The Dutch House a Marvel

The Dutch House (2019)
By Ann Patchett
Harper, 352 pages

Ann Patchett is one of the best at probing how individuals construct different realities when confronted by the same situations and stimuli. She also has a knack for showing how a single decision ripples across place and time. 

The namesake of The Dutch House is indeed a domicile. Much of Patchett’s three-generational novel is situated in, outside, and in the imagined life of an ornate mansion in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Elkins Park is a real place, a suburb of Philadelphia that has been the home of American business titans such as retailer John Wanamaker, hat manufacturer John Stetson, financier Jay Cooke, and inventor/Standard Oil stockholder William Lukens Elkins for whom the unincorporated settlement is named. In other words, it has been a repository of Big Money.

In our case, though, it is also where Cyril Conroy resettled his wife Elna and their two children, Maeve and Danny. Cyril is the ultimate self-made man, a blue-collar guy who parlays skill at buying and rehabbing homes into a sizable bank account. Like many of his ilk, Cyril confused fortune and breeding. He bought the Dutch House for a song when the last of the genteel Van Hoebeeks died, restored it, and took on Jocelyn, a cook; Fluffy, a nanny; and Sandy, a housekeeper. The trappings of wealth did little to hide Cyril’s lack of education, his workingman’s wardrobe, his construction worker’s habits, and his Catholicism. In the eyes of their neighbors, the Conroys have cash but not class. That does not faze Cyril, but Elna abandons her family without even leaving a note. Danny admires his father, but both children are de facto orphans, with Fluffy serving as a surrogate mother until Maeve takes on that role toward Danny, becomes a protective lioness, and lives vicariously through him. 

The Dutch House plumbs the dynamics between an imperious sister and her malleable brother, but the house itself is a curse–an object of desire for some, disgust for others, and a restless ghost for all. Things begin to deteriorate in a big way when Cyril dates and eventually weds Andrea. She brings two daughters to the marriage: Bright and Norma. Danny is fond of them, Maeve despises Andrea, and the later has plans that don’t include either Conroy offspring. When Cyril unexpectantly dies, Maeve and Danny are for-real orphans. Andrea takes charge and, as lawyer Gooch informs them, there isn’t much they can do about their expulsion from the Dutch House. Danny couldn’t care less about that, but Maeve wants revenge and Danny is her instrument. There is a small crack in the otherwise airtight will and Maeve makes certain that Danny exploits it.

We follow the fortunes, misfortunes, passions, and ennui of Cyril’s survivors as they get schooled, work, wed, procreate, and stew in their respective juices. In an interesting twist, Maeve and Andrea are the iron-willed characters and Danny a passive receptacle through which schemes are poured. Although Danny is happy to forget the Dutch House, he indulges Maeve’s ritual of driving by it, parking within view of it, and conjuring scenarios of what Andrea is doing. Among Danny’s issues is that he is far more devoted to his sister than to his wife, Celeste, and it doesn’t help that Maeve doesn’t think much of her either. At one point a question is raised: “Do houses ever die of grief?” Danny must decide whether he can defy Maeve, let go, and avoid duplicating his father’s path. For her part, Maeve has never gotten over the loss of her mother and it embitters her. This prompts Danny to ask, “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” Indeed!

Much, much more happens in the novel and each new twist is an existential crisis for some and a new cause for acrimony in others. For decades Maeve and Danny have been human quantum entanglements to the detriment of their respective individualism. Things will happen that disrupt their link, including the appearance of an unexpected visitor. Among the things I admire about Ann Patchett is that she leads us to resolutions that seem genuine rather than tidy and contrived. She also has a fondness for things best described as bittersweet.

I adored this novel. It surely deserves to reside in the top eaves when awards are considered for the best works of fiction for 2019.

Rob Weir


Tolkien: Does Fiction Trump Fact?

Tolkien (2019)
Directed by Dome Karukoski
Fox Searchlight, 112 minutes, PG-13 (some war violence)

With the staggering financial success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, how can anyone miss with a film about J. R. R. Tolkien? Director Dome Karukoski managed to do so, though it’s not entirely his fault. Nonetheless, Tolkien was a box office bomb that recouped just $9 million of its $20 million budget.

It’s not a bad movie, even though it’s flat in places. The problem is simpler. When a writer builds an elaborate fantasy world with a life of its own, it’s often the case that viewers care more about the fictional characters than the man behind the curtain. Karukoski is handicapped by a script from David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford that covers Tolkien’s life before he became a fantasy writer. It helps enhance enjoyment if you simply think of this as a coming-of-age film about someone who just happens to be J.R.R. Tolkien.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1971) was born in the Orange Free State, now part of South Africa. His father died when he was just 3, forcing his widow, Mabel, to take “Ronald” and his infant brother back to England, where they lived in the Midlands. It was exceedingly hard for a single woman to raise two young boys on her own, and the Tolkiens relied upon the Catholic Church for assistance. The movie opens with quick vignettes of their travails, as well as the largess of Ronald’s benefactor: Father Frances Morgan (Colm Meaney). The children were home schooled, but young Ronald proved precociously brilliant and Father Morgan both nurtured his talents and acted as a stern surrogate parent. When Mabel died when Ronald was 12, Father Morgan helped place him in a boys’ school and, eventually, as a scholarship boy at Oxford.

The film closely follows Tolkien’s life during his final years at boarding school, his time at Oxford, and his service during World War I. The British class system was very much in evidence, which meant Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) was tormented by his upper-class peers, though he eventually fell into a close friendship with three of them: Christopher Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle), Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). They bonded over ideas, books, spirited hijinks, and an elevated sense of their own cleverness. They even formed their own secret group, the T.C.B.S. Club: the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, Barrovian” a play on Barrows, their favorite café. This part of the film plays a bit–perhaps too much–like something out of Dead Poet’s Society. We also meet Edith Mary Bratt (Lily Collins, Phil’s daughter), also a lodger in Ronald’s Birmingham boarding house, with whom 16-yar-old Tolkien falls in love and introduces to his intellectual circle.

Things don’t go as well at Oxford, where Tolkien is foundering at classics. Father Morgan intervenes in ways Ronald dislikes but must yield. Even then he is on the verge of being booted out when he meets Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi), who agrees to take on Tolkien as one of his literature students. Wright mentors Tolkien’s command of languages and his love of philology (the structure of and relationships between languages).

Interspersed with the linear narrative are snapshots of Tolkien and his mates during World War I. Neither Karukoski nor the scriptwriters could possibly exaggerate the war’s horrors; they do a credible job of showing just how grisly and idiotic it was. Tolkien probably would have died in conflict had he not contracted trench fever–a serious infection carried by lice–and was evacuated to England. The only historically dodgy thing Karukoski does is use foggy shots of warhorses and their riders to suggest that Tolkien’s balrogs derived from them. It’s also not entirely clear what Tolkien actually experienced and what was fever-induced delirium. We next meet Tolkien as a morose married man with children who teaches at Oxford, wrestles with survivor’s guilt, and struggles to write something about which he cares. Gee, wonder what that might be?

Perhaps you see the reason why the hordes avoided this film. Karukoski’s is a reasonably accurate account of what happened to young Tolkien, though a boyhood spider bite and an adolescent trip to Switzerland had greater impacts on The Hobbit than hanging out with his witty friends. Again, we must go back to the question of how much we want to know about a writer’s biography, especially in a movie that ends as the author is about to pen his masterworks. There is the additional obstacle of casting a film in which the only actors known outside the U.K. are Jacobi and Meaney, and their roles are essentially extended cameos. Tolkien ultimately calls to mind the 2017 A. A. Milne biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin. It too was a perfectly competent movie, but at the end of the day, there are way more people who want Winnie the Pooh and Hobbits than a pair of starchy British scribblers.

Rob Weir


The Nickel Boys is Quietly Chilling

The Nickel Boys (2019)
By Colson Whitehead
Random House, 210 pages.

It’s orphan week on Off-center Views. Let’s start with what might be the best novel of 2019: The Nickel Boys, the latest work from Colson Whitehead whose previous novel, The Underground Railroad, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

We come in upon Elwood Curtis, an African-American child with big dreams. His parents are gone and he’s in the care of his grandmother who lives in Frenchtown, a segregated enclave in Tallahassee, Florida. That might depress some youngsters, but Elwood is a topnotch student who chases away the blues by listening to his lone phonograph record: speeches from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He studies and works hard and harbors plans to enter a black college when he graduates. Plans go awry when he hitches a ride from a black man driving a big car. A black man in a flash car is enough to arouse suspicion among redneck cops in the early 1960s South. Never mind that Elwood had no idea the driver had stolen the vehicle; Elwood is convicted of car theft and is sent to a juvenile facility called Nickel Academy.

At first Elwood thinks it might not be too bad. Nickel Academy has a segregated facilities and Elwood notices that the white campus appears more posh, but the black campus looks pretty good to a kid from Frenchtown. There are no walls or fences, the dorms are clean, the food isn’t (too) bad, the staff is outwardly friendly, and there are incentives for early release. Elwood’s plan is to keep his head down, stay out of trouble, and finish his high school education. The first lesson he learns, though, is that the whites that run the place have a very different idea of what kind of “education” black boys need. His books are castoff elementary school readers and when Elwood politely asks his teacher for more challenging works, it’s the sort of thing that gets a black kid pegged as uppity.

A fellow student, Jack Turner, tries to tell Elwood that he is naïve. There are tales of the “White House,” where hidings and solitary confinement take place, and mysterious sets of restraints hanging on trees, but Elwood stays the course–until he can’t. As Elwood’s friendship with Turner deepens, the realization dawns that the very structure of Nickel Academy is designed to break independent-minded souls such as his and there’s not much Rev. King’s words can do to change that. Unfairness, sadism, beatings, and other horrors lurk beneath the academy’s surface–including mysterious disappearances of students.

The looming question is whether a soul as sensitive as Elwood’s can survive long enough to “max out” and win automatic release at age 18. This sets the stage for an elaborate plan cooked up by Turner to save his friend. What comes next will shock and surprise you. Whitehead isn’t one for easy resolution or platitudes. We jump ahead to the post-Nickel years and learn the fates of some of the boys sent there. In many ways, The Nickel Boys is a subtle look at the bifurcated ideals of black America. Does one listen to the words of Dr. King on forbearance as penned in a Montgomery jail cell, or to the defiant messages of fiery activists? As Turner put it, “They [whites] treat us like subhumans in our country. Always have. Maybe always will.”

The Nickel Boys will also resonate with those familiar with nightmarish reform schools in Ireland, as well as those who have followed the Catholic Church’s clerical abuse scandals. It also put me in mind of so-called “Indian” schools in the United States and similar institutions in Australia for Aborigines. As one who once worked in juvenile probation, I can also attest that juvenile detention facilities in general are dire.

In Whitehead’s case, though, his Nickel Academy is based on a real place: Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. It (mis) educated and (mis) treated youths for 111 years before closing in 2011. More than 500 former students claim to have been beaten, tormented, or sexually abused, and archaeological excavations of Dozier’s marked and unmarked cemeteries suggest that horrific things happened there. Whitehead’s initial inspiration for his novel came from the investigative reports of Tampa Times reporter Ben Montgomery.

This is not to say that Whitehead is merely fictionalizing the past. He is a gifted storyteller who humanizes tragedy and does so in just over 200 well-crafted pages. I would go so far as to say that few novelists say as much as Whitehead in so few pages. He offers a partial answer to poet Langton Hughes’ question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Maybe sometimes it does “dry up like a raisin in the sun.” Perhaps that is the ultimate American tragedy.

Rob Weir