I’m not sure how Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages ended up on my Goodreads “to-read” shelve; I just know it’s been there for years. The author may sound familiar to you; Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” one of the most famous short stories in American lit. [Have I heard of it? Yep. Have I read it? Nope.] Life Among the Savages has quite a different tone of voice. It’s funny. It’s a voice you can picture Myrna Loy playing on the silver screen. It’s sarcastic and witty in a time when sarcasm and wit from a woman are rare.
Apparently, Life Among the Savages is memoir-esque. The time is the early 1950s. The place is rural Vermont. Our main character and her husband (neither of which are ever identified by name, only first-person identifiers and “my husband”) move out of their city apartment to rent a big house in Vermont. With it comes a way of life they’re….unaccustomed to—more space, more things to break down, and oh, who’s going to learn to drive a car? Also, there are kids. Three kids later and it’s easy to say the home is no longer as peaceful as it once was. Our narrator’s life is now filled with keeping peace between her three energetic progeny and basically making sure the house doesn’t fall apart.
Jackson must have a gift for story-telling, because it’s not so much what’s happening but rather how she tells it. The life chronicled here is pretty simple, pretty ordinary. You could finish the last page and say, “Well ok, that’s it?” because there’s no plot or rise and fall to action. Rather, it’s the voice of Jackson that makes the story something because it’s so unique. She’s untraditional in that her words lack sentimentality; like I said, she’s witty and a little bit ridiculous. She’s painting a picture of a life familiar to so many at the time (and so stereotypical to us now!), but what makes you want to actually read it is how she paints that picture.
Just one example of a humorous passage:
“I do not know what the official world’s record might be for getting out from under a blanket, flying across a room, opening a door and a screen door, and getting outside onto a porch with both doors closed behind you, but if it is more than about four seconds, I broke it. I thought the bat was chasing me, for one thing. And i knew that, if the bat were chasing me, my husband was aiming that gun at it, wherever it was….Inside, there was a series of crashes. I recognized the first as the report of the air gun. The second sounded irresistibly like a lamp going over, which is what it turned out to be.”
I don’t think there was enough of a story here to make this read a really memorable one, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It was an entertaining read and an amusing voice (and author) to discover.