Sunday, April 15, 2007

An Exquisite Light

The late-afternoon light on the Gulf of Mexico is often so intense its reflection can blind you with a white, impenetrable glare.

Most of the time the light hits the blue-green water obliquely, sparkling like trails of glimmering jewels behind the gentle waves and hiding what's beneath the surface.

But, on rare occasions, you can witness a kind of miracle: an exquisite light striking the water at a magical angle and revealing simultaneously what's on the surface and what's hidden beneath.

That's the kind of light Sarah Lamstein directs onto the pages of her novel, Hunger Moon, a deeply moving story about 12-year-old Ruthie and her struggle to make sense of life amidst a family burdened by her younger brother's "slowness" and her parents' growing frustration with the challenges of caring for such a child while struggling to live on the meager income from the family's bookstore.

What Lamstein does in this novel is quite astonishing... showing both the surface of Ruthie's world and its hidden depths simultaneously.

Here's one example:
After dinner, I help Dad do dishes. He washes. I dry. Just the two of us, which makes me start telling my news of the day about spelling the states and starting on wax begonia plants in Science. Dad takes his soapy hand out of the water without turning any other part of him and points it in my direction. His soap-drippy fingers are like a goose's beak when he opens them, shuts them, opens them, shuts them, opens, shuts, opens, shuts, fast, sign language for: clam up your stories, hold your juicy tongue, you're clogging my ears.

I'm quiet after that. I dry the dishes and put them carefully one on top of the other, turning my back to Dad so he won't see a crybaby. (p. 22-3)
Do you see how the light penetrates beneath the surface, yet illuminates both the concrete details of Ruthie's life and her emotional state simultaneously?

How did Lamstein do that?

She stays on the surface, describing the act of father and daughter washing and drying dishes together, offering details in a waterfall of observations that build to a climax of sorts within the paragraph itself as Dad grows upset with Ruthie's attempt at conversation.

You get the sense of Ruthie's desire for intimacy, don't you? And, for a moment ("just the two of us"), it's there... that intimacy. And when Ruthie feels that intimacy, that safety, she begins to share her day, only to find herself silenced by her father's gesture of opening and closing his hand ("his soap-drippy fingers are like a goose's beak").

And that image of the goose's beak is, I think, what allows the reader to feel the pain that Ruthie feels at the moment... because it's as if that beak has reached out of the page and snapped at us, too.

So we understand fully Ruthie's withdrawal into silence, her care in drying the plates so as not to draw any further attention to herself, her desire to hide her feelings from this person to whom, only moments ago, she was willing to reveal herself.

And, as a result of this scene, we have a fuller, deeper understanding of their relationship and Ruthie's struggle to have her voice heard.

Here's another sample:
Thanksgiving dinner. Dad gives Mom white meat first, then Grandma and Grandpa Tepper. Good he remembers.

Michael laughs and looks at Isaac. Isaac chews fast, like a rabbit, and picks turkey pieces out of his mouth.

"Isaac!" Mom slams her hand on the table.

Eddy's spit-up comes out.

Grandma Tepper lifts off her seat, then falls back down. "Oh!" she says. After that, she pokes at her food, at her turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes.

But no one says, "Can't you stop yelling, even for Thanksgiving?"(p. 57)
Once again, Lamstein gives us only the surface details of a seemingly uneventful Thanksgiving dinner.

But almost immediately there's a hit of danger lurking beneath the surface ("Good he remembers.") Ruthie knows the subsurface currents, the danger of forgetting when it's safe to step into the water.

And then Mom's hand comes crashing down on the table at Isaac's poor table manners, and the crash causes Eddy to spit up... and Ruthie knows (and we feel) the current has increased to a dangerous speed, threatening to sweep away the happiness of that day.

Lamstein shows us Grandma's reaction to the crash of the hand on the table... and it's through her reaction that we understand how Ruthie feels, and then Lamstein underscores Ruthie's emotional response with the final observation of what's not said at the table.

That one comment lets us understand just how painful it is for Ruthie to sit at the table and hear her mother shouting, how painful it is to live within this family.

Again and again throughout Hunger Moon, Lamstein directs a beam of light at just the right angle so that it illuminates the surface and what's happening beneath the surface, enabling us to swim through different layers of light and water simultaneously.

I'll close with just one more example... the note of hope toward which the story builds:
After cake, we clear the table. Mom puts leftovers in Pyrex and Dad washes the dishes. Eddy brings in one fork at a time.

"Thank you, Eddy," Dad says.

I go upstairs and water my begonia, growing up against the cold, green arms reaching. When it gets warmer, I'll open up my window and that plant will climb out even taller. (p. 109)
Thanks to this image, readers can hope that Ruthie, like the plant, will climb ever-taller "against the cold" and continue reaching toward the exquisite light of her own resilient self.

For more information about Sarah Lamstein's work, visit her website at:


Barbara W. Klaser said...

What great examples of giving just enough detail to allow the reader to dive under the surface of the writing and experience the story for himself.

Bruce said...

Thanks. Selecting examples from Lamstein's book was easy. Every page offered a glimpse beneath the surface.

Anne L. said...

I got very choked up reading those selections. How evocative.

Bruce said...


Yes, the selections show Ruthie struggling for solid ground... and are emotionally powerful.

That we feel her struggle so strongly is evidence, I suspect, of Lamstein's skill as a writer... her ability to set up scenes and draw us in so that we can feel Ruthie's struggle as if it's our own.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Laurie said...


Thank you for posting this.

Bruce said...

Glad you stopped by.

Laurie said...

Hope you don't mind if I stick around and put my feet up until you post again.

Bruce said...


Enjoy the water!

Usually, posts appear on Sundays, unless I'm swimming away from home... and then I may post earlier or later in the week, depending on whether I can get to a computer.

Thanks for sticking around.