Wet Hot Mississippian Summer

April 8, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished (but need to keep thinking about for a little while): The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Reading next: Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, and The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates.

A boy, Loch Morrison, patrols the outskirts of a summer camp for Christian girls and orphans, blowing reveille and fishing. Two girls from town are bedazzled by a firebrand orphan named Easter. A black boy tickles Easter on a diving board, sending her plunging into the lake, and Loch revives her with great difficulty. Later, exhausted, he undresses in his tent and the girls from town see him naked.

Doesn’t it sound like some coming-of-age movie? Kind of tired and nostalgic? It’s not. That’s the nutshell plot of “Moon Lake,” one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever read. Like everything else in this book, it’s mysterious and complicated and its plot is crucial but can’t tell you what’s great about it. Just for starters, Easter’s name seems to really be “Esther”: but she pronounces it “Easter,” and Welty approves the decision. Certainly seems appropriate, for a girl who plunges out of the sky like Icarus and is brought back from the dead like Christ by Loch, a knight-errant if there ever was one.

It has layer upon layer, this story. Most obviously, it’s about community: in the ways that Easter remains aloof from Nina and Jinny Love, the town girls, and from everyone to some extent; and the ways that Loch and Exum, the black boy, circle around the camp, outside of its protective circle. There’s the scene when the girls try to take a boat out on the lake but Nina can’t get free of the chain binding it to the shore: she wishes she had Easter’s knife to cut it loose. (But would a knife do any good on a chain?) And there’s a lot of sex simmering here: there’s the girls with each other, there’s Loch, there’s Miss Moody, their minder, sneaking away for dates. But hiding in plain sight, I suspect, is Welty’s story about Christianity: about Welty’s strange view of Christian legend blended with a pagan, Greek sensibility. There’s the fold-up drinking cup that acts as a Holy Grail; the Easter resurrection; the swims in Moon Lake, like an extended baptism.

None of that, to be honest, is what makes the story so great. It simply has such a magical tone: a feel for incident, language, word play that seems to carry Welty away along with all of us reading her words. The girls are always getting slathered with Sweet Dreams Mosquito Oil, and the story is very dreamy indeed. There’s something unforgettable about Loch, the Boy Scout/Galahad, out in the woods, blowing his bugle in the morning: you can feel how he somehow loves this duty, his sacrifice of summer alone in his tent. Something so interesting in this pubescent boy in the swamps. There’s such a mystery in his resuscitation of Easter, after her plunge into the lake: the way it takes forever to revive her, the way he’s imagined as “joining with” her under the lake when he dives in to find her, and then as riding her like a horse as he tries to get the water out of her lungs. And the language: there are these amazing passages:

Nina and Easter, dipping under a second, unexpected fence, went on, swaying and feeling their feet pulled down, reaching to the trees. Jinny Love was left behind in the heartless way people and incidents alike are thrown off in the course of a dream, like the gratuitous flowers scattered from a float — rather in celebration. The swamp was now all-enveloping, dark and at the same time vivid, alarming — it was like being inside the chest of something that breathed and might turn over.

Or this:

Easter was lying rocked in the gentle motion of the boat, her head turned on its cheek. She had not said hello to Jinny Love anew. Did she see the drop of water clinging to her lifted finger? Did it make a rainbow? Not to Easter: her eyes were rolled back, Nina felt. Her own hand was writing in the sand. Nina, Nina, Nina. Writing, she could dream that her self might get away from her — that here in this faraway place she could tell her self, by name, to go or to stay. Jinny Love had begun building a sand castle over her foot. In the sky clouds moved no more perceptibly than grazing animals. Yet with a passing breeze, the boat gave a knock, lifted and fell.

And so much beautiful imagery, scenery, description. There’s also this passage early on:

As the three were winding around the lake, a bird flying above the opposite shore kept uttering a cry and then diving deep, plunging into the trees there, and soaring to cry again.

“Hear him?” one of the niggers said, fishing on the bank; it was Elberta’s sister Twosie, who spoke as if a long, long conversation had been going on, into which she would intrude only the mildest words. “Know why? Know why, in de sky, he say ‘Spirit? Spirit?’ And den he dive boom and say ‘GHOST’?”

Ghosts pop up in the book, or seem to, more or less always associated with or seen by the black population of the town; it’s another thing I haven’t figured out. But this passage, with its interesting juxtaposition of spirit/ghost (Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost?), is most mysterious.

One last rambling thing: at the very end of the story, Jinny Love says to Nina, “You and I will always be old maids.” In the very next story/chapter, we find that she married Ran MacLain, and has cheated on him. Something strangely both dark and sweet in this, it seems to me, this utterly incorrect prognostication at summer camp to a best friend — this utter lack of self-knowledge.

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§ 2 Responses to Wet Hot Mississippian Summer

  • jaime says:

    Where to start with this story??

    To me, the camp at Moon Lake is an Eden, an image of death, and the purgatory before puberty.

    The name “Easter” (Esther) seems to have a voodoo all it’s own, as when Nina tries to teach her the proper spelling and Jinny Love proclaims it’s not a real name. (“I let myself name myself” “Spell it right and it’s real!”) Easter/Esther are biblical names, of course, but she’s also Eurydice, right? With her eye always on snakes. . . she thinks the willow switch is a snake and that’s why she falls, I think. And Loch is Orpheus, too, making the girls cry with the beauty of his trumpet playing in the woods.

    When Jinny and Nina overtake Easter while playing hooky, her lips are stained with blackberries. Perfect, for these fruits often symbolized death in mythology (for the dark, bloodlike juice). Nina imagines Easter as a pear. Jinny complains that all she can think about are the figs at home. Jinny’s mom brings watermelons in the end. All of these fruits probably have specific meanings Welty is slipping in, but in general it reinforces the feeling of Eden, and the Fall. Snakes and fruit everywhere in this story.

    Since I doubt you’ll devote a post to “The Whole World Knows”–another note on Jinny Love. While at Moon Lake for camp, she’s reading “The Recreation of Brian Kent,” a novel about a man married to a materialistic woman who cheats on him. This wife eventually drowns in a river (freeing Brian to marry a virtuous woman), though he tries to save her. At the lifesaving Jinny is proudly a witness at the foot of the cross (shooing mosquitoes rather than offering a sponge of wine), while Ran stumbles in with dogs, worried only about the next day’s hunting. Inauspicious, to say the least. [Aphrodite and Hephaestus, in a way. Ran the slowpoke.]

  • willhansen2 says:

    Thanks for pointing out the Orpheus/Eurydice allusions: I didn’t notice that. I forgot that Eurydice was killed by a snake.

    While we’re on mythology, I loved that it’s named Moon Lake: it’s the lake of Artemis/Diana, the moon goddess, the huntress, the virgin, the “protectress of dewy youth,” as Edith Hamilton puts it. Another interesting note here: she becomes in the Latin poets like Ovid connected with Hecate, the triform goddess of darkness. Near the end this sentence appears: “That was Miss Moody in still a third manifestation.” The manifestations appear to be schoolteacher, bathing beauty, and lover (of Ran MacLain). But Miss Moody seems more Aphrodite at other times: her bathing cap with a butterfly, her beauty creams, her dates with not one but two different boys named “Rudy,” a Joycean name alluding to “ruddy,” as in red, as in Ares and/or red-faced Hephaestus.

    Thanks also for the “Brian Kent” explication; I had meant to look it up, but hadn’t. It was a wildly popular book in its time, apparently.

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