Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Magical Voice

Southern storytellers are known for weaving magical spells, their voices rising and falling with the mesmerizing rhythm of the sea.

They draw readers close with voices as inviting as gentle waves, as silky smooth as molasses.

Barbara O'Connor is an author with deep Southern roots (Greenville, SC) who now lives in the north (Duxbury, MA). She may have moved far from home, but her voice still possesses the easy-flowing pace of the South.

The moment that you open any of her books--Beethoven in Paradise, Moonpie and Ivy, Me and Rupert Goody, and Fame and Glory in Freedom, GA--you can hear O'Connor's voice, as sweet as sugar, but containing much of life's loneliness and pain, too.

Listening to her spin a tale, you feel like you're sitting next to her on the porch, sipping pink lemonade under the stars on a warm summer night.

Pull your chair closer, listen to the opening paragraph of Me and Rupert Goody:
Before Rupert Goody waltzed hisself into Claytonville, I nearly always knew how my days would start and how they'd end. Could've bet my last nickel on nearly everything in between. That's how I like things--predictable. That's how come I spend my days at Uncle Beau's.
There's a casual down-home rhythm to the voice of the narrator--a spunkiness but a neediness, too.

Above all, it's a storyteller's voice, luring readers into the story by raising questions in our minds about what will happen next.

How does O'Connor do this?

Look at the language--"waltzed hisself," "nearly always," "could've bet my last nickel," "like things predictable"--and you can begin to understand how O'Connor wraps a spell around her readers.

"Waltzed hisself..." is a clear example of the colloquial roots of this narrator, her way of talking that's unique to her.

"Nearly always..." is a stark contrast to the certainty of her opinion in "waltzed hisself"... and it's here that we begin to sense the narrator's uncertainty, a hint of her vulnerability.

"Could've bet my last nickel..." is an expression that echoes a place, a region of the country where you might hear such a phrase... and gives the reader a sense of the character's place in the world.

"Like things predictable..." gives readers a sense of the narrator's emotional equilibrium. It implies a) that things are no longer predictable; b) that the narrator needs life to be predictable (for an unspecified reason that will become clear in time); and c) that the narrator may have some difficulty relating to Rupert, the new person in town.

In O'Connor's Moonpie and Ivy, the story starts off with an equally compelling hook to pull readers into the story.

Here, come closer and listen:
Pearl wondered exactly when it was that her mama had gone off the deep end. Was it that day she marched into Pearl's fourth-grade class and gave the teacher what for so bad the police came and took her away? Was it that night she cut her hair off with a Swiss Army knife just to show that so-called boyfriend of hers a thing or two? Or maybe it was just last week, when she told Pearl to pack her things 'cause they were leaving Tallahassee, Florida, never to return.
In the opening paragraph O'Connor sets a number of tantalizing questions in her reader's mind:

1) Not only does Pearl wonder... but the reader wonders, too... if Mama went off the deep end and when... and how Pearl will respond to such an event. Will she survive? Or will she go off the deep end, too?

2) O'Connor gives specific examples of Mama's craziness...which allows the reader to experience what Pearl has had to deal with... and what she may have to deal with in the future (raising the reader's anticipation of danger).

3) The phrase "leaving Tallahassee, never to return" plants another question in the reader's mind. What happened to cause Pearl and her mother to leave Tallahassee and never return? It sets up the story as journey into the unknown. The reader knows where the characters have come from... but not yet where they're going (hinting at a journey filled with possible difficulties for the young girl).

4) And, of course, underlying all these questions is the question of whether Pearl and her mother are together... or if Pearl is alone... and, if so, how she'll survive... and whether she and her mother will ever be re-united?

The second paragraph responds in part to Pearl's anxiety about her mother's sanity:
Pearl didn't know. But her Aunt Ivy seemed fairly sure of herself as she stood on the porch behind Pearl and said, "I hate to tell you this, honey, but your mama's done gone off the deep end."
It's here that we're introduced to Aunt Ivy, a character who sympathizes with Pearl from the start. O'Connor makes this clear from the way Ivy expresses her care and concern, her warmth shining through her language and gestures.

The story will play out between Aunt Ivy and Pearl. Will Pearl find love and sanity (and stability) with her aunt? Or will she inevitably have to confront her mama once more before the end of the story?

It's with such questions--and a magical voice--that O'Connor spins her tales, drawing us deeply into the hearts of her characters.

If you want to sit on the porch under the stars of a Carolina night listening to a master storyteller, you might take a look at O'Connor's work.

For more information on Barbara O'Connor and her work, check out her website: and look for her thoughts on writing in a future Wordswimmer post.


Anonymous said...

Barbara has a gift. I always am drawn in to her characters and care very much how they make out. I love her humor too...the true need of a survivor!

Anonymous said...

The two opening paragraphs from O'Connor's books are wonderful examples of establishing narrative voice and a story hook right off the bat. She does it equally well for first person POV and third person POV too. It makes me want to read more of her work.