By Suzanne Strempek Shea. New York. Pocket Books. 1999. 273 pages. Hardback. $22.00.
Lily's story begins at the age of ten when she discovers drawing. It concludes when she is forty, and when she defines herself as an artist. Between discovery and culmination she lives and works shapelessly by taking odd jobs which utilize her talent, until a commission is handed her to paint a family portrait. That responsibility sets her off in a forward direction, and her life takes shape.
Toward the end of her story she muses:
My life itself has been a box. One thing to most people who saw it, something else to me, who got the best look inside, who got to shake it, to open it, to guess that all the many pieces inside might come together to make something way beyond any imaginings.
Lily of the Valley, Suzanne Strempek Shea's third novel is set, like her first two, in a small Polish-American town in Massachusetts. The town, the inhabitants, and the heroine are ordinary, so ordinary that they would surely invoke horror and rejection by the nubile beauty featured in the current hit film, American Beauty. If the ordinary is not attractive, how is it that this author has produced a compelling story?
She makes the ordinary matter. She does what we all wish the evening news would do: infuse the ordinary with importance. She describes without judging or analyzing and does it with a skill, which makes the ordinary town, with its ordinary people, come alive via the perception of the ordinary protagonist who speaks in first person singular.
The three novels of Suzanne Strempek Shea have some common denominators. All involve the journey of a young woman who lacks direction and/or is thrown off balance by an unexpected event. In Hoopi Shoopi Donna, a newcomer to the family and subsequent alienation from her father fractures Donna Milewski's life. This second novel is suffused with American Polishness and linkage to the old country.
In the first of the three novels, Selling the Lite of Heaven, the protagonist is so anchored in her family and community that we do not even learn her name. Instead we learn the name of Edna, her mother, who raised her daughter only to be good. Goodness does not cushion the daughter against adversity, nor does it teach her to take charge of her life. Her story concludes when she finds direction. Compared to Hoopi Shoopi Donna, this story's Polishness is muted.
Lily Wilk's immediate family is peripheral to her story, which develops when Lily is commissioned to paint the portrait of another woman's family. Family pervades the three novels. The first two provoke the conclusion that the lack of worldliness exhibited by the young women protagonists is the result of excessive cocooning within the family. Donna is so enamored of her family, particularly her father, that his mistaken disapproval locks her into a reactively punitive mode. Her energy and potential for further development go on hold. The nameless daughter in Selling the Lite of Heaven, has been rendered passive because her mother set no goals for her, except to be good.
Donna Milewski and Edna's daughter are so dependent on their families that they have no reason, desire, or will toward autonomy. Lily Wilk demonstrates a similar personality without taking the reader through the details of its formation and the way it plays out within the family. Such powerful family cohesion, which a negative reading might label stifling, presents a provocative contrast to the family dynamics in American Beauty, where parental self-absorption and unconcern with goodness has emancipated the daughter to full awareness that she must depend only on herself, and must find her own direction. The family in the movie consists of three persons preoccupied with themselves.
How do we account for these disparate family dynamics in the same culture? Are the novels of Suzanne Strempek Shea representative of the history of Poles in America? Is the Polish commitment to family and community at odds with the American mainstream? It would appear so at this point in time. Strempek Shea's people show no interest in (upward) mobility, they appear not to even know that there is a fast track. Does this posture account for Polish American lack of visibility and political clout in this country? Are we so wedged in the family, so grounded in the community, and so unwilling to be autonomous as to disqualify for a position in the mainstream cultural model? And is this the result of Polish history brought over in our cultural genes?
There is an opinion that in the nineteenth century, Poles began overprotecting their children, that they cocooned them into an educative formula which consisted of Catholic nationalism and preoccupation with the past. If that is so and if it can be said that Polish Americans continue this practice, then it should come as no surprise that Polish Americans are out of step with the mainstream culture. After all, American parents feel obliged to promote the autonomy of their children, to segregate the generations, and promote individual freedom instead of kinship. Families uproot themselves and spread out geographically (dwindling parts of the American South are close to the Polish formula) in pursuit of economic opportunities. Retirees, without the excuse of economic incentive, move to the "sun belt" or just move for the sake of moving. Family interdependence is not promoted but rejected in the name of psychic health as represented by autonomy and individual freedom. According to these criteria, Lily of the Valley does show signs of the slackening of the Polish formula because the reader learns much less about the nature of Lily's relationship with her parents, because her parents plan to move to Florida (though her mother assures her that she has her own room in the new house), and because Lily appears less imbedded in her family. Can it be that Suzanne Strempek Shea is working herself out of the Polish American formula?
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