Sometimes dreams can hide nightmares. Often truth is below the pleasant surface, cloaked in layers of denial and illusion. In order for writer Selah Saterstrom to understand her Southern culture, she felt it necessary to pierce through the fantasy. In her disturbing and evocative debut novel, The Pink Institution, Saterstrom, employing some unconventional forms, probes far beyond the level of polite conversation and gentility. There, she finds little Southern charm but plenty of what is rotten in the State of Dixie.
At first the novel has the feel of a memory book or scrapbook. There are captions taken from a Confederate Ball Program Guide of 1938, old photographs, and a fragmented written history with large gaps between words. Saterstrom's technique is effective; by using few words, she allows the reader to fill in the damning blanks.
Through these snippets, particularly within the spaces, the reader begins to piece together the story of a family through four generations that is ravaged by incest, addiction, racism and mental illness. From the outside, the family patriarch and local sheriff, Micajah, appears to be a respectable man who likes to hunt and loves his wife, Abella, who drinks sherry and "dreams of restoration projects to repair the damage done from the Civil War." Below is the nightmarish reality: Micajah molests his daughter, Azalea, and Abella shaves her children's heads and soaks them in urine in order to make them beautiful. This existential duality is something that Saterstrom has long recognized in the South.
"I grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, which earns its bread, so to speak, by putting the Old South on display," recounts Saterstrom by phone from Asheville, N.C., where she currently teaches writing at Warren Wilson College. "People would dress up in antebellum costume and give tours of their houses. It is a way of publicly dreaming of a more charmed time. Of course that story that is being dreamed and sold to tourists is very partial. It doesn't talk about slavery and how those houses were built. Acknowledgements to the Civil War are very questionable. Those cultural nuances fascinated me. I wanted to explore some of this mythology and see what the stories were behind some of these myths."
This insidious mythologizing continues into the second generation. Azalea marries Willie, an upstanding lawyer who later becomes a district judge. Soon they become the proud parents of four beautiful girls. Grandfather Micajah loans the couple enough money to buy a house next to his, in the country. And in a section labeled, "Childhood Objects," Saterstrom describes the surrealistic and horrifying upbringing the girls have to endure.
The headings of these page-long snapshots are innocuous enough, serving to remind us that titles are often deceiving. "Whistling," tells of Willie's mother and "how she liked to dangle the children from the windows." After suffering two strokes, she moves in with the family and screams throughout the night in a voice that "sounded like whistles." In "Hamper," the parents leave for a night of drunken debauchery at the neighbors' house. When they return, they find the girls with a shotgun in a hamper, hiding from a mysterious "hand banging that came from under the floors."
Noticeably missing from the novel is any of the quirky humor so often associated with the modern Southern saga. For Saterstrom, the omission is purposeful.
"I was very sensitive of not repitching a myth of the Southerner that I feel is harmful. It's not that I don't feel there is a place for humor or comedy. But often caricatures have been made of Southerners, like the harmless drunk, or the crazy woman with the gun in her handbag. They're funny, but there's a very serious psychic drama and series of wounds underneath that facade. Covering that up and telling the funny story is usually easier than telling the hard story, so those hard stories don't get told."
In The Pink Institution, those stories are told so they won't be forgotten or neglected. Later on, we discover a fourth-generation daughter of the family is actually narrating the novel. Her task of trying to cull together these scraps of family history in order to form some coherence and understanding is Herculean. With so little to go by, sometimes all she can offer are small poems reflecting her and her family's experiences. However, her choice of form couldn't be better. Lines such as, "the black of a dog who waits for us in a house we abandoned twenty years ago," forcefully portray how personal and collective history is not something that ultimately can be disregarded or scorned. It is a slim volume that can easily be read in one sitting. However, it is a sitting that will include several pauses to allow readers to catch their breath and reflect on the sheer power of Saterstrom's presentation. And much like what memory does to the novel's narrator, this book will resonate with its readers for a long time.
- "I grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, which earns its bread, so to speak, by putting the Old South on display," says author Selah Saterstrom, who eschews Southern charm and humor for weightier matters.