by Keith Taylor
From the August, 2017 issue
Lately I've been interested in big novels that incorporate several plots. In the most intriguing ones, the moments of intersection are often small details, even tiny physical objects, that at first glance seem barely memorable. They might not seem resonant enough to stitch together big stories, yet they live in my imagination.
Molly Patterson's first novel, Rebellion, is a wonderful example. There are four main characters here, three of whom are related and the other, a young Chinese student, is connected only (as far as I can tell) by her visit to an isolated village in the south of China and by her attitudes toward change in her life. Although there are a host of minor characters (the novel is well over 500 pages long), these four women all have their own stories of rebellion, their efforts to assert their own desires.
Louisa and Hazel are mother and daughter. Louisa's story starts in the late nineteenth century, when she marries and moves out to a new farm in western Illinois. She struggles to bear children and then to deal with the grief that lost children bring. Her rebellion is to turn inward, an emotional withdrawal that shapes her children.
Her daughter, Hazel, takes over the farm from her parents. (The book is filled with exquisite details of mid-century farm life, of the kitchen work and the uncertain finances that so often preoccupied farm women.) Her rebellion happens after the early death of her husband, when she begins a casual but deeply troubling relationship with a neighbor.
It would be easy to build a traditional plot from this movement through one family. But half this book takes place in China! There the connections to farm life in Illinois start getting more complicated. Louisa's sister Addie marries a missionary, and they head off to China at the end of the nineteenth century. She, too, struggles to have children in an unfamiliar place, only to abandon them, and her husband, for another
woman. Addie's family is killed in the Boxer Rebellion-the one rebellion in the novel that appears in the history books. She escapes but then disappears somewhere in the mountains.
A century later, Juanlan, a recently graduated Chinese student of English, returns home and struggles to find work. While translating for an official, she travels to an isolated town that will soon be inundated by the flooding behind a dam. On a beam in a crumbling, long-abandoned building she finds the English words "Forgive me" carved into the wood. Juanlan has had her own rebellions, cultural and sexual, and the phrase helps her see her life as a request to the people who have loved her. In that respect her story chimes beautifully with the farm women back in Illinois.
This novel makes a strong claim on the reader's empathy, demanding that we break out of easy understandings. I strongly recommend making Molly Patterson's Rebellion your last big read of the summer.
Molly Patterson reads at Literati Bookstore on Wednesday, August 9.
[Originally published in August, 2017.]
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