FOR ALL THOSE who believe that the world is hopelessly unjust and that it is the fate of the talented but unconnected writer to languish forever on the vine, let us consider as the lesson for today the case of Louise Shivers. According to the press release which accompanies review copies of Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, she was a participant four years ago in a writing program at Augusta College, in Georgia, where she lives; she was the mother of three grown children and is now a grandmother. She was, in other words, the classic undiscovered writer: a married woman nearing middle age, languishing at a backwater college, scribbling away at her stories and (we must assume) nourishing wildly unrealistic hopes for them.
But the judge for that 1979 workshop at Augusta College was Mary Gordon, the author of Final Payments and The Company of Women. She was sufficiently impressed by what she saw of Louise Shivers' work that, according to the press release, "she asked to see the first draft of her novel when it was finished." Over the ensuing months the manuscript wound its way from Gordon to her agent to an editor at Random House--and now, in the tale's singularly gratifying climax, to the bookstores, in copies adorned with laudatory comments by Eudora Welty, Erskine Caldwell and, of course, Mary Gordon. Justice, for once, has been done.
And what is most wonderful of all about this story, what gives it the absolutely perfect ending, is that justice really has been done. Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail is a breathtakingly accomplished piece of work that in no way betrays its author's inexperience. With startling economy, Shivers presents us with a cast of convincing, sympathetic characters, locates them in a time and place we immediately recognize as being exactly accurate, and invests their lives with genuine importance. The evidence presented by one slender novel is not enough on which to base any sweeping judgments, but it certainly is difficult to escape the conclusion that we have here the makings of a late-blooming Flannery O'Connor.
The story begins in February of 1937 and ends in October. Mostly it takes place on a tobacco farm about 10 miles out of Tarborough, a "good, wide little town" in North Carolina where "in the summers any little stir from the branches fanned the cured tobacco smell from the warehouses and sealed it over the center of town like a jar lid." The narrator is Roxy Walston: 20 years old, daughter of the owner of the Stanton Funeral Home in Tarborough, wife of Aaron Walston, mother of 2-year- old Baby. She is oddly, vaguely discontented, and when several children are killed in a school-bus accident she is moved to reflection:
"But in a week, voices picked up, washing and ironing went on. The same train pulled into the depot. Buses ran again. The little graves shrank in the ground, becoming low leaf molds. And one day the same gravedigger will dig a grave for Daddy, and someone will dig one for me, and when that time comes, when I'm dying, will I feel as puzzled as I do now, unstrung, unquieted, my heart like a grape stain with no wine made? It seems like the grapes are in here squeezing, fermenting, but what has happened to the wine? All I've had is the 'play like' wine at church. 'Play like this grape juice is wine,' play like this wine is blood, drink this in remembrance of--of--what am I playing like with Aaron and the farm and the baby?"
Soon enough she is playing with fire: Jack Ruffin, "as wiry and tight as a coiled bedspring," who comes to help Aaron with the farm and in return is given a room in the house. Almost wordlessly, they are drawn together: "Once we started doing it, we just couldn't stop." It is "dangerous, terrible"--"I'd realized by then that the fond feeling I'd had for Aaron was just a weak hum compared to the raging thing in my chest now. I didn't think about the rest of my life. I didn't care. I had to have him. The way his eyes looked at me across the room told me he felt the same." She is in a passionate dance with something unknown and alluring and menacing: "Had I turned bad because I was lonesome and liked to hear words whispered to me, words like 'pretty,' words like 'smart'?"
Matters are totally beyond her control. Briefly she has hope that "maybe the bad is over," that "maybe we can forget, just forget everything that's happened this summer and start all over," go back to the "safe home" that she and Aaron had made. But that small hope is quickly dashed, with a cruelty and finality that seem to destroy her world forever. Only through a great force of will, through the emergence of a fierce determination in place of the passivity that had been her accustomed response to life, is she able to wrench herself back together and begin the long labor of recovery.
Although set during the Depression, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail is clearly informed by the contemporary feminist convictions that are implicit in its title; in great measure it is the story of how a woman can allow her life to be bent out of shape by "always doing something some man thought she ought to do." But this is a home truth, not a concession to political or cultural fashion; if anything, this delineation of the ways in which a woman can unwittingly collaborate in her own constriction is all the more powerful precisely because in time and place it is so distant from today's sophisticated but predictable rhetoric.
But more than a book about a woman and her place, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail is about the ways in which people try to make do with the portions fate has meted out to them. "You just do what you have to do, Roxy," her stepmother says. "Life's full of little crooks and corners. You never know which a way you're going to be pulled next. Nearly everybody in the world's got some kind of secret, but everybody doesn't get found out and have their picture put in the paper." It is important that Roxy is a woman, but it is even more important that she is a human being and that in the end she is able to begin coming to terms with the conditions of her mortality.
Comparisons with Flannery O'Connor may seem excessive--though Shivers clearly is not in the business of imitating anyone--yet comparions almost insist on being made, and not merely because both writers are concerned with the poor rural folk of the South. Like O'Connor, Shivers writes with clarity; each of her words counts and has meaning. Like O'Connor, she colors her story with a wry, self-mocking humor that eases the burden of its harsh events. Like O'Connor, she is concerned about ordinary people whose ordinary lives always contain the makings of the extraordinary. Like O'Connor, she knows how to mix tough-mindedness with compassion. And here is more good news: Shivers says, (in Random House's press release) "I feel I have so many more books in me and more stories to tell."