Out of the Pumpkin Shell by Nancy Werking Poling
By: Mary Ickes
Since two women (age 49) whining about menopause are unworthy of precious reading time, I almost didn’t finish Out of the Pumpkin Shell. Especially because Hat (short for Harriet) and Elise are, otherwise, strong, intelligent, and highly motivated. As experienced first grade teachers, concern for their individual students, rather than a class en masse, terrifies the new, bureaucratic principal. Their personal lives are equally straightforward.
Hat, the narrator, admits that she is tall, big boned, and a dreamer. At age 19 she married Walter, eleven years her senior, because he impressed her as an experienced man. Too late, Hat realized that Walter’s shoe factory and his love of gin and tonic rated higher on his priority list than their marriage. Steven and Lennie, her sons, testify to Hat’s inner strength and character. Steven married . . . a British woman of Indian descent, a wife a little too brown for Logan family approval. Lennie . . . renounced the Republican Party at his Uncle Lester’s funeral and announced his [gay] sexual orientation at his grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration, both times with a microphone.
Elise, petite with naturally red hair, is . . . like a small emergency vehicle racing around town at top speed. Her husband killed in a car accident four years after their marriage, she has been a successful single parent for 25 years. Even so, anger is her primary emotion . . . one thing for sure: She was pissed. About never establishing roots as a kid, but mostly about her mother. Elise adored her minister father, but knew her mother only as a depressed and elusive stranger.
The two women’s menopausal terror attacked ten years before the story opens (1985). Hat writes that, menopause, we were convinced, was a disease. One that would either kill a woman or drive her crazy. They consulted every library book listing the word menopause and, per Elise’s dictate, emulated younger people. They wasted small fortunes on natural beauty products and . . . bags of tight pants, short skirts and skimpy tops. Their efforts did, indeed, attract male attention at an outdoor music festival. For Hat, a very short . . . guy with a white scruffy beard and hair like Albert Einstein’s. A man with a glass eye and missing front teeth latched onto Elise.
As I was about to replace these dingbats with worthy reading, the plot’s first bomb drops: Rose, Elise’s mother, institutionalized when she started menopause twenty-five years earlier, is still locked up. Elise visits Rose three or four times a year: “What a . . . waste of time. . . . Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with a drugged, depressed old lady?” Hat, who longs to have her mother still alive anywhere, diplomatically focuses on bolstering Elise before each visit.
School out for the summer, Elise, with Hat in tow, visits Rose, via Bryson’s Mill, her mother’s hometown. Along the way, Elise admits, “Something inside tells me that I don’t have the whole story. . . . I guess I’m assuming that if I know more, I’ll be able to – to end the curse.” Hat senses that curse refers to more than the slang term for menstruation.
As they move from Chicago’s frenzy to Indiana’s barns, fields, and fences, Elise sheds her anger and agitation. In the Bryson’s Mill Park, Hat notices that . . . her face was turned skyward, her eyes closed. Her hands rested on her thighs, palms up, fingers apart. Worried because Elise has never relaxed for twenty seconds, let alone twenty minutes, she finally nudges her. Elise rewards Hat’s concern with mumbled swearing.
While visiting the grave of Elise’s beloved grandmother, they meet Stella May Jenkins and Margaret Carmichael, Rose’s first cousin. Thrilled to meet her mother’s dearest friends, Elise plies them with questions. Their obvious uneasiness every time Elise mentions her father is not lost on Hat. And there I shall leave Hat and Elise, Stella May and Margaret so you can meet Rose.
As Elise discovers, Rose, in high school, was a vivacious, energetic, and talented girl determined to leave Bryson’s Mill for a singing career in Chicago. Though Hat expected a drastic change in Rose from her high school pictures, she was bewildered to see that . . . she had a bloated look, with doughy skin and a puffy face. Her hazel eyes were vacuous. Her faded hair, appearing to have been cut by someone no more skilled than I, was lackluster with only a hint of a wave. When the mental hospitals closed in the eighties, Rose was transferred to the Maynard G. Lawson Long-term Care Facility, with . . . its ancient brick facade darkened by nearly a hundred years’ . . . of soot and grime. Hat’s description provides an apt metaphor for life (so-called) within. Rose wears grungy housecoats, swallows drugs on command, dutifully watches TV all day with her peers in the dreary TV lounge, and endures loneliness that even drugs cannot alleviate.
There you are, Reading Friends, three women guilty of sacrificing Rose to convenience and one who wants to adopt her. Ms. Poling’s plot moves them so skillfully toward Rose’s reality that they and the readers are shocked anew with each appalling detail.
Ms. Poling writes in her bio that she came to North Carolina via Indiana (born), Florida (grew up), and Chicago (20 years). Her writing is, “A creative approach to scripture that incorporates women’s wisdom, suffering, and courage.” Ms. Poling’s previous books include Most Ministers Wear Sneakers (1991) and Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman (2010). For more information and her blog site, please visit www.nancypoling.com.
View from my catio
by Buddy, T. C. P. E.
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
Been a tense month around here, Readers. I was grateful that Mary wrote about this book in the Spring. Had she done so in October or November, no pumpkin would have been safe from a sound bashing, and I don’t mean metaphorically. Not that she was too riled up about Rose on behalf of real women forced into similar situations or anything like that. On second thought, maybe I’ll keep away from pumpkins when Fall arrives.