Story within the story
by Keith Taylor
From the February, 2018 issue
Apparently, it took fourteen years for Thisbe Nissen to write her new novel, Our Lady of the Prairie. Her story of the process is that she had to cut an 800-page manuscript down to 350. This makes it sound as if this novel should be slow and ponderous. But that is not the case at all! Our Lady of the Prairie moves rapidly through the lives of its characters, some of whom suffer horribly or needlessly, but all of whom have an extraordinary system of support that keeps them going through their pain--almost all the way to joy.
Nissen moved from New York City to the Midwest to go to the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop. She stayed in Iowa City for many years, learning the quirks of its people and writing her first books, before moving to Michigan to take a job at Western Michigan University. She sees people with the eyes of an outsider who loves them. I particularly enjoyed all the lapsed Amish and Mennonites who populate the novel and keep the other characters, the academics and urbanites, connected to things like quilts and fresh vegetables.
In some ways Our Lady is an academic satire. Nissen has fun with her protagonist, Phillipa, who has both a lover and a probably-soon-to-be ex-husband. These people--who live under scrutiny but also have enormous amounts of free time to pursue what are supposed to be intellectual passions--provide some laughs, but Nissen's generosity also brings us into their lives and makes us sympathize. Phillipa's sick daughter finds a way to survive with young lapsed Amish farmers. All of them worry enormously about the 2004 presidential election, convinced that John Kerry's loss is the beginning of the end. That is actually part of the humor of the book; that election seems almost quaint now, and their reactions overblown.
Nissen handles all of this well, controlling the history and the emotional tone even as she takes us from laughter to tears
and partway back. But right in the middle of the book she does something different, something that changes everything: she follows Phillipa's overwrought imagination into her invented backstory of her mother-in-law's life. Suddenly, but seamlessly, we have left Iowa and are in France during World War II. It is always absolutely clear that this story within the story is all in the character's imagination, yet it makes complete sense in its fantasy. After sixty pages, Nissen takes us out of the historical moment and back to the Iowa of her fiction.
It all happens so easily that I didn't even realize the enormous journey Nissen had taken me on. It also prepares us for Phillipa's flights of fantasy near the end, where she imagines the perfect happy ending. For a moment all the dead come back to life and do what they can to prop up their children and grandchildren. Nissen brings us back to the reality of her characters--even as she almost subliminally reminds us that they, too, are imagined.
Thisbe Nissen reads from Our Lady of the Prairie at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, February 20.
[Originally published in February, 2018.]
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