Forthcoming June 29, 2018
Firefly Southern Fiction, 234 pp., $9.95
Parallel universes exist all around us. One person chucks trash for another to call a treasure. Claire Fullerton’s novel Mourning Dove explores this concept with indulgent detail through a cast of characters manifesting such existences like fraternal twins. North meets South. Gritty, lower-income streets cross into rich, well-to-do avenues. The old gives way to youth in an almost forgotten silence. The harsh reality of here and now crashes unforgivingly into wistful nostalgic ideations of what might have been. Fullerton delivers a punch that impacts the reader in a vein similar to To Kill a Mockingbird—even the coming-of-age protagonists and titles align to a degree.
Told through the perspective of Millie, the younger child between she and her wunderkind brother Finley, the novel oscillates between worlds of breathless memory and the tattered edges of the present. Fullerton plops Millie into uptown Memphis, Tennessee during the 60s and 70s. It’s a world away from her native Minnesota and the divorce between Posey, her well-heeled mother, and Sean, her wayward alcoholic father. From there, Millie and Finley are lurched into maturity all too soon, with their environment ever shifting between hopeful wishes and severe thoughts grounded in a cold reality.
Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Mourning Dove examines the social mores of masculinity versus. femininity, rich versus poor, life versus death, and maturity versus youth. Unlike Lee’s classic, Fullerton uses these themes in a painfully intimate way with her central characters unapologetically tasked with navigating between these worlds. Where Scout and Jem experience these from a protected and privileged distance in To Kill a Mockingbird, Millie and Finley are more often than not left to their own devices. The siblings maneuver across both literal and figurative borders with no guidance from the adults in their lives—who admittedly seem less prepared or willing to manage these borders for themselves.
Posey, living the life typical of Southern elites, flits in and out the scene with an elegant remoteness similar to that of a wild bird, present yet untouchable. Sean’s exits and entrances come with a stronger weight until his untimely and lonely death, hermited away in his lower-income apartment. Even Gaga, Millie’s fragile grandmother, exists on her own, separate plane of reality until death. While all characters inhabit the same stage, their performances create a collage of alternate spaces, with each operating in entire separation from the others. The chilled distance between child and adult creates an unnerving atmosphere for the audience watching the protagonists grow up with little guidance.
More to the point, Millie and Finley act more as spectators in their own show. They observe from a distance, save for the here-and-there snippets of conversation with their family members. Their existence is an insular one where their presence is solely delegated by beck and call for strictly Norman Rockwell purposes of creating the perfect, Southern gatherings of “knee-high to a grasshopper” conversations with adults that Posey wishes to impress. As children, they are often the perfect picture of “seen and not heard”conversation starters over cocktails in the card room. The closest, warmest relationship in the book is between Millie and Finley alone.
But even this relationship meets an unfortunate end, and everything the now adult Millie thought was set in stone is turned upside down. Players in the dramatic tragedy switch roles faster than your favorite daytime soap opera. Fullerton beautifully sums up the lessons from this novel with a single line: “Perhaps we’ll discover great meaning as we look back and realize we handled the same history in two different ways.” The single grain of hopeful truth Mourning Dove offers at its bitter end is this: the truth is multidimensional. Even two people with twin experiences will come to forks in the road and separate into paralleled experiences.
Fullerton’s novel will transcend generations for this reason. It speaks to readers across different barriers in the same way that her novel oscillates. North to South. Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial. The hard-learned lessons she captures know no boundaries and have no mercies. Mourning Dove is a novel we not only read, but listen to as we would a teacher filled hard won wisdom.