I’ve just finished reading “We Were the Mulvaneys” by Joyce Carol Oates. It was a heart wrenching novel- I kept feeling queasy with grief and pity for the characters, yet somehow couldn’t put it down either. It tells the story of a close knit farm family in rural New York in the 1970s. Their family unity begins to unravel when the only daughter is raped on prom night. Everyone in the small town moves to hush it up, and her own family isn’t sure how to respond. In fact, they end up sending her away in shame, as if she had never been, and she scurries away as if she deserved the humiliation.
This was the part of the story I struggled with most- whenever there is a character who can’t quite stand up for themselves or see their own worth, I feel impatient irritation. Why is it so hard for people to know they have intrinsic value? In Marianne’s case, I could see how she has been debased and shunned by her entire community and her own family and how she can’t quite set herself against all of that to fight. When at last a hint of redemption arrives for Marianne, I felt such gratitude. The scene I illustrated above is the one where she begins to heal at last- in a ramshackle old mansion and grounds that have been given over to the care of abused and neglected animals. The bedroom she chooses for herself overlooks the enclosure of two elephants rescued from an inhumane zoo, and finally, slowly, perhaps even reluctantly, she begins to become whole again.