Wednesday, October 22, 2008

When there are no fairy godmothers

Someone at church loaned me a copy of Maeve Binchy's novel Whitethorn Woods. I'm only partway into it so I don't know how the rest of the book will be, but the first couple of chapters were worth a book in themselves. (Some adult situations, so not for young maidens below a certain age.)

The framework of the novel seems to be a contemporary (read poorly-attended?) Irish church, a curate, and a place called St. Ann's well which tourists and locals treat as a kind of wailing wall. The curate doesn't care much for this but can't seem to fight it. At the end of the introduction, he sends his own thoughts to St. Ann, asking that he would be able to "hear" what people are asking for at the well, so that he can help them better. Then the book picks up that thread and moves into pairs of short stories about the people of the town.

Twice within the introduction and the first set of stories there are characters who make the most of what they have, no matter what they have. To begin with, we have a pair of immigrants who thrive on doing what nobody else wants to do:

By the time he got back to the priests’ house, Josef, the Latvian caregiver, had arrived and got Canon Cassidy up, washed and dressed him and made his bed....Canon Cassidy liked soup for his lunch and sometimes Josef took him to a café but mainly he took the frail little figure back to his own house, where his wife, Anna, would produce a bowl of something homemade; and in return the canon would teach her more words and phrases in English....Josef had three other jobs: he cleaned Skunk Slattery’s shop, he took the towels from Fabian’s hairdressers to the Fresh as a Daisy Launderette and washed them there and three times a week he took a bus out to the Nolans’ place and helped Neddy Nolan look after his father.

Anna had many jobs too: she cleaned the brass on the doors of the bank, and on some of the office buildings that had big important-looking notices outside; she worked in the hotel kitchens at breakfast time doing the washing up; she opened the flowers that came from the market to the florists and put them in big buckets of water. Josef and Anna were astounded by the wealth and opportunities they’d found in Ireland. A couple could save a fortune here.
Josef and Anna have plans to open their own shop in a few years, and you have no doubt that they will do it.

The second example is the above-mentioned Neddy Nolan, who describes himself as "not the sharpest knife in the drawer." Someone online compared him to Forrest Gump; I think he's also like the Simple Jack, youngest-brother character in many fairy tales--the one who shares his loaf of bread and usually gets rewarded for it. He's honest and somewhat naïve, particularly when it comes to understanding that not everyone else is as honest and well-intentioned as he is--especially his older brother who tries to take advantage of him and ends up losing. There are no fairy godmothers in this story, and Neddy has to make his own luck, with the same kind of creativity and determination that got Forrest Gump his own shrimp boat.
"And cause I was a gazillionaire, and I liked doin it so much, I cut that grass for free."--Forrest Gump
When Neddy moves to the city and unintentionally exposes some kind of pilfering scam on the construction site where his brother has gotten him work, he is told to stay back at the flat from now on and "clean up or something." Taking his brother at his word, he goes out and swaps some cleanup work and painting for a box of paint and cleaning supplies, then comes back and starts fixing up the apartment for Older Brother and their roommates. He even manages to scrounge them a television. The guys agree that if he'll just stay away from their job site (I guess to keep him from exposing any more of their scams), they'll pay him a salary to "manage things." And this goes on for years--they spend, drink, and scam, but Neddy socks his money away and takes care of them all, makes friends all over the place, helps people out, and never seems to feel he's being taken advantage of.

Neddy's first payback comes when his old father can't take care of their house any more and needs a caregiver. The solution is simple: Neddy moves back to their hometown and buys the house, to the astonishment and fury of his always-broke brother (who eventually ends up in jail).

And unlike Forrest Gump, he ends up with a woman who, although she has her own issues, doesn't want to run away and be a folk singer; in fact, she wants to teach, and she's happy to let Neddy keep doing what he likes to do: taking care of stuff. He even manages to take care of his fiancee when she's being blackmailed--now that's real chivalry. She and he both agree that sharp knives can sometimes be too scary--the world needs more Neddys and fewer Older Brothers.

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