Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

Joan Chase during-the-reign-of-the-queen-of-persia-421Lately I’ve read voraciously.  I’ve read everything from classics to superb literary fiction to junk disguised as literary fiction.

Tonight I’m writing about Joan Chase’s 1983 classic, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, reissued by NYRB.

First, let me say that Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is magnificent.  Set on an Ohio farm in the 1950s, it tells the story of three generations of women: Gram, also referred to as the Queen of Persia, is a sharp, often rude, old woman who rose from poverty and purchased the farm when an uncle took an interest in her and gave her money.  Gram has had a hard life:  she scorns her alcoholic husband.  After she does her housework, she dismisses the demands of family and goes out with her friends to the races or Bingo.  The women  dominate:  Gram and her five daughters and four granddaughters are the stars.

Chase daringly narrates the story from the first-person plural point of view (“we” did this, “we” did that); it is told by Lil’s four granddaughters, Celia, Jenny, Anne, and Katie.  This unusual literary voice can seem excessive and fail in lesser hands (and, alas, is not quite successful in a first novel I recently read, Tarashea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos), but Chase is always in control of her pitch-perfect, lyrical storytelling. The only other writer I can think of who holds the reins so tightly in a first-person-plural narrative is Margaret Drabble in her recent graceful novel, The Pure Gold Baby.

Gradually, we unravel the relationships between the women in Gram’s tight-knit, outspoken family.  They are constantly fighting and abusive, then turn suddenly laughing and supportive.  Three of Gram’s daughters, always referred to in the narrative as the aunts, live on the farm at least part of the time:  Aunt Libby with her kind husband, Uncle Dan, a butcher, and two daughters, Celia and Jenny (two of the narrators); Aunt Grace, a former schoolteacher who often leaves her husband to return home with her two daughters, Anne and Katie (the other two narrators);  Aunt Rachel and her son, Rossie, live there until Granddad dies; Aunt Elinor, a Christian Scientist and unsuccessful actress-singer, lives in New York; and Aunt May runs a hotel.

The novel opens with a vivid description of the “arable acres” that extend from the flat Lake Erie region of northern Ohio; and  from that description of the farms on gently rolling hills the story gradually rolls into the story of family life.

We get a picture of the small town near the farm.

Our Uncle Dan had his butcher shop on that town square.  It was on the backside, beside the newsstand, beyond which the city buses loaded.  When we went inside after the picture show or from shopping at Fitchberg’s Dry Goods, we’d finger pennies out of the cup he kept on the shelf and have a round pop of colored gum from the machine while we waited for Aunt Libby to drive from our farm to pick us up.  If Uncle Dan was busy with a customer he wouldn’t say a word to us, wouldn’t seem even to recognize us, going on with his practical and patient advice to any of his familiar clientele.

There is much humor, much of it about sex.  All of the aunts have been attractive and sexy, but Aunt Libby cannot adjust to her daughter Celia’s lasciviousness.  Celia is wild, dating several boys, going too far; Aunt Libby stays up late, flicking the lights, and fights with her daughter about the low-class boys she dates.  She only approves, ironically, of the one who turns out to be bad, though perhaps not as bad as she thinks.

The younger girls spy on Celia with boys, and want what she has for themselves, and know they will have “it,” because all the women in their family do.  But family comes first.

The men in the family are weak.  Granddad, an abusive alcoholic, is loved by his daughters and granddaughters, but hated by Gram.  Escaped or probably expelled from the Amish, he courted her and won her, then was violent.  Because of the money, Gram now has complete control.  But she despises her daughters’ husbands, with the exception of Uncle Dan, and loathes Aunt Grace’s husband, Neil, a weak, hard-drinking writer.

Much of the novel revolves around Aunt Grace’s tragic dying of cancer.  Gram rages, and the rest of the family, with the exception of Aunt Elinor, a Christian scientist, have trouble understanding the point of life and death.  Grace’s suffering is terrifying.

Gram is furious.

I should have strangled her with my own hands,” she cried out once, one of the outbursts which came seemingly from nowhere and left her momentarily crushed.

There is much talk of strangling in the novel:  “Now Anne was steaming, holding back but poised, so that we thought one more thing and she would leap on her sister and strangle her to death”;  Granddad once “glared as if he wanted to strangle the horse”; and after Aunt Grace’s death Anne and Katie fight and “Anne’s hands had strangled and at first she couldn’t get her breath.”

This is not a book about an ideal family.  It is about the kind of farm family so many of us knew in the Midwest when we were growing up in the 20th century.  These farms are gone.  These people are not and were never the sanitized farmers on television.

A fascinating novel, and with a fascinating introduction by Meghan O’Rourke.  This is one of best novels I’ve read this year.