Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

14B437FC-4BA8-4589-A2DA-7685A312A54DWhen I was studying James Joyce’s work as an undergraduate, I was introduced to Richard Ellman’s definitive text entitled James Joyce. I also discovered that Ulysses is simultaneously one of the most talked about novels as well as one of the least-read novels among academic highbrows. You may stumble upon a copy on an acquaintances’ bookshelves, but  when picked up for a look, it becomes clear  the book has nEver been read. That is partially due to the text being 704 pages, as well as other chellenges. For example, the last 45 pages is a stream of consciousness by Molly Bloom, Leopold Bloom’s wife.

Over the years, I have shared my enjoyment and admiration of Joyce with my son, Brendan. A few weeks ago I was on the phone with him describing the new book by Lucy Ellman, Richard Ellman’s daughter. In her book,  the reader never knows the narrator’s name. However, she is a housewife in Ohio, her husband Leo is an academic, and she has four children as well as her own home-based business baking and selling pies. The title of the book is Ducks, Newburyport and the entire 999 pages is a stream of consciousness from within this woman’s mind…in one sentence. When I was this far in my description of Lucy Ellman’s book, my son asked “Hey, Mom, I wonder what the Ellmans talked about around the dinner table.”

Lucy Ellman does not refer to her approach as a stream of consciousness. She  refers t it as “a litany“  as a way of diving beneath the dead zone of facts to a more personal realm. However, to me Ellman’s novel reads about the same as Joyce when he is up the same tricks in Ulysses.

Here’s Molly –

…those sham battles on the 15 acres the Black Watch with their kilts in time at the march past the 10th hussars the prince of Wales own the lancers O the lancers theyre grand or the Dublins that won Tugela his father made his money over selling the horse for the Cavalry well he could buy me a nice present up in Belfast after what I have they’ve lovely linen up there

And here is the pie-baking housewife in Ohio

….but then I woke up and thought  who wants to sleep in a dormitory with a crowd of strangers no matter how blue everything is, the fact that it would feel like you’re in a hospital or a refugee camp or something or Guadalajara, not that other place, Guantanomo, ah here we are, Restrooms, the fact that nobody cleans this place or what, the fact that there is a fly on the seat

Joyce’s Ulysses is embedded in Irish culture, and more times than not, Dublin culture, as is seen in the above quote. It was so much easier for me to follow Ellman’s housewife as her thoughts were embedded in the American culture, which is much more familiar to me. But this also brought me to where I did struggle with the text.   For example, on page 868 (randomly chosen) Ellman’s character moves from  thinking of Othello as being the saddest play ever, then  to her mother who  had passed way when she was too young to lose her mother, and then on to Sinking Spring, a shrunken mound that measured sixty-nine feet tall in 1838 and now is sixty feet tall. Halfway through the book I started to think about my own stream of thought or that is my own dive beneath the dead zone of facts to a more personal realm. To be honest, I doubted I was anywhere near as interesting as this woman.

So I did an experiment. I took a two hour walk and I consciously monitored my stream of thought to see how it sized up to the housewife in Ohio. I failed miserably. Where she moves from Othello to her mother to shrunken mounds, I moved from my annoying neighbor to the balance in my checking account to what to have with my cup of tea when I finally got home…a cookie or a piece of heavily-buttered toast. Hmmmm.

Ellman teases the reader to stay with the story by  including events in her day such as a flat tire, a visit to the dentist, the arrival of chicken feed for a week (she keeps chickens), and the family getting and subsequently losing a dog. Juxtaposed against this mother’s story is the story of a lioness and her three cubs – cubs which  are eventually lost (due to a pair of lousy do-goodies).However, the lioness overcomes what appear to be insurmountable obstacles to find them. Both of these  characters are mothers, but to me, the similarities end there. The lioness is not only  deeply connected to her innate mothering instincts but also acts on them. The housewife has things other than her children on her mind. For example, if she were given three wishes, hers would be money, a pension and free health care. Ellman’s remark on the state of things in her character’s three wishes is taken, but I am still disappointed that the character’s deepest desires -maybe at least one?-  are not more directly linked to her four children. At the end of the book, it is  one of her children who saves the day…not the Mom. However,  the lioness triumphs In that side of the story by managing to find her lost cubs.

So, all of this makes me wonder if this book is a call to mothers , to women, to everyone, to return to our innate instincts?  If we just took care. – loving, attentive  care – of those closest to us, we would all move forward.



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