An alley ran behind my grandparent’s house on Fort Street in old Detroit, an alley where trash was kept in large barrels for burning, and rickety wooden garages housed the family car. It wasn’t unusual in those days for homeless, jobless men to spend their days in the alley, smoking cigarettes and having desultory conversations. Occasionally, they would even come to the back door of the house, begging a cigarette or something to eat. My grandmother always packed a bag of food for them – perhaps a sandwich, or some leftovers from the previous night’s supper, rounded out with a piece of her famous pie or cake. It surprised me when she did that, for I had always been taught to shy away from strangers, especially ones who looked as down and out as these men.
“But you just never know,” she’d say, handing a paper sack of food out the door. “One of these men might be Jesus come back to earth.”
My grandmother came to mind while I was reading Labor Day, Joyce Maynard’s remarkable novel about a lonely 13 year old boy, his reclusive, fragile, mother, and their relationship with a myserious stranger. When a bleeding Frank Chambers approaches young Henry and asks for help, first Henry and then his mother Adele reach out a hand in assistance. They take this man into their home, and over the course of a long Labor Day weekend he works his way into their hearts and changes their lives forever.
Every character in this novel tugged at my heartstrings…Henry, on the cusp of manhood and so confused, feeling such a weighty reponsibility for his mother who has lost so much in her life and seems a shell of her former self. Adele, once a dancer, the picture of light and grace, whose body and soul have become leaden with sorrow. And Frank, the quintessential portrait of a guy who can’t catch a break, yet has so much to offer if only given a chance. Yet, the three of them together seem to have a least a fighting chance at happiness.
She was holding his hand as he spoke. But she was holding mine also, and for that moment at least, it seemed possible, seemed to make sense even, that a person could love her son and love her lover, and nobody would come up short. We’d all be happy. Her being happy was only a good thing for me. Our finding each other – not just him finding her, but all three of us – was the first true piece of good luck in any of our lives in a long time.
Joyce Maynard has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and her book of essays, Domestic Affairs, was a mainstay of mine when I was a young mother. A single mother herself, Maynard says that she “work up from a dream and started writing this book.” She “couldn’t stop writing,” and finished it in 10 days, because she “couldn’t wait to see how it would turn out.” Once started, the reading process becomes like that writing – you find yourself thrust right down into the lives and emotions of these characters and you don’t want to leave them until you know how it all comes out.
Maynard says that Labor Day contains bits of “all her obsessions…her dream of family being the number one thing in life,” the “lonliness of a boy taking care of his mother,” what it’s like being a single mother and being in love. Labor Day is a coming of age tale, a love story, and a suspense novel rolled into less than 250 pages. It’s the kind of book you want to run out and tell all your friends to read, a small, beautifully written story with a huge message. It’s about the dream all of us have – of a happy family – and the way that dream can be devastated by the circumstances of life and the treachery of people we once loved.
But most especially it’s about hope, and being open to possibilities, for you never know when or how or in what guise they will appear.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this wonderful novel.
Listen to Joyce Maynard on Blog Talk radio on August 30, 2010, at 7 pm.