Reading Group Guide

A CONVERSATION WITH MARY MCGARRY MORRIS

It is interesting to note that, in the past, you have been compared to John Steinbeck, whose The Grapes Of Wrath is probably the most famous piece of literature about the Depression, and now you have written a novel taking place during the same time period. Did you draw upon The Grapes of Wrath or any other works either for research or inspiration? Did you set out to write a novel about the Depression, or was it the characters that served as your take-off point for The Lost Mother?

My most enjoyable research for The Lost Mother was reacquainting myself with stories I’d first heard in childhood, personal accounts of life during the Depression. Inspiration was easy because it was during those same years that my grandmother abandoned her husband and three children. The day she left, she brought her four-year-old daughter and youngest child, my mother, to a friend’s house, then, dressed in her very best clothes, my grandmother climbed into a taxi and rode away forever. The image of that little girl watching from the window as her mother deserted her would come to me whenever there was sorrow in my mother’s life. Forgiving by nature, my mother tried to understand what had happened, but because she felt such love and fierce loyalty to her own children, her mother’s actions remained a painful, troubling mystery. Growing up, I was keenly aware of the loss my mother felt as well as the great love and admiration she had for her father, a quiet country man who raised his three children alone in those desperate times, often working day and night to support them.

I had read The Grapes of Wrath years ago as a student, but decided not to reread it until I had finished writing The Lost Mother. With that second reading I was deeply touched by the novel’s power and Steinbeck’s great achievement in depicting the triumph of the human spirit in spite of cruelty, unimaginable loss, and degradation. The Depression was the necessary setting for the story, but the characters were the true genesis of The Lost Mother. They’ve been in my thoughts for years, wanting their story told. One summer day I sat down to continue work on a novel I’d been writing for some time when a young boy’s voice broke through onto the paper, and I was off and running, trying to keep up with Thomas Talcott.

You’ve rendered Margaret and Thomas’s experience, as well as their relationship to one another, so beautifully and convincingly. Would you talk about the difference between writing with a “child’s eye” as opposed to an adult’s view of the world?

A child’s view of the world works especially well when a writer is trying to get at the heart of a puzzling story. Particularly in this case with a woman’s unfathomable abandonment of her family, the child as narrator came naturally. Children are always asking why, then why again, why to every answer, which is precisely fiction’s purpose, posing a question for which there is no one correct answer. It is from such doubt and uncertainty that greater truths are often revealed, and even more insightful questions raised. Children are so forthright and persistent because they haven’t yet learned how damaging the truth can sometimes be. While an adult perspective allows a bigger picture to be seen, a child’s perspective is that knee-high puzzlement of secrets and evasions that can give a story its emotional energy.

In addition to being so likable, Margaret and Thomas are also very easy to identify with and seem quite ordinary apart from their circumstances, especially compared to characters in your previous novels, many of whom have been described as “on the fringe” or even “somewhat unusual.” Would you talk a bit about how you see Margaret and Thomas and how they compare with your previous characters?

I’m often as amused as bewildered to hear characters from my previous novels described as “on the fringe” or “somewhat unusual.” It is always surprising to be asked if I know “people like that.” Of course I do; we all do. I see them as aspects of all of us. The shy confusion of Aubrey Wallace in Vanished. A Dangerous Woman’s Martha Horgan, painfully aware of how out of step she is with everyone around her. Songs In Ordinary Time’s Marie Fermoyle, a loving mother, so desperate for her family’s success that she can be their harshest critic. The wild young woman in Fiona Range made all the more headstrong and reckless by her father’s unacknowledged paternity. In A Hole In The Universe the determinedly unrelieved guilt of Gordon Loomis, a good and decent man in spite of his participation in a long ago-murder.

Perhaps in The Lost Mother Margaret and Thomas Talcott will be considered “on the fringe” because with their mother’s rejection and their father’s hardships they too have lost their place in society’s view of what a normal life is. What continues to fascinate me is how close to the fringe we all are, as close to the bounds of normalcy as to the fringe of chaos, disruption, aberration, and loss.

It seems at almost every turn that someone is being mean or deceitful to the Talcotts. Is it the Depression that makes some of your characters act in an uncharitable manner or is it something deeper? Would Irene have walked out on her children during prosperous times?

Once the bulwark of family protection is removed all children become vulnerable to life’s cruelties. This is true in any time and place, and was especially so during the Depression years. If some people were mean to the Talcott children, there were also people who were kind and as charitable as their circumstances would allow. Also, there was not the same veneration of children then as there is today. Children were expected to know their place, which usually meant unquestioning obedience and deference to adults. In more prosperous times, Irene Talcott might have had more choices. But for a woman of her temperament there probably still would have been some form of abandonment, if not physically, then surely emotionally. And in some ways that emotional abandonment can be far more damaging because it is so insidious.

It is a poignant irony that Mrs. Farley smothers her son with love to the point where Jesse-boy can’t stand it, while Margaret and Henry are desperate for their absent mother’s love. Although these two examples are quite extreme, do you think it’s possible to strike just the right balance, so that both parent and child are happy, or is this discordance an inevitable part of the child-parent dynamic? Do you think it’s possible to love a child too much? Does Irene love her children?

By its very nature and in its healthiest aspects, the child-parent relationship entails discordance, conflict, struggle. I don’t think it is ever possible to love a child too much. Oftentimes, however, the worst parenting is done in the name of love. And that can run the gamut from excessive permissiveness to abuse. Mrs. Farley’s love for her son, Jesse-boy, keeps him an invalid. It is the worst kind of love, voracious and so protective that it is restricting, all-possessive, and, of necessity, controlling. What Mrs. Farley loves above all else is being needed. Irene Talcott’s love for her children is almost the opposite of Mrs. Farley’s, colder and more rational. Irene no longer wants to be needed. In a sense she is afraid of her children, because she fears all that motherhood can demand, loss, sacrifice, the repression of her own goals and yearnings.

Abandonment is an issue you’ve visited several times before—for instance, in your book Fiona Range, the character of Fiona believes she was abandoned by her young mother. As a mother yourself, could you ever imagine a circumstance where you could have walked away from your own children? Are there circumstances under which walking away could be an acceptable option? As mothers, do we ever get to put ourselves first, or is sacrificing some of our own happiness an inevitable part of the role?

I wrote this book precisely because the idea of abandoning one’s children seems such an unnatural thing for a mother to do. And yet it happens more often than we realize. Emotional abandonment is the most inexplicable of all. It is one thing to walk away when there are issues of poverty, addiction, or abuse, but to stop caring is the hardest to comprehend. All parenting requires sacrifice, especially motherhood. Because love is the giving over of one’s self to another, there must be sacrifice or else the love is depthless and self-serving.

The Lost Mother is your sixth novel. Do you see your work as forming an arc or progression of some kind? Do the issues you write about correspond in any way to what’s currently happening in your life, or have they changed with the different stages of your life?

No, I don’t see any particular pattern in my work, though I’m told others do. Because my primary interest and focus is always character, that has been the engine for every novel. Each character has his/her own story, and if specific issues are raised, examined, they are organic to the work and not the driving force.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a play and another novel.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1. Irene Jalley seemed to start out with a lot of ambitious plans for her future—for instance to get her business college correspondence certificate and get a job—but “she had fallen in love with Henry” (p. 5). Why do you think she decided to give up all her plans and get married? Do you think this was the right choice for her? Are women still faced with these same kinds of choices (and consequences) today?

2. What do you think Irene’s real reasons are for walking out on her children? “I knew if I stayed something terrible would happen,” Irene says to Thomas. What does she think will happen? What is Irene so afraid of?

3. When Thomas and Margaret arrive at the Farley house, Thomas says he felt “as if he were being pressed back by a great force that would consume his sister just as it had his mother” (p. 75). What do you think Thomas means by this? What “force” is he talking about?

4. On page 31, Margaret says, “When I have little kids I’ll never leave them alone.” At that young age, she’s already bound and determined not to repeat her mother’s mistakes, and she seems to succeed by the end of the novel. In life, however, many people do in fact continue destructive patterns within a family. Why do you think Margaret is able to overcome her past? Does this prove that family history doesn’t necessarily have to repeat itself? And if it does, how do we keep ourselves from making the same mistakes as our parents?

5. Gladys is one of the most benevolent characters in the book. Despite being “betrayed” by Henry she seems to hold no grudges against him or his children and never speaks ill of Irene, even when given a chance. Why do you think Gladys is able to be so forgiving? At the end of the novel, Margaret refers to Gladys as “a good mother.” Consider what that means and the significance of her role in the novel.

6. We are told by Mrs. Farley (p. 20) that her husband offered Henry the chance to stay on the land as a tenant, but that Henry had “chosen pride over family.” Was this the right choice? Is it ever worthwhile to sacrifice one’s pride and principles? What choices does Henry make that you agree/disagree with? Could Henry have done anything differently so that things might not have turned out as dire for his family?

7. On page 188, McGarry Morris writes about “that moment of revelation when all is understood though nothing is known.” What does Thomas understand at that moment?

8. Irene has been successful at hiding Margaret and Thomas from Mr. Dexter until the day Mr. Dexter inadvertently discovers them at the house. At that point (p. 213), Irene suddenly proclaims to Mr. Dexter, “They’re my children. They’re mine.” This is the one and only time she acknowledges her children as her own. Why do you think she claims them at that particular moment?

9. In a way, the novel is about unmet expectations: Gladys wants Henry, Henry wants his wife back and a job, Margaret and Thomas want their mother and father together and a happy home life, the Farley’s want “normal” children; and Irene wants a more prosperous and orderly life. What does our seemingly unending desire for what we don’t have say about human nature? Do you believe we are destined always to wish for things we don’t have?

10. Not only do Thomas and Margaret have to endure their mother’s absence, but society in general treats them quite harshly. Do you think we’re more sensitive now, in the twenty-first century, to the needs and feelings of children? How has the way we parent today changed at all since time of the Depression? Do you think we are more (or less) enlightened?