Thursday, October 11, 2007

Further Thoughts on Bizarre and Grace-Filled

When Madeline Was Young
by Jane Hamilton

This book packs a wallop. You are reading along, caught up in the story, and then there will be an image or phrase that takes your breath away. The characters also stick with the reader - some of them seem as familiar as family members. Hamilton has a way of showing people at their highest potential while at the same time acknowledging that we are all flawed and broken, that no motives or actions are entirely pure. Reminds me of Calvin's doctrine of total depravity, although not quite as harsh, because she acknowledges the potential for good in all people mixed in with the inevitability of bad.

For example, Aaron and Julia are truly selfless in their devotion to Madeline. How many second wives would take on a disabled first wife that is never going to mature? Julia is a great character - she is an articulate anti-Vietnam peacenik who fights for and against all kinds of causes over the years. Her love for Madeline seems genuine and unconditional. However, one part kind of creeps me out - the way they keep Madeline - a grown woman, albeit a handicapped one - a child. She plays with dolls, attends children's birthday parties in the neighborhood, wears her hair in pigtails, and sits in her "parents'" laps. She even sleeps in their bed with them (not in a sexual way, but still). The character that "calls" Aaron and Julia on the inappropriateness of this is Aaron's sister Fiona ("Figgy"). She says they keep Madeline in their home out of guilt - that without her accident they would never have had their own relationship or their own children. Somehow they "owe" her. Also, the way they infantilize her keeps her from any possible growth and keeps the three of them from having to deal with the reality of Madeline being supplanted by Julia and the complications that would bring to the relationships. Some of this strangeness gets redeemed at the end of the story.

There is a poignant scene near the end of the book when Mac is showing his "sister" Madeline (now about 80 years old) around a part of Italy that she visited as a young girl, before her accident. He is trying desperately to bring back an old memory of a special experience that she had there. Try as he might, that part of Madeline's mind is erased. Mac is patient and kind, but saddened that she cannot remember something that at one time gave her such joy. Made me think of the times when Jesus tried to help the disciples or the crowds "get" something important. Sometimes I picture him as exasperated and frustrated when I read those stories in the Bible. Mac and Madeline make me think that maybe when we do not get something that Jesus is trying to tell us (or help us remember) he is more sad than anything else.

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