Fall 1987, Volume 4.2
Sideways to the Sun by Linda Sillitoe. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987, x+255pp., $7.95.
Don McDermott is completing his Ph.D. in creative writing and literature at Oklahoma State University. He has published fiction in George Washington Review, The Midland Review, and Weber Studies.
Sideways to the Sun is an intriguing novel of an ordinary life turned on its head and of a model marriage re-examined from the inside out. More specifically it is the story of a woman who loses her husband—and perhaps this is commonplace enough. What is extraordinary is that this willful event is not foreshadowed by the slightest wrinkle in routine—not even a half fanciful premonition. The husband and father simply vanished one day as though he had stepped onto a magic bus or fallen between the cracks in the neighborhood sidewalk. Intriguing as this is, I also found it somewhat disturbing. This man was a dues-paying elder. Their marriage was solomnized in a Mormon Temple. This sort of inexplicable thing just isn't supposed to happen.
It is a simple story, but one that turns and twists in directions peculiarly original and distinctively Mormon. What does a woman think when a trustworthy husband and devoted father goes to work and doesn't return? What macabre scenarios does a wife entertain? What does she tell the children, and when? What sort of help does she get from the church, and what sort of roles, self-imposed and otherwise, does a woman, now neither divorced nor married, play in a congregation organized like wagons in a circle for the defense of the family unit?
There is much ore to be mined in this simplest of plots and Sillitoe in many instances gives us the purest metal. Megan, the deserted wife, begins in the narrative very much the "everywoman." She has seemingly nothing unique in her past, nor, I think, is it Sillitoe's strategy to show us Megan as distinctly individual in a culture in which roles are so rigidly defined. The curious incident of a missing husband and the typical psychological reaction of a dutiful and trusting wife consumes many of the opening chapters. It is, however, notable that in a very real way Megan becomes a unique character only after she moves into the Twilight Zone of the deserted, only after she begins a life that tests her, sets her apart, and vindicates her. What Sillitoe presents initially is a mere Mormon model, which she breaks into pieces and reconstructs into a strong character in a compelling situation.
Sideways to the Sun also reveals strong secondary characters who, while they do not suffer the growth of Megan, are none the less interestingly rendered. There is a son Scott, who, wanting some continuance with a father's memory, schemes to obtain a pair of his father's cufflinks. There is the daughter Elinor, who plays with pencils, investing them with personalities and problems as another child would a Barbie Doll. And there is Becky, the oldest daughter who, seeking the emotional security only a father can give, becomes romantically involved with a seminary teacher who has a hidden and fundamentalist's agenda of his own.
What is lacking for the most part—and here two reasonable critics may disagree—is the portrayal and analysis of the husband. We discover eventually the mystery behind his departure and the something of the rather exotic lifestyle he has chosen for himself. What is not included is the penetration of his actual motives and weaknesses. How does a man turn his back on a marriage certified in heaven?
The novel is never didactic, nor does it seek to push the reader into the feminist or cynic's corner. It is not without irony and the style resembles very much the terse, comic and pointed narrative style of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway's "code" and literary experience rarely took him beyond the description of passion and estranged romance. For this he was often dubbed the "Man's Man." Linda Sillitoe, in a similar and forceful style that also relies heavily on dramatically and subtly rendered dialogue, is a "Woman's Woman," formulating in this her first novel a creed and perspective that have nothing to do with the values or self-imaging vision of the "Lost Generation." Consider the continuity of life and expanded perspective in the closing passage of her novel:
. . . Spring was truly here now with no turning back. Dust danced in the sunlight, sparkling, vanishing, tracking air currents Megan could barely perceive. The chair arm under her fingers felt sticky. She inspected it and found smudges and tiny dents where Pooky had chewed on it. Who else had cut teeth that way on their old coffee table? Becky? Elinor?
Suddenly the room seemed full of marks and prints, smeared and overlapped, a detective's heyday. Invisible footprints marched toward and away from the front door. Richard's. Scott's. Kristin's. Becky's. Alan's. . . . Everywhere in this house, Megan understood, were her own prints, like a potter's hands on clay. Even her touch was forgotten, it became imprinted. Everyone's did. Now distracted, now intent, they all went on shaping by sun and dusk what never seemed quite ready for the kiln. (254-255)
Let us give Hemingway his dictum that each man feels himself ultimately alone and experiences life as an island; but for Linda Sillitoe, most women have a wider identity and experience it as a family.