bill:
Yeah. You remember that?

Jonathan:
No, I don’t, but I ... She kept referring to it, and I thought, what was that?

Bill:
Just a couple of bars.

Jonathan:
I wish I knew. Maybe you could sing it.

Wilma:
Thought I’d hum that for you.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
We will do that after this.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
The other reason is because one of the members of the Hilltoppers was Billy Vaughn. She doesn’t say that he was from my hometown of Glasgow, Kentucky ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
... and he went over to Western and then he went—you know, Billy Vaughn the famous orchestra leader—out to California. And you are nodding, but you don’t know who Billy is.

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
But this portion is about the Hilltoppers:

“The Hilltoppers, I decided by the time I was 14, represented everything I had ever felt and dreamed about my life. As I picked blackberries or hoed vegetables in the scorching morning sun, Hilltopper music playing in my head made me feel there was a way out—some release from this cycle of seasons.... My passion for music transmuted to simon-pure hero worship. This was mainly because the group was from Kentucky. The Hilltoppers were students at Western Kentucky State College, in Bowling Green, where the sports teams were called the Hilltoppers. A Kentucky singing quartet had achieved national fame! The only famous person from Kentucky I had ever heard of besides Abraham Lincoln was Arthur Lake, who played Dagwood in the Blondie and Dagwood movies.”

Then she went on, and she became the national president—or she was the president, secretary, recording secretary—of the fan clubs.

Wilma:
She was the president.

Bill:
President. National president.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
Well, it was interesting how she used the phrase “it was a way out” ...

Bill:
Yes.

Jonathan:
... cycle of seasons, and it reminded me that in our discussions before, we discussed Harriette Arnow; we discussed Fenton Johnson. These are stories about people who are from—even Chris Offutt—from rural Kentucky and then wishing to leave or feeling they have to leave and thinking a little bit about what they have earned or gained by leaving, and then thinking about what they have lost. And here I think she’s not reverent about the past, but she cherishes the memories in a way. She really records very nicely, I think, the social changes that have taken place in Kentucky from the time she left and the time she came back.

Bill:
And I think that’s the sort of bridge that she makes from this exciting time that she had when she was away, but always knowing that she was going to come back, always knowing that maybe she was ...

Wilma:
I didn’t think she always knew she was coming back.

Jonathan:
I agree. No, she didn’t.

Bill:
OK.

Wilma:
She didn’t. I thought she had the idea she was gone, and that was her goal: to get out of the rural life. I don’t want to say get out of Kentucky, but get out of the rural lifestyle, I believe I want to say. That’s why I think she was so comforted when she met Roger, her husband, and they had something in common. He certainly wasn’t from Kentucky, but he had a background that was not the kind of flashy background of New York and Connecticut, where they were at the time, and they felt a real kindred ...

Jonathan:
But you ...

Wilma:
... spirit.

Jonathan:
In a sense, when she went to the East Coast, when she married this guy, they actually re-created a rural setting ...

Wilma:
Yes.

Jonathan:
... for themselves.

Wilma:
The timing, though, was right for that—you know, the ’70s.

Jonathan:
Yeah. But I think she says she realized at some point that she wanted to go home. And she phoned up an old friend who was in real estate. She wanted to buy some part of Kentucky. It was some part later on, I think. Was it early ’80s or something?

Gabrielle:
When you start hearing it and she starts ...

Wilma:
Uh huh; yes.

Gabrielle:
... saying she yearned to pick berries and ...

Jonathan:
Yes.

Gabrielle:
... the summer and all of a sudden this is growing within her.

Jonathan:
Yes.

Gabrielle:
I think that’s almost the point where I’d say, in the book, that she starts going back and interviewing her family members more and ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
... seeking to understand the relationships.

Wilma:
It also has to do with age.

Jonathan:
That’s right. Yes.

Wilma:
At somewhere—I don’t know, around age 40—I started thinking, “Oh, I want to know about the past.” I mean, I think I’d always known about my family, but you want to get specific about it. And so I think some of it has to do with a person’s age, too.

Bill:
That’s when I came back to Kentucky after being out of state, so it ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
... happens. You’ll get there, Dava, in about 35 years.

Dava:
Looking forward to it.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
No, seriously, though, that’s when I think all of us do begin to reflect, whether we have left or not, about coming back or visiting more or learning about the past.

Wilma:
And I think it’s very much as Bobbie Ann Mason did. It’s how we have to know ourselves. To know ourselves we somehow have to know the family or the background or where we came from and then know ourselves better. So maybe that’s what it is. Maybe it’s a search for ourselves, but obviously, where are you going to start with that? You are going to start with your family.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
So that’s why I said [that] in one way it’s very much like everybody’s story.

Bill:
Have you ever been in these types of situations—and this is on page 278—when you find yourself with friends and you are sort of explaining your background, either defending it or trying to explain it or just putting it out there, and then people don’t interpret it the same way that you want them to?

“In sophisticated gatherings, I’m sometimes given to conversation stoppers. I might mention the time I sang with a gospel quartet, or how my family didn’t have an indoor bathroom until I was 8 years old, or how I had to sleep with a pan to catch the water from the leak in the ceiling. I might let slip that my granny made her hair curlers out of pipe cleaners covered with scraps of leather. Usually, nobody present can identify with these memories. There’s an awkward pause and then someone, striving for a sympathetic connection, will mention summer camp in the Adirondacks, or they’ll say they always liked fresh home-baked bread. So, perversely, I volunteer that we fried our toast. I have grown to cultivate my idiosyncratic revelations, now that I’m no longer humiliated by them; sometimes springing them is fun, though rather unfair of me. I time the mystified pause, then the quiet scramble back to familiar conversational territory.”

Dava:
Happens all the time.

Bill:
How many times have you been there, Dava?

Dava:
Yeah.

Bill:
You talk about Inez and somebody looks at you like, “Come on, give me a break.”

Dava:
Yeah. That’s kind of fun. She’s right about [that]—you like to spring it on them and see what they will say.

Bill:
Watch for the reaction.

Dava:
Right; yeah. It is. And you know she, of course, has grown to be proud of her past, and she’s very comfortable with it now, I think. In her early life, when she left for New England, she obviously was trying to get away to something bigger and better. It’s just a very human thing to do: to want something different from what you have and lots of times return to it.

Bill:
What do you think that people might take from this that don’t know her work or are not familiar with In Country, her novel of the Vietnam veterans, or even her short stories. I mean, let’s say you are from a different part of the country and you pick up this for the very first time in a bookstore because it has been a finalist, a National Book Award finalist and all of that. I mean, you know it’s been heralded nationally. What do you think, Jonathan?

Jonathan:
What was the question again?

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
No, just kidding.

Bill:
No, is it something that people would look at and think, “Well, you know, is that really Kentucky? Or is this ... you know.

Jonathan:
Well, I think it was the Irish poet Patrick Cavanaugh who said the self is only interesting as an example. So if you are writing about yourself in a memoir or professional poetry, it’s interesting if it’s an example of what other people are like. And I think that this tells you a lot about what it was like for Southern women going to the East Coast in the 1960s. It tells you a lot about what it was like growing up in Western Kentucky in the ’40s and what it was like returning to it, and I think in the way she describes the lives of her parents and grandparents, it’s a very interesting depiction of a social landscape as well as a picture of individuals, and I think it’s really worthwhile.

Dava:
You see it. You see that she’s had a unique opportunity in this book. She was the first one in her family to get to do all these things she wanted to.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
And she praises her mother very much because she knows her mother had just as much drive and aspiration as she did but just didn’t have the opportunity to travel and to experience new things and to be educated in a formal way. And so it’s a real eye-opener, and you can appreciate her ancestors just as much as she does and be happy for her.

Jonathan:
She is very concerned to get to the bottom of the story, isn’t she? She really is rather relentless in trying to find out just what they were like, including warts and all of this, you know.

Bill:
Well, if you read some of the footnotes and some references in the preface, too, she went back and did a lot of research. I understand that she spent as much as ten years researching a lot of the family. I assume she was writing at the same time, but still ...

Jonathan:
Also, I like the way she talks about how she heard about her mother meeting her father. Didn’t they kind of elope?

Wilma:
Yes.

Everyone: Yes.

Jonathan:
And she says on several occasions, “I have gone over that scene many times in my mind.” And the idea is, whatever she has written here, she has gone over the scene in her imagination in the past many times; and it’s not just something that she remembers, because she wasn’t there. So it really is something that she has to imagine to some extent.

Bill:
What kind of picture do we get of the father?

Jonathan:
Well, she was very fond of him, and it’s clear that she was always fond of him. And one of the great bonds that they had when she was young is rock ’n’ roll.

Bill and Wilma:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
There was something I was going to bring up. There was such an interest in music in the family, and it’s one thing that helped get her out of the rural community—their interest in music, specifically her father ...

 

bookclub@ket | TV Schedule | Book List | News by e-Mail | About bookclub | Contact Us


KET Home | About KET | Contact Us | Search | Terms of Use
Jobs/Internships | PressRoom | Privacy Policy |
600 Cooper Drive | Lexington, KY 40502 | (859) 258-7000 | (800) 432-0951 | © Copyright 2011 KET


Privacy Policy Copyright © 2008 KET Webmaster