It is fair to say that Olive Kitteridge was a surprise winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. With Toni Morrison (A Mercy), Marilynne Robinson (Home) and Philip Roth (Indignation) all on the list of contenders, a collection of 13 linked vignettes set in Crosby, Maine hardly seemed a likely choice.
Yet, with Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout has staked her own claim to contributing to a long-valued and consistent thread in North American literature. While her stories are set in this century, the Crosby that she portrays in Olive Kitteridge is very much in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, William Maxwell’s Illinois and Alice Munro's southwestern Ontario. Each author has taken a relatively unknown and isolated part of North America and used it to explore in depth the challenges, heartbreaks and, less often, joys of the people who live there. In their own way, each of these four authors has developed and articulated a notion of community that reflects the nature of the time in which each work is set, but even more importantly examines the stress of change, whatever the era might be.
Olive is a retired schoolteacher, physically and mentally “larger” than most of the villagers around her, her impact on Crosby both part of her teacherly history and her matronly present. Her husband, Henry, was the town pharmacist — as the stories of the book unfold, he joins her in retirement, his pharmacy replaced by one of those chain drug stores that sell huge rolls of toilet paper, cat food and spatulas, instead of just dispensing drugs. As Strout reminds the reader more than once, both are “waiting for the end” in a changing world that neither really understands. Consider what has happened to the church, not so long ago the social centre of village life:
In fact, only a handful of the congregation goes to church regularly anymore. This saddens Henry, and worries him. They have been through two ministers in the last five years, neither one bringing much inspiration to the pulpit. The current fellow, a man with a beard, and who doesn’t wear a robe, Henry suspects won’t last long. He is young with a growing family, and will have to move on. What worries Henry about the paucity of the congregation is that perhaps others have felt what he increasingly tries to deny — that this weekly gathering provides no real sense of comfort. When they bow their heads or sing a hymn, there is no sense anymore — for Henry — that God’s presence is blessing them. Olive herself has become an unapologetic atheist.
Almost every one of Strout’s 13 stories has an example of how this kind of change is disrupting the once comfortable pattern of village life. One of the other things that is frequently present (and here she does line up with Maxwell, Anderson and Munro) is that strange conflict in compact communities between “not telling” (as in, don’t ask embarrassing questions) and the village “telegraph” which makes sure that everybody does know everything about everybody else. Scandals are never discussed with the principals themselves but are the warp and woof of life in conversation with everyone else.
Another strong theme in the stories is the Kitteridges’ isolation from their son, Christopher. Given his parents, it is no surprise that he grew up somewhat removed from interacting with the world (his choice of profession — podiatry — is an interesting commentary in itself) and eager to get away from his parents. They are equally eager to maintain bonds, constructing a house in the Maine tradition that is meant to ensure he never leaves. The plan is not working, as Harmon, a nosy (and therefore typical) neighbor, probes in the doughnut shop:
“Henry okay?” Harmon asked. “Christopher?”
Olive nodded, her mouth moving with the doughnut. Harmon knew — as most people in town knew — that she didn’t like her son’s new wife, but, then, Harmon didn’t think Olive would like any wife of her son. The new wife was a doctor, smart, and from some city, he didn’t remember where. Maybe she made baggies of granola, did yoga — he had no idea.
The Christopher retention project falls apart within months of his marriage when his cosmopolitan wife moves Christopher to California (Maine is fine for two weeks in the fall when there is sunshine, but dreary and dark the rest of the time, she explains). The marriage itself falls apart a few months later; despite his parents’ wishes, Christopher not only does not move back, he rarely visits.
For many years, Mrs. KFC and I were privileged to be summer guests at a very large and traditional cottage — Swallow Point — in Chester, Nova Scotia, a community not that far up the Atlantic coast from Strout’s Crosby, Maine. While we were not only “summer people” but guests of summer people, our hosts came from that part of the world so we had some exposure to the ideas and concerns of those who did reside there full time, the kind of people who are at the centre of Strout’s stories. The pace of change may come somewhat slower to communities like this than it does in metropolitan centres, but it comes every bit as resolutely nevertheless. And the author does an exceptional job of showing how trying it is to be forced to adapt to that change.
Despite these strengths, I found Olive Kitteridge had it share of disappointments. While Olive is present in every story, she is the central character in only a few — both she and Henry never get developed as fully as I would have preferred. Likewise, Strout’s observations about village life on the coast of Maine are both perceptive and worthwhile, but the structure she has chosen means they show up more like a grocery list than being knit together in a cohesive whole. Perhaps after a few weeks or months of contemplation, these themes will develop in the mind and come together — off first exposure, Olive Kitteridge is a very well-written book that falls just short of success.