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2017 Book Discussions > All the Living - Whole Book Discussion, Spoilers Allowed (February 2017)

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message 1: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2589 comments Mod
Since this is a relatively short book, I thought we could make do with a single thread for discussing the whole book.

Some questions to get the discussion started but feel free to add your own or just comment on what interested/moved/confused you:
- How would you characterize the change in Aloma and Orren's relationship over the course of the book?
- What role do grief and loss play in this novel?
- What did certain things symbolize for the characters, or for you as a reader (e.g., the piano and music for Aloma, the two different properties on the farm for Orren, the landscape itself, etc.)?
- How did you feel about the couple's future in terms of the way the book ended?


message 2: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2588 comments Mod
Thanks for kicking this off Marc - you have raised some interesting questions.
I'll have a go at answering them, but these are rather hazy impressions that I may refine once I have given them more thought.


- How would you characterize the change in Aloma and Orren's relationship over the course of the book?
It went through many changes but was never fully resolved - I didn't feel they knew one another even at the end

- What role do grief and loss play in this novel?
I think it is pretty central to understanding Orren's state of mind, rather less so for Aloma because hers was pretty much her entire life story and being orphaned clearly shaped her character

- What did certain things symbolize for the characters, or for you as a reader (e.g., the piano and music for Aloma, the two different properties on the farm for Orren, the landscape itself, etc.)?
I didn't really give the symbolism much thought, and I'm not sure I can answer that one

- How did you feel about the couple's future in terms of the way the book ended?
I felt this was left very ambiguous

feel free to add your own
I thought the language was very interesting.
Coming from Britain, the Kentucky dialect feels very alien, and I am not sure how much of the style reflects common usage in everyday speech there.
I guessed that holler was a local variant of hollow, but until I looked it up I didn't realise that it can be more specific than that.
I did notice a lot of what I would consider to be nouns and adjectives being used as verbal constructions - some of these are quite familiar for example greyed/greying but many of the ones in the book sounded rather odd to my British ear - perhaps because we have lost this from our own everyday speech. I don't have the book in front of me but I well try to find some examples.

I would also be interested in exploring the role of religion in the story - it is not entirely clear to me where Morgan's sympathies lie.

Overall I thought it was pretty impressive for a debut novel, and I particularly liked the way she brought the landscape to life.


message 3: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2589 comments Mod
Thanks for getting us started, Hugh! I definitely think religion is a worthwhile topic. I'll hold off for a day or two with my own thoughts to give others a chance to comment first. It is an impressive debut novel and I particularly enjoyed Morgan's use of language.


message 4: by Neil (new)

Neil | 306 comments I thought Orren and Aloma's relationship did more in a few months than most couples get through in a lifetime! But I am not sure how well they actually got to know one another. This relates to the second question, because it feels like Orren has withdrawn into himself because of grief. We don't get to hear much inner dialogue, but I think Orren's opaqueness is deliberate on the part of the author - a hard man to love.

Like Hugh, I didn't pay much attention to symbolism as I read. It seems that the piano symbolises dreams/ambitions. The piano in the house is broken beyond repair, the one in the church brings release, the one at Bell's is a disappointment. Maybe that tells us something.

I'm not sure where the relationship is headed at the end of the book. I felt a bit let down by the ending, if I am honest.


message 5: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2304 comments Marc, thanks for these great starting questions. I think everyone knows I loved the book. I am much pleased to have the chance to discuss it with this group.

- How would you characterize the change in Aloma and Orren's relationship over the course of the book?
They both grew up quite a bit but in different ways, which initially resulted in their growing about and then beginning to move back towards each other.

- What role do grief and loss play in this novel?
Grief and loss are huge in this novel. Aloma and Orren both suffer grief and loss but of different kinds. Orren is devastated by the loss of his family and determined to keep the farm alive. He finds it hard to move on from the loss. Alma suffers loss of a different kind - she has lost her piano and her dream for the future. And it also seems she is losing Orren. He is almost blinded by grief from being able to see what she has given up for him. She cannot appreciate his grief because she never really had a family.

- What did certain things symbolize for the characters, or for you as a reader (e.g., the piano and music for Aloma, the two different properties on the farm for Orren, the landscape itself, etc.)? The things you mention in connection with these two are what defined them as individuals. For Aloma, it is the music she can make; for Orren the farm represents his life and his family. He cannot bring himself to disturb the old home but is not comfortable in the new.

- How did you feel about the couple's future in terms of the way the book ended? Only time will tell, but at least they have taken steps towards each other rather than moved further apart.

I agree with Hugh that the language is interesting. She writes this with a very regional voice that must sound very strange to Hugh's British ear. It is not my home geographic region, but I have been there. I also agree with Hugh that religion has a role in the novel, although more as an undercurrent than as a surface issue. I look forward to more discussion on this point.

I also think the author does a marvelous job with place. I know what farm life is like and her descriptions of the farm pulled me back to those years -- the backbreaking work, the birth of animals, and more. Aloma had no idea what she was getting herself into and Orren was too exhausted/had no time to help her acclimate.


message 6: by Viv (new)

Viv JM | 62 comments Linda - I can see why you loved this book. I found it really got under my skin. I loved the language and the descriptions of place.

I am not sure how I feel about the ending or what the religious message is. The marriage felt so rushed that I couldn't help thinking of the phrase "marry in haste repent at leisure" (though I married my husband after only six months together, and we're still going strong 18 years later!) Aloma and Orren both feel like damaged people, and I wonder if they will just be lonely together rather than helping each other. I don't know if it's a cultural difference between the largely secular UK and the more Christian southern states of America, but the religious disapproval of Aloma & Orren living out of wedlock felt kind of old fashioned to me.

I found the scene with the cow being born very emotional and symbolic of the fragility of life, but also quite hopeful and I think that was such a turning point in the relationship too.

This book is so quiet and with little "action" as such, but I found it profoundly moving. I just wish I could articulate why a little better!!


message 7: by Nutmegger (new)

Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments I just started this after reading The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. I must say ATL is a nice calming change of pace. So far the writing reminds me a bit of Barbara Kingsolver.

I enjoyed the scene with Aloma in the country store; good to see the heroine has some sass.


message 8: by Lily (last edited Feb 03, 2017 09:44PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Viv wrote: "I just wish I could articulate why a little better!! ..."

My guess is the use of language was a big influence on your reaction. I haven't finished the book, I got diverted. (One of the things I dislike about this board; we basically don't read together. But I should just adjust and accept that by now....) But it is the sentences that will largely draw me back. Morgan is no Durrell (Alexandria Quartet), but she has much of the same magic for drawing a scene or a mood. She is one of those writers who lets me be frustrated with so many other writers, because she demonstrates what can be done with words.

I'm not hooked on the story yet. I'm still trying to figure out whether I am really happy having to back fill so much of the journey of the protagonists. But I sense that it is creating an effect the author intended. I haven't been able to put a name to it, however. (Beyond just being a fashionable way of mixing up time order these days.)

I am enjoying the reaction of the British readers to the word forms and usage. So long as it is English/American, I'm not particularly sensitive to dialect/regional variations, so it is wonderful when someone else recognizes and points it out.


message 9: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2589 comments Mod
Thanks for all the great answers and comments so far.

Sounds like major consensus exists when it comes to Morgan's use of language and ability to create such a visceral sense of place. Plot and pace seem to be the main criticismI've seen about this book (when I've actually seen criticism). Despite its intense physicality (from the sex to the detailed physical labor and farm animals), most of the "story" is an internal one shaped by small choices (not telling the church/preacher who she lives with, Orren not communicating at all--neither asking or demanding help, etc).

What did readers think of the pace?

Which reason did you feel was the strongest one for Aloma not revealing her relationship to the preacher and church at first? Did the reason(s) for her continuing to keep it a secret change as the story progressed?


message 10: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2304 comments I thought the pace of the novel was fine. It felt like the pace of life on a farm -- new to Aloma and normal for Orren. Most is pure drudgery but then there is a bit of excitement -- an emergency, an injury, a birth, a beautiful sunrise, sunset, or rainbow.

Aloma did not reveal her relationship because she was not married to Orren. She knew that was not socially acceptable. Oh my -- the pianist is living in sin. I really do not think the core reason changed, even as Bell became attractive to her. But, as with anything kept a secret too long, the repercussions from the secret being disclosed increase.

I keep thinking of the interview with Murphy about how life being hard helps one grow as a person. I think that is a theme in this book. Aloma is a much stronger person at the end of the book than she was at the beginning. She is more mature and stronger.


message 11: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2589 comments Mod
I didn't read Aloma quite so innocently with regard to Bell, Linda. When he asks her about why she drove by without stopping, Morgan writes:
"I don't know. I guess I'm just shy, she said finally, and she hated herself powerfully as she said it, for it was not true exactly, but a seduction by meekness."
Orren certainly sees her as "fixin' to leave" and the one who is "looking out". I wondered if Bell had not found out the truth and confronted her with it, whether she would have gotten involved with him... Thoughts?

Her maturity definitely seems like an issue in the beginning and I find myself still asking why she chose to stay--felt less like love than a willingness to see things through... to struggle through the hard parts of life as Linda mentioned (although maybe the quote about "all the living" below explains it)...

A few passages that caught my eye:
"She said the music was found in the silence as much as the sound. The pauses birthed the phrase and funeraled it too, the only thing that gave the intervening life of rising and falling pitch any meaning. Without silence there was no respite from the cacophony, the endless chatter and knocking..."

"Better to visit the house of mourning than the house of feasting, for to be mourned is the lot of every man and the living should take this to heart. She scowled at the verse, shifted hard in her seat, and snapped the book shut. It was not like one of her scores, she could never find in it what she needed."
(Seems kind of ironic that she has to "practice religion" in order to play music. As readers, can we answer the question of what it is she "needed"? Does she herself know?)

"It shimmied and snaked there, it seemed to advance and still Aloma could not move her feet and with an impassivity that would later startle her, she saw straight through the funnel to the trees on the other side and she knew suddenly, as though the thought had been gifted to her, that the wrecking blast of the funnel cloud was also God's creation along with the dirt of the farm and her stricken face and all the rest of the living too."
(Hearkens back to the quote from Ecclesiastes (9:3) in the front matter: "... same fate comes to everyone. ...But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.")

"She wondered if all men could sleep this soundly under duress, fast to trust their own bodies and closing their eyes to everything else. but she did not know any other men, had not seen the way she slept, and she wondered as she looked at the screen how it would feel to have someone else sleep beside her, or be inside her even, and if that would speak to her happiness, which she felt lay unborn within her."



message 12: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2589 comments Mod
Neil wrote: I'm not sure where the relationship is headed at the end of the book. I felt a bit let down by the ending, if I am honest."

Neil, would you tell us a bit more about why you felt let down by the ending? Were you looking for more closure or certainty, or something else?

How did others take the ending?


message 13: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2304 comments Marc, I did not mean to imply that she was not "tempted" by Bell. I have no doubt that she was. I don't, however, think she would have become involved with him if her "secret" came out. Why I give her that much credit, I'm not sure. Perhaps it is what she does after the secret is out. Or my sense that things would have been so much worse when the secret was revealed after sexual involvement with Bell. And what would it have gained her? That she lived with Orren was going to come out sooner or later. If she had been involved with Bell, they would both have been ruined in that community.

Does she know what she needed? Well it certainly wasn't the house of mourning, as that was where she was living with Orren. She could find what she needed in music. And that rings true, especially after reading The Big Green Tent and Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The music was alive to her and it made her feel alive -- "whoever is joined with all the living has hope."


message 14: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2589 comments Mod
I meant if her secret had stayed secret just a bit longer, something might have happened... A line crossed, if you will. I think Morgan intentionally plays with the tension there. I guess Bell does provide a kind of potential escape for her--a man actually looking to get married who seems to give her time and attention. You're right--in such a small community, there is no way her secret wouldn't have eventually come out. Do you think Aloma resents Orren not marrying her right away because of how it looks socially (shameful/living in sin) or because she feels he doesn't appropriately value/appreciate her?


message 15: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2304 comments I think Aloma is annoyed by Orren because he asked her to come live with him and then has no time for her. Maybe that can be described as not appropriately valuing or appreciating her. He has no time for her because he is bound up in his grief and the overwhelming burden of work. He may not even appreciate how much she does not know about how a farm works - he seems to have wanted her because he did not want to be alone in his misery but he sure did not know how to convey that or to get much comfort from her presence, or maybe he did get comfort without appreciating that he was giving none. Neither of them did a particularly good job in communicating (and there is no harder thing to do). But life went on and things happened. Somehow they managed not to completely write each other off. We don't hear Orren's side of the story - we see him only through Aloma's eyes because this was Aloma's story.

Resentment seems a bit harsh but there may be some of that -- how could Orren ask her to come and then basically ignore her, not seeming to care about how she was adapting.


message 16: by Neil (new)

Neil | 306 comments Marc wrote: "Neil wrote: I'm not sure where the relationship is headed at the end of the book. I felt a bit let down by the ending, if I am honest."

Neil, would you tell us a bit more about why you felt let do..."


Fundamentally, it seemed the book settled on a choice between two men. The other option - get the hell out and follow your dreams - didn't seem to get a look in. I'm not saying that's what the ending should have been, but it would have been good if the possibility had been explored.

But then, maybe that's me being a dreamer rather than a realist.


message 17: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Neil wrote: "The other option - get the hell out and follow your dreams - didn't seem to get a look in...."

I said the same of a young Rust Belt woman being interviewed this week.

But then, maybe that's me being a dreamer rather than a realist.

Or perhaps it is because you are a man. I'm not far enough to speak adequately yet, but I get a sense from what I have read so far that Aloma has some perceptions of being a woman that get in her way.


message 18: by Kay (last edited Feb 08, 2017 06:14AM) (new)

Kay | 73 comments I have to say I was a bit let down by this book - the writing was the saving grace for me. The way Morgan creates farm life was incredibly well done and realistic and the pace matched it perfectly. However, something was missing for me - I think I would have liked more on her relationship with Bell (I didn't quite buy into her attraction to him - it felt too rushed), and I agree with Neil that her desire to leave in order to play the piano was not explored well. I would understand if she is giving up everything she dreamed of because of her love for Orren, but that love didn't seem very strong either. Orren's character - the difficult man to love - was a bit cliched, but I guess the loss he suffered could explain him being so closed off in himself and not willing or capable to ask for help or even talk to Aloma.
I also agree with others that they didn't really know each other at the end of the novel and will probably continue being lonely in their separate ways.
Can anyone pinpoint the time period of this story? It felt dated to me, even if it takes place in the conservative South.


message 19: by Viv (new)

Viv JM | 62 comments I felt slightly sad that Aloma seemed to be giving up everything for Orren in the end. Music is clearly important to her, and would she get the opportunity to play piano in her role as dutiful farmer's wife? (I know she does talk about tutoring kids to play) I suppose partly that comes from considering her life through a contemporary lens. Like Kay, I am not sure what period of history this is supposed to be set in? I'd be interested to know!


message 20: by Neil (last edited Feb 08, 2017 07:06AM) (new)

Neil | 306 comments Kay wrote: "Can anyone pinpoint the time period of this story? It felt dated to me, even if it takes place in the conservative South."

I believe it is the 1980s. I think that's one of the reasons I was hoping for a bit more "girl power". It doesn't feel like the 1980s as you read it, but being British and not knowing anything about Kentucky in the 1980s means I really don't know how true to life in that time and place it actually is.


message 21: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2589 comments Mod
Neil, the publisher has a reading group guide and one of their questions is right up your alley:
"Though All the Living unfolds in the 1980s, many members of this community hold fast to old- fashioned attitudes. What are the costs and benefits of living in a locale that is removed, in some ways, from the modern world?"

Given that Morgan grew up in this region during that time period, I'm guessing this is fairly representative of that time and place.

The publisher also frames Aloma's struggle as a choice "to fight her way to independence or accept the rigors of commitment", which is very much in alignment with the comments above about finding her role, pursuing her dreams, etc. It did feel to me like we're short-changed a bit on Aloma in terms of more fully understanding her motivations and attachments... Morgan almost paints her like one of the farm animals in terms of being driven more by instinct. The character edges near the cliche of the unthinking woman driven by emotion and passion alone. I think Aloma is more than that, but that other side remains a mystery.


message 22: by Dianne (last edited Feb 08, 2017 09:53AM) (new)

Dianne | 204 comments Marc wrote: "Neil, the publisher has a reading group guide and one of their questions is right up your alley:
"Though All the Living unfolds in the 1980s, many members of this community hold fast to old- fashio..."


I was, like others, let down by the ending but I think my question was WHY aloma and orren opt for the choice they do at the end. I can't imagine they will be happy! Their relationship went downhill after Orren suffered such unspeakable grief, and he handled it in his own quiet way. I was impressed, however, about how the couple initially seemed to coordinate and cooperate without verbal communication. Aloma over time felt increasingly alone in the partnership, and chafed at the traditional role she was ill equipped and not interested in fulfilling. So why did she stay? I think if Bell had pursued her she absolutely would have left Orren for him. When he chided her for her behavior she felt shamed, and did not have the wherewithal to leave Orren, particularly as she did not have a family infrastructure to fall back upon. She did say that she loved Orren and loved speaking with him and missed him when they were not together, but as he pointed out she had been looking 'outside' and had one foot out the door. I suspect those kind sentiments would not hold for much longer, marriage or no. Meanwhile, Orren, bereft of family but beholden to his farm and traditional views, was quick to marry Aloma once he realized she was a flight risk. He 'claimed' her so to speak. Although frankly I'm not sure why he would want to given her behavior! I think this relationship held because of their common history and fear of change. Aloma is somewhat treated as a farmhand by Orren and they lack real communication. Aloma, on the other hand, can't tolerate her role and I suspect her moral weakness will continue to be shown over time.


message 23: by Lily (last edited Feb 08, 2017 12:58PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Dianne wrote: "...Aloma is somewhat treated as a farmhand by Orren and they lack real communication...."

Or expected from her what his mother had apparently contributed to the farm? Another one of those sequences of who did what roles for how long that I haven't unraveled yet. But was his mother Orren's role model of what to expect or want from a wifely partner in terms of the work to be done? And Aloma had few ways of knowing what that was -- for better or worse, she had not had a chance to be a daughter-in-law. (I'm going here more on what I know of rural lifestyle in the '80's than on specifics from the text. I've also been concurrently reading commentary on the Book of Ruth, where the critics speculate various ways the three widows there had lived together and the whys of the choices they then made -- Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story. Since those are also tales about the aftermath of grief, I am finding myself making comparisons/extrapolations.)


message 24: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2304 comments Seriously, how could Aloma strike out on her own? She had nothing but her music. She had no family, no friends, no mentors, no education. All she could do was play the piano.

Did Orren expect her to play the role his mother had? Well, that seems to be the only role model he had.

I was fine with the ending. Maybe Aloma and Orren won't make it but maybe they will. We can all decide what happens and reach a different decision every time we think about them. What made this book special for me was the sense of place - of the farm and the farm work and the region of the country - and the sense of struggle of these two young people - with themselves, with each other, and with the place. This book was like a video of a short portion of life, filled with hardship and, for me, promise of the future.

For those who wanted more (and nothing wrong with that!), consider reading her second novel, one that she seems to have been working on even as this one was published -- The Sport of Kings. From short video to full-length plus movie - a family saga involving two families.

And Lily, thanks for the link to the Ruth book.


message 25: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Linda wrote: "...thanks for the link to the Ruth book...."

You are most welcome, Linda. (I am in the middle of a group study on Ruth, using a video presentation as one of its resources. Sent me a private message if interested in the specifics. It is not a conservative series.)


message 26: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Linda wrote: "...and the sense of struggle of these two young people - with themselves, with each other, and with the place...."

Morgan is much closer to what I wanted from Jane Smiley in Some Luck to portray the stresses and gifts of a close personal relationship while tackling the demands of farmland livelihood.


message 27: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Lily wrote: "Linda wrote: "...and the sense of struggle of these two young people - with themselves, with each other, and with the place...."

Morgan is much closer to what I wanted from [author:Jane Smiley|133..."


Yes! I thought of Some Luck while reading parts of ATL. Some Luck had a bit more movement with its characters but ATL has a depth and beauty I found lacking in the other.

I finished the book last night and agree with everyone else that the language is one piece that makes this book special. Not only did the language create scenes I could easily envision, but it also evoked a certain tone that carried through most of the book. There was a desire for independence, commitment, and belonging, as well as a feeling of not knowing what to do, or what they should want to do next.

One thing that struck me was Aloma's youth and relative isolation from the world outside her school. Throughout the book, I wondered whether she really loved Orren or whether she followed him because he was the first man she had any sort of relationship with and he offered an easy path out of the school (which also seemed to offer hope of pursuing her music career dreams). I believe she cared for him, but think she may have confused her attraction for him and their companionship for something deeper. The introduction of Bell, and his clear interest in her, presents her with an alternative she never had available to her before. Maybe she genuinely likes him too, or maybe she likes the possibility of getting away from Orren's standoffishness and the gloom overhanging the farm and the old house, or maybe she's drawn to Orren's confidence - he's quite a bit older than she is and seems to be happy with his life decisions. Or maybe she just likes having someone else to talk to and to laugh with - that moment Bell throws grass at her is one of the happiest in the book.

Similarly, Orren is also pretty young and has a huge burden to bear with his family tragedy and the failing farm. Maybe he compares himself unfairly to his mother, who was able to teach herself how to operate the farm while rearing young children, and thinks having Aloma around will help him recreate that family structure. I wondered why he wouldn't marry her right away and didn't really believe his explanation that things on the farm needed to be set right first. Maybe he knew he didn't fully love Aloma but couldn't imagine being left completely alone.

So many of their issues seem to stem from two young people, inexperienced in relationships, unable to communicate or articulate their emotions and needs, and who feel the need to grow up very fast. Aloma wants Orren to need her, and Orren does need her, but he isn't able to tell her until the end of the book. I found the struggles in their relationship to be highly relatable (not that I've lived on a farm, but have made mistakes in early relationships) and really wanted to know more about what held these two together and what would happen to them going forward.

My main issue with the book is that we hardly get anything from Orren. Yes, the book is told from Aloma's perspective, but Orren does not have much dimension - he almost comes across as an angry and worn-out shadow. I loved the calf birthing scene and the moment the rain finally starts because those are the moments where we see real reactions from him. I found the ending a bit frustrating because we didn't really get a reaction from Orren. It also feels like Aloma has changed throughout the book but he hasn't. I would have loved it if they had ended the book by walking to the new house instead of the old. As is, it feels like Aloma has resigned herself to coming in second to the farm and Orren's family.

Overall, I thought this was great and I would definitely read more of her work.


message 28: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2588 comments Mod
It is interesting how we view Aloma's options for the future. I must admit I felt similarly to Neil initially, that staying with Orren was unlikely to be very satisfactory and she ought to be more ambitious, but when you think about how limited her options are it makes a lot of sense.


message 29: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2589 comments Mod
So, the moral of the story is:
Better to suffer together than suffer alone.

Joking.


message 30: by Nutmegger (new)

Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments It is interesting to see how many of us saw the book's ending through 21 century, educated, probably middle class eyes. I also hoped Aloma would go out into the bigger world, but the author has perfectly captured the essence of where these two characters are living and what their confines are in terms of socioeconomic levels.


message 31: by Lily (last edited Feb 09, 2017 11:09AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Linda wrote: "It is interesting to see how many of us saw the book's ending through 21 century, educated, probably middle class eyes. I also hoped Aloma would go out into the bigger world, but the author has perfectly captured the essence of where these two characters are living and what their confines are in terms of socioeconomic levels...."

I'm still struggling with whether or not I agree with that assessment, Linda. Part of me says you are right on, part says this is also a story caught up in its own dynamics and the specifics of the plot and characters and their life experiences we are given. I say that, just having read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Trevor Noah's Born a Crime. These stories are bracketing or infusing, I'm not sure which is the better simile, my thoughts on social/cultural/economic mobility and opportunity.

But, in response to Neil's and others comments about why didn't Aloma break free into a world of her own, I found my thoughts going to Gail Godwin's Father Melancholy's Daughter a book I read in 1994 that challenged my thinking at the time by its mother leaving a young child behind with her father while she explored creating an independent life for herself. (The story is told largely from the child's perspective -- at least according to the reviews I checked. I would have to revisit to be certain. I recall different perspectives, but I may have overlaid them on the actual writing.) Godwin was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and has written from that Southern regional perspective. But her characters had a more sophisticated Episcopal and town culture behind them than does Aloma. Aloma would have needed someone, however tenuous, to have given her a link into that broader world.

I read this fairly quickly, even as I lingered for the words, phrases and sentences, which often resembled poetry to me. (While I often marveled at their art, I also stumbled on a few passages where the words did not seem to work -- they were perhaps overwrought, perhaps fell short of the nuance the context seemed to warrant, perhaps just weren't as precise or illuminating as elsewhere. But those tended to heighten, rather than diminish, my respect for what Morgan had done overall.) That quick reading left me with some quirky holes in what I comprehended. Let me use a couple more posts to ask for some help.


message 32: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Early in the book, where Aloma leaves the school that her family had given her an opportunity to attend, regardless of how happenstance, when she leaves, did she try something at all before going to Orren? Was there any (piano) teacher who might have?

C.D. Morgan's life, which I haven't chased exhaustively for its details, seems to have had enough similarities to that of her characters to lend a sort of authenticity or possibility of truth to her characterization of their strengths, hopes, dreams, grief, limitations. Certainly she herself broke the boundaries of personal containment that Aloma and Orren (and Bell -- nor several of the minor characters) did not. So why has she written these characters as she did?


message 33: by Lily (last edited Feb 09, 2017 11:43AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Okay, one of my questions: What are the dynamics between the "old house" and the "new house" and living in one or the other? I got mixed up -- especially as regards to the pianos. But also the decisions as in which house to live and the movement of possessions between them.

I was struck by a piano being in Bell's home. Without assigning symbolism, the pianos certainly seemed to suggest a malady in the community about being able to sustain the role of art (music) across the generations. It was as if wanted, even revered, but with little or no sense of the continuous human investment required. ( "She pressed four keys in arpeggiation and the sound bloated out, the pitches sagging and unclean. She stood for a moment with her lips puckered out in disappointment, one eyebrow peevishly risen. She did not look up." p. 135 "...most of all at this wracked piano, a perfect beauty rotted in its shell." p. 136. "Aloma turned her face to the passing land and screwed up her lip, didn't acknowledge him. She thought of the piano, she did not feel generous." p.137 Aloma did know the cost. )


message 34: by Lily (last edited Feb 09, 2017 12:00PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Caroline wrote: "My main issue with the book is that we hardly get anything from Orren. Yes, the book is told from Aloma's perspective, but Orren does not have much dimension - he almost comes across as an angry and worn-out shadow...."

I would say "look harder, Caroline." I think we actually get quite a bit about Orren, even though he does remain the difficult, somewhat impenetrable human being he is. It comes in snippets, it comes in his reactions, it comes from the things he does not do, it comes from the characteristics presented of other men in the community, from whom he seems to differ and with whom he has scant contact. But like Smiley's farmer, he seems a taciturn man, given to expressing his emotions through his actions rather than his words. And those actions can often be interpreted in different ways, depending upon the sympathies of the observer. (And, Caroline, I think I comprehend what you say in your original statement -- we, too, want Orren to be less opaque, more given to interpreting himself to us, less given to forcing us to extrapolate -- most of those characteristics better suited to negotiating and renegotiating relationships in some continuous ways.)


message 35: by Lily (last edited Feb 09, 2017 01:35PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments This book seemed to have a number of male characters against the backdrop of whom Aloma's story played. I asked myself if they seemed particularly kindly treated by the author, even Bell Johnson. For example:

At the feed store: "The clerk, bald as a finial, looked up, and before his shy male eyes wavered..." p143. With his answers to her inquiries, he goes on to treat Aloma as a dumb broad about chickens (which she really pretty much is, in this case). And acts to protect her with "Don't cull no sick hens off on no girl." (Actually, not clear who says this, the clerk or the man offering his hens. But this is clearly intended to be protective; "That get you more hens than eggs you care to eat.")

Anyway, the man with the hens continues to lay out this rather condescending spiel, even as he plays out being a "decent guy." ("Once out of his truck, he turned her way and made a show of stretching so his shirt pulled up. She saw the furring line of hair below his waist." p147) One can sense Orren's wariness as the chickens are delivered.

The two men working on the tobacco field for Orren are also individuals, in a few scant words. The one described as missing teeth seems appreciative of both Orren and Aloma, and perhaps a bit skeptical of Aloma's grit -- even whether her softness might be as much a needed attribute to survive: "But not too mean missy. Not too mean..." (Or did he really have in mind that he didn't believe she was as mean as she claimed and hence may not have enough?)

The female characters I noted were: Aloma, the storekeeper, Bell's mother, Orren's mother (departed). Did I miss someone? (Yes, Mrs. Boyle, at least.) Mothers are given strong play over their sons, not particularly with sympathy towards those mothers, but still sometimes just as observation of a situation, ala especially Orren's mother.

One of the sort of surprising elements to me is the lack of community here -- in some ways it seems very real to the isolation of the setting and the deliberate efforts to sustain that isolation. Yet, it still surprises me that with a church community, even a small one, that Bell didn't learn where Aloma lived almost at once. Almost seemed like an author's conceit.


message 36: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Lily wrote: "...So long as it is English/American, I'm not particularly sensitive to dialect/regional variations, so it is wonderful when someone else recognizes and points it out. ..."

It did get obvious as the book moved along. Almost like some British novels/movies I have read/seen that capture regional dialect. ("My Fair Lady"?)


message 37: by Lily (last edited Feb 09, 2017 02:10PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Dianne wrote: "Aloma, on the other hand, can't tolerate her role and I suspect her moral weakness will continue to be shown over time...."

I'm curious as to what you consider Aloma's "moral weakness" to be? Or maybe you didn't mean it quite that way. It sounded judgmental of Aloma in a way that felt uncomfortable and somehow set her apart from the other characters. Do we think the author intends such? (Given her Harvard theological studies, she may have an opinion, perhaps voiced in some interview.)


message 38: by Dianne (new)

Dianne | 204 comments Lily wrote: "Dianne wrote: "Aloma, on the other hand, can't tolerate her role and I suspect her moral weakness will continue to be shown over time...."

I'm curious as to what you consider Aloma's "moral weakne..."


I absolutely intended it to be judgmental, but no more than she was of herself. She was deliberately deceptive to both Orren and Bell and her behavior was really far worse than the other characters, in my opinion.


message 39: by Dianne (new)

Dianne | 204 comments Lily wrote: "This book seemed to have a number of male characters against the backdrop of whom Aloma's story played. I asked myself if they seemed particularly kindly treated by the author, even Bell Johnson. F..."

I agree that in this 'small town' probably everyone would have known everyone's business, especially after Orren's family tragedy. The church seemed to be a main area of community, but Orren avoided it and Aloma, even though she went there often, was never really part of the family, so to speak. I thought her drive by of the church potluck was a good example.


message 40: by Dianne (new)

Dianne | 204 comments Linda wrote: "It is interesting to see how many of us saw the book's ending through 21 century, educated, probably middle class eyes. I also hoped Aloma would go out into the bigger world, but the author has per..."

do we seem to agree, then, that Aloma 'settled' because in her time, and place, and with her resources, and background, she could not have 'done better'? If so, what do you think the author's view of that was?


message 41: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2304 comments I think Aloma settled for staying with Orren at that point in time. I think the author wanted to tell us about the place and how limited the options were for Aloma at that point in her life. But I think she left the door wide open for the future. In one scenario I imagine Aloma and Orren getting the farm in hand. Aloma teaches music lessons and meets people by doing so. She takes or perhaps even teaches extension music courses.

My mother, high school GED, taught extension courses in 1950's and early 60's. This website provides some information about this program -- https://nifa.usda.gov/extension.


message 42: by Nutmegger (new)

Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments Dianne wrote: "Linda wrote: "It is interesting to see how many of us saw the book's ending through 21 century, educated, probably middle class eyes. I also hoped Aloma would go out into the bigger world, but the ..."

The book has a fatalistic tone regarding Aloma and Orren's life and future. I think the author was leaving it to the reader to make of that what we will.


message 43: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Dianne wrote: "do we seem to agree, then, that Aloma 'settled' because in her time, and place, and with her resources, and background, she could not have 'done better'? If so, what do you think the author's view of that was? ..."

Given Morgan's theological training, my first guess would be that she is providing observation rather than judgment. But you have set me thinking about reading this through the lens of whether Morgan is providing a sort of morality play. (@38) I have to mull that one for awhile yet. I don't think so; I have seen it so far as more a commentary on grief, on the role of art in isolated communities, on loneliness -- or perhaps more accurately, aloneness.


message 44: by Lily (last edited Feb 10, 2017 07:47AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments I have a crazy request that may be out of place, either here or at all. So any moderator, feel free to delete. But I would really appreciate if one or both of the Lindas who post here regularly would modify their GR alias/moniker (I can't find the exact word I want) so it would be easier to figure out which of them was being quoted in responses by others.


message 45: by Dianne (last edited Feb 10, 2017 08:19AM) (new)

Dianne | 204 comments Lily wrote: "Dianne wrote: "do we seem to agree, then, that Aloma 'settled' because in her time, and place, and with her resources, and background, she could not have 'done better'? If so, what do you think the..."

agree Lily, I think the author is providing observation, the judgment is all mine. And you are spot on as far as the author's objectives in her commentary, imo


message 46: by Dianne (last edited Feb 10, 2017 08:50AM) (new)

Dianne | 204 comments Linda wrote: "Dianne wrote: "Linda wrote: "It is interesting to see how many of us saw the book's ending through 21 century, educated, probably middle class eyes. I also hoped Aloma would go out into the bigger ..."

I agree - it didn't sound too promising, to me. But perhaps their formal commitment will cause them to cast their future together under a new lens. Perhaps Aloma was just aggrieved that Orren had not married her, yet she was expected to fulfill all of the traditional roles of a wife.


message 47: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2588 comments Mod
Lily wrote: "... I would really appreciate if one or both of the Lindas who post here regularly would modify their GR alias/moniker (I can't find the exact word I want) so it would be easier to figure out which of them was being quoted in responses by others."
At least one has an avatar picture and the other doesn't. This is a site-wide issue, so I suspect we are stuck with it...


message 48: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Dianne wrote: "...If so, what do you think the author's view of that was? ..."

Dianne -- this interview may provide us a bit of a view of where the author is coming from. I found the whole thing fascinating, but have put one long excerpt in spoiler, noting part of what caught my eye. (Incidentally, in another interview, Morgan indicates she drafted ATL in one two week break between terms at Harvard.)

https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/i-...
(view spoiler)


message 49: by Lily (last edited Feb 10, 2017 09:18AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Linda wrote: "I did quite awhile ago but for some reason I cannot figure out, it never shows as "Linda S" in this group. But I am the Linda without a photo of any kind...."

I'm sorry to hear that about your name usage. I often find myself going back and unwinding who is who because I do find your voices different, yet I could easily mix up a response inappropriately.

(If I go to your profile page, it does not show "Linda S". I wonder why.)


message 50: by Nutmegger (new)

Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments Lily wrote: "I have a crazy request that may be out of place, either here or at all. So any moderator, feel free to delete. But I would really appreciate if one or both of the Lindas who post here regularly wou..."

This is a test to see if my name change worked. I know this has been frustrating.


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