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Joyce Carol Oates and her dark and haunting WNY childhood

MEMOIR

The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age

By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco

353 pages, $27.99

By Karen Brady

NEWS bOOK REVIEWER

Joyce Carol Oates – arguably America’s greatest living author – grew up on a small fruit and vegetable farm in the Clarence hamlet of Millersport.

This much we have known, and alluded to with pride, while Oates herself has stayed mostly silent on the subject (save in her fiction which is replete with both veiled and clear evocations of Western New York).

Now that is changed: With the publication of “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age,” the seminal author gives us an accounting of her 1940s and 1950s upbringing on the Niagara Frontier that is as profound, as thorough and, at times, as dark as anything she has ever done.

Its focus, she tells us in an author’s note, “is upon the ‘landscape’ of our earliest, and most essential lives, but it is also upon an actual rural landscape, in western New York State north of Buffalo, out of which not only much of the materials of my writing life have sprung but also the very wish to write.”

From the Transit Road farmhouse of her childhood to the one-room schoolhouse on Tonawanda Creek Road (which her mother had attended before her) to the “intense” and happy hours spent “tramping desolate fields, woods and creek banks” near her home to the sometimes cruel, hardscrabble lives of families all around her, Oates paints a strong picture of the “coming of age” of her subtitle.

“It may well be,” she speculates at one point, “that the writer/artist is stimulated by childhood mysteries or that it is the childhood mysteries that stimulate the writer/artist. Sometimes in my writing, when I am most absorbed and fascinated, to the point of anxiety, I find myself imagining that what I am inventing is in some way ‘real’; if I can solve the mystery of the fiction, I will have solved a mystery of my life. That the mystery is never solved would seem to be the reason for the writer’s continuous effort to solve it – each story, each poem, each novel is a restatement of the quest to penetrate the mystery, tirelessly restated.”

In this sense, even Oates’ massive output (she is known as the nation’s most prolific author, perhaps the most prolific of all time) stems from her formative years in Western New York. They were years, her new memoir tells us, filled with a deep and abiding love for her parents, Frederic and Carolina Oates, he a tool and die designer at Harrison Radiator in Lockport as well as a sign painter, pilot, failed pig farmer – and boxing aficionado who often took young Joyce, his firstborn, to Golden Gloves tournaments in Buffalo.

It was Oates’ mother who named her daughter’s unusual first pet, a Rhode Island Red fowl, “Happy Chicken.” And it was in the farmhouse of Carolina Oates’ Hungarian stepparents, John and Lena Bush, that Oates and her younger brother Fred, known as “Robin,” spent their childhoods.

In a vignette narrated, cleverly, by “Happy Chicken,” Oates recalls the “Hungarian grandfather who’d been so gruff, so loud, so confident and had so loved his little granddaughter he’d been unable to keep his calloused fingers out of her curls had died at the age of 53, his lungs riddled with steel filings from the foundry in Tonawanda. The Hungarian grandmother lived for many years afterward and never learned to speak English, still less to read English …”

Oates’ “Other Grandmother” – the former Blanche Morgenstern – lived in Lockport and, being culturally inclined, took Oates, at the age of 6, to the Lockport Public Library where she was given her first library card (“one of the great, happy surprises of the little girl’s life”). The same grandmother presented Oates, at 9, with the books that opened the literary universe to her – “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its companion, “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.”

Oates immediately wanted to be Alice: “It did occur to me that Alice is a character in a book – and that Alice was not telling her own story,” she says. “The author of the book was named in gilt letters on the spine and on the title page: ‘Lewis Carroll.’ Being Lewis Carroll was an aspiration, like being Alice-in-Wonderland …”

Soon, Oates tells us, “I was drawing stories in the mode of the Tenniel illustrations, not of adults or even children but of cats and red-feathered chickens. These were ‘novels’ that captured me for long hours as a child …”

In her one-room schoolhouse – “District School #7, Niagara County” – Oates was introduced to a Webster’s dictionary which, she says, “fascinated me: a book comprised of words!” And, in the fifth grade, she won The Buffalo Evening News spelling bee – for which she was awarded her own copy of the same Webster’s dictionary: “This, like the prized Alice books, remained with me for decades.” Oates’ father owned a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug and Other Tales” and this, too, she tells us, became indelible in her mushrooming mind and imagination.

“Reality was the province of adults,” she says, “and though I was surrounded by adults, as an only child for five years, it was not a province I could enter, or even envision, from the outside. To enter that reality, to find a way in, I read books. Avidly, ardently! As if my life depended upon it.”

Oates also loved running, she tells us. “Joyce runs like a deer,” the boys in her class would say. She was good at badminton, would become “a tireless diver” and once appeared, with 4-H friends, in a square-dancing competition, on WBEN-TV. She was also fascinated by the night, as an insomniac teenager often slipping out into the darkness to watch the lights of cars approach and recede on Transit Road, during those same years joining a friend’s Pendleton Methodist Church – later, and with great reservation, attending Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Pendleton (which, she notes, would also become the childhood church of Timothy McVeigh).

Her next school was North Park Junior High, “a dazzling city school,” in Lockport and her high school, although only identified here as being in an “affluent Buffalo suburb,” was clearly Williamsville Junior-Senior High School (now Williamsville South).

For Oates – the first in her family to go beyond the eighth grade – these were eye-opening years. Not only did she and her brother learn 1) that their maternal grandfather had been murdered and that the youngest of his 10 children, Carolina, age 9 months, was given by her mother to the Bushes to raise – but also 2) that Blanche Morgenstern’s German-Jewish immigrant father had tried to murder both Blanche and her mother but succeeded only in killing himself.

By Stygian extension, Oates numbers among her friends in the book a girl she calls Helen whose father was violent, and an abuser and in time burned his family’s nearby home down. Another friend, the daughter of a well-off physician – this father an unstoppable verbal abuser – committed suicide. Dark, dark memories Oates carries to this day in her heart.

Nothing in “The Lost Landscape,” however, can compare to the strength of Oates’ ode to her sister, Lynn Ann, “The Lost Sister: An Elegy.”

Lynn Ann was a surprise child – born, like Oates, on Bloomsday, but 18 years after Oates – June 16, 1956.

“Spoken quickly and carelessly, ‘autistic’ can sound like ‘artistic,’” Oates writes of her “wholly disengaged sister who was never to utter a single coherent word.” For 15 years, Oates says, her parents cared for Lynn Ann at home, describing her parents’ love for the severely autistic and sometimes violent Lynn Ann “as natural as breathing, or dreaming.”

“How uncannily she resembled me,” Oates says, using the past tense as she has not seen her sister since the early 1970s (mainly for fear of disturbing Lynn Ann’s life in a highly structured local community).

“I would think,” Oates says, “she has a horrible life but she does not seem sad – so my brother has said.”

What is most palpable here, and it is all palpable, is how much Western New York lives within Joyce Carol Oates – a daughter of genius loci, with an inimitable spirit of place, and of circumstance and time.

In “The Lost Landscape,” she brings us a rich, rich book from a writer who now belongs to the world but is clearly tied, at the core of her being, to the Niagara Frontier – the place where she first learned to love, and to write, words.

Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.