It’s Anne Tyler’s thing to write about families. I’m fairly sure if she set out to write about something else — water rights, for instance, in the Southwest — she’d wind up writing about the ranchers’ parents and grandparents and siblings and in-laws, and we’d know their birth order before the end of the first chapter. She loves to present her readers, not exactly with “dysfunctional” families — it’s not usually that grim — but with flawed families, people who can’t see their own mistakes and patterns, people who are trying to do their best and often miss the mark.
And here we are again with the Whitshank family. A Spool of Blue Thread revolves around Red and Abby Whitshank and their home on Bouton Street in Baltimore. The Whitshanks have four children: Amanda, Jeannie, Denny, and Stem. They are a tight-knit family with a strong sense of belonging that, to an outsider, may be faintly ridiculous at times:
But like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills. Calling in a repairman—even one of their own employees—was looked upon as a sign of defeat. All of them had inherited Junior’s allergy to ostentation, and all of them were convinced that they had better taste than the rest of the world. At times they made a little too much of the family quirks—of both Amanda and Jeannie marrying men named Hugh, for instance, so that their husbands were referred to as “Amanda’s Hugh” and “Jeannie’s Hugh”; or their genetic predisposition for lying awake two hours in the middle of every night; or their uncanny ability to keep their dogs alive for eons. With the exception of Amanda they paid far too little attention to what clothes they put on in the morning, and yet they fiercely disapproved of any adult they saw wearing blue jeans.
These rituals — these mannerisms, these quirks of belonging, of marking insiders and outsiders — could be taken as snobbery, or just as silliness. But as Tyler continues telling us the family’s history, including the story of Red’s father, Junior, we begin to understand the role class and gender have played in this family’s story. The grandfather came barefooted from the country to learn to be a master builder, and built his family home with his own hands (with, perhaps, a little larceny involved.) The grandmother hung on for dear life to a relationship she started when she was a “developed” thirteen, because she saw it as her only escape from the world she knew. The paragraph I quote above takes on a new cast in this light: it’s not satirizing the Whitshanks’ easy snobbery, it’s showing their desperate grasp on a middle-class life they aren’t really sure they deserve.
All but Denny, the problem child. It’s well known that there’s often a scapegoat in families, the one child who shows up with all the problems, the “identified patient.” Everyone else seems healthy, except this one person who carries the burden. That’s Denny, who snoops around and knows all the secrets and is angry and resentful and a complete jerk about it. He sucks up all the attention, all the air out of the room, because he’s the repository of the pain the rest of the family hasn’t had to feel. He can’t tell everything he knows, but he’s acting out the truth in the context of a flawed and uneasy dynamic. He rejects their signs of belonging, but he wants them, too. It is not irony but craft that when his mother begins to lose her memory of all the secrets, he is freed to tell them — and can finally forgive and be forgiven.
My own favorite character was Nora, Stem’s wife. The Whitshanks have all labeled her not very bright because she’s religious, but in one fraught situation after another, she says or does something kind or insightful that eases the situation. (She’s also practical and unoffendable, two things that come in very handy in the Whitshank family.) She hasn’t allowed herself to be shut out by their categories of who belongs and who doesn’t — by not being a Hugh, for instance, or by liking casseroles when the rest of them don’t. She just allows herself to be herself, and is part of the family by acting like it.
This isn’t my favorite Tyler book — that award probably belongs to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, or Saint Maybe, and I really liked Ladder of Years. But I did enjoy reading about the Whitshanks and their flawed family history, and their careful class-built walls of who belongs and who doesn’t. It made me wonder who we all keep in and out, and why.