The arc of a 20th century life (rural Indiana, through the Depression, WWII, contemporary times): In William Zinsser’s classic book On Writing Well, he advised writers to “simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.” Award-winning, Brown University Professor of Literary Arts Laird Hunt’s latest novel embraces that lofty goal. Zorrie is a magnificent read, boiled down to a slim 176 pages packed with humanity.
The tender prose sends an existential message about an honest, hardworking life of basic yet deep values that strikes a melancholy, nostalgic, and hopeful tone. It feels as if Hunt sat down to craft soulful words for the purpose of comforting us through dark times into the light.
A “life is everything” message written with such gentleness, grief, sorrow, and hopefulness, remarkable for how it touches us in so few words as we mourn the lives of loved ones we’ve lost during historic times. Pained by so much suffering and isolation, and yet offering a message of finding a way to “think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” Words one of the characters says, inspired by the words of a brave young girl, Anne Frank, in her famous WWII diary.
The novel’s overarching theme is about finding ways to seek the light amidst the darkness. It’s prefaced by a lovely quote from the French writer Gustave Flaubert from his short story A Simple Heart, imparting the same theme, referencing “light sparkling in the night sky like a company of stars; beyond the sea stretched dimly.”
Hunt tells us in his Acknowledgements Flaubert’s story was among the books he “kept close to me as I wrote.” Also in this list: Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl; Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; and the philosophical writings of France’s Michael de Montaigne and Greece’s ancient Herodotus. Other classical works appear in the book, offering wisdom and puncturing stereotypes about rural life as Zorrie is set in the fertile farmlands of Indiana’s Clinton County.
Zorrie loves Indiana’s soil, “the smell of the clay-rich dirt.” “Dirt she had bloomed out of, it was who she was, what she felt, how she thought, what she knew.” She’s a “giver of gifts” straight from nature’s bounties: “an abandoned nest, arrowheads, monarch wings, and turtle shells.” Someone who hears birdsong as a harbinger “to sing the world back into being.” Nature is fundamental to Zorrie’s ability to see lightness. As are warm, sustaining memories of love, friendship, and companionship as the novel opens when she’s in her fifties and then looks back on her life.
This is not the only novel Hunt has set in Indiana. For instance, Indiana, Indiana apparently (to-be-read) introduces the male character who quoted Anne Frank’s poignant words, Noah Adams. In it is the woman he fell in love with, Opal. In Zorrie, Opal is living in a mental institution with Noah longing for her. He’s the son of the scholarly farmer, Virgil, and his wife, Ruby, close by neighbors and dear friends over many years.
Organized into six parts, each a chapter written in long, flowing narrative prose, each prefaced with a few poetic words that allude to the same sad versus hopeful theme, starting with Part I’s: “Out of this shadow, into the sun.”
In quiet, assured prose, the opening sentence serves as a prologue to Zorrie’s backstory:
“Zorrie Underwood had been known throughout the county as a hard worker for more than fifty years, so it troubled her when finally the hoe started slipping through her hands, the paring knife from her fingers, the breath in shallow bursts in her lungs, and smack down in the middle of the day, she had to lie down.”
Already we’re drawn to her industrious, down-to-earth, noble life. Orphaned young, both her parents died from diphtheria, an infectious disease essentially eradicated in the US thanks to a childhood vaccine, which in the 1920s killed hundreds of thousands. Ever so timely as we’re hoping new vaccines will bring us light after a dark year.
Raised by a bitter aunt who scolded Zorrie’s positive attitude, saying “hope’ll lead you straight into the bushes,” she dies when Zorrie was twenty-one, leaving her without any family or means of support. Despite her aunt’s chronic grumblings and her lonely plight, “hope had nonetheless often found a way to seep out and surprise her, bow graciously, extend its hand, ask her to dance.” The novel is full of grace.
Aware from the start that Zorrie’s health was compromised, we soon learn why. Tragic for Zorrie, and historically, as she was one of those young women who worked at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois before it was known that painting the face dials of clock pieces with radioactive powder was slowly poisoning them.
Hunt calls the yellow, glowing-in-the-dark powder “Luna powder,” a name that refers to the Moon, symbolic of the novel’s eternal theme of the perpetual cycling of seasons, the cycles of life. Indeed, Zorrie’s story cycles through the years and seasons of her life from early childhood to coming-of-age to adulthood to growing old till eternity. “Divine,” “eternal,” and “eternity” are prevalent words and universal themes seen from religious, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives.
The radium factory is key to the story health-wise and in terms of how powerfully attached someone’s image of Home can be. Zorrie made two dear friends on the job, Janie and Marie, the first real girlfriends she had, but she missed Indiana’s soil so much she left them when she didn’t even have a physical home. Returning to her homeland, she finds that farmhouse through the blessings of love and different kinds of friendships. Virgil, Ruby, and Noah, most significantly.
Zorrie and her girlfriends called themselves “Ghost Girls” after they realized the powder on their hands and faces, having licked it onto their paintbrushes, glowed. Unaware of how sinister it was, they rejoiced in how they could “stand luminous under the stars” like Flaubert’s quote, feeling special, valued, for the first time in their lives.
While Zorrie stays in touch with Janie and Marie from time to time throughout the years, sometimes desiring to see them, mostly they remain fond memories of happy times. As other friends and neighbors cycle in and out of her life more memories buoy her as her life narrows and becomes lonely once again. A dog named Oats enters her life unexpectedly, beautifully evoking the soul-mate companionship dog lovers feel, especially people living alone or isolated. No surprise, then, that one of the outcomes of pandemic quarantining has been a surge in animal adoptions. Also, more baking and gardening, both of which comfort Zorrie too. The “gift of music” another pleasure.
In these ways, Zorrie’s life reminds us of ours. Nostalgic in our memories of loved ones we’ve lost, and for simpler times when neighbors truly watched out for each other.
Another quote from the above mentioned French philosopher Michel de Montaigne reinforces the life-affirming theme: “We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud.” Hunt expresses this sentiment in fewer words: “The fragile film of the present must be buttressed against the past.”
The poetic rendering of a singular life humanizes the fragility of life, and shows us where to find strength and humanity.
P.S. The novel really hit home as my husband engraved our wedding bands with the inscription “Till Eternity.”