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Small Whitecaps and Wild Rugosa

One of my favorite books of last year was Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive KitteridgeThose of you familiar with the book know it is a collection of linked stories set in a town named Crosby, Maine. The stories are connected by the presence of the main character, Olive Kitteridge, who appears at various stages of her life. Taken together, the book provides a portrait of a whole life. Olive is a loveable and exasperating character. I could go on and on about the brilliant way Elizabeth Strout shows Olive's change and growth, but my subject this week is place and setting. And the town of Crosby, Maine is a very important part of this book.


On Tuesday I said we would look at the ways various writers make use of setting in their work. Among those uses I suggested was selecting details in a setting to hold emotion, to transfer the reader's eye off the point-of-view character onto something in the setting, thereby allowing readers to experience the particular emotion the main character experiences, along with that character, rather than stating an abstraction, i.e., "Michael felt angry" and leaving it up to readers to translate that concept - anger - into the appropriate visceral emotional response. Okay, yes, I'm talking about the objective correlative and I can't believe I would even try to talk about this because it is so difficult to understand and explain. Any small understanding I have is due to Tim Wynne-Jones whose amazing lectures on the subject at Vermont College and Kindling Words, gave me a glimpse into what T.S. Eliot meant when he coined the phrase. (And, if you ever have an opportunity to hear Tim give a lecture, for heaven's sake, GO!)


Anyway, re-reading Olive Kitteridge the other night, I ran across a stunning example of what I'm trying to explain. And I didn't think I could leave a discussion of setting without mentioning the idea of using details in a setting to convey emotion. So, let's look at the second story in Olive Kitteridge. Its title is Incoming Tide. 


In this story a young man named Kevin has returned to the seaside town of Crosby, Maine where he lived with his brothers and parents until he was thirteen when he and his brothers moved away with their father. Ah. What happened, you ask? Strout teases her readers along, reeling out bits of back-story through the minds and memories of two-point- of-view characters. We know that Kevin is still deeply troubled by what happened in this place and we understand that this trip is meant to be a reckoning of sorts. And then we learn that Kevin has a gun in the back seat of his car.


The second point-of-view character is a young woman named Rose, who works in the restaurant at the marina. She has recently suffered a miscarriage, not for the first time, and struggles with thoughts about her chances of successfully carrying a child to term. Rose recognizes Kevin when she spots him sitting in his car outside the marina. She remembers him from when they were both children. The story moves brilliantly through flashbacks, showing us the back-story that brought Kevin to this point in his life. 


And then, of course, who should happen along to this grassy area beside the sea cliffs but Kevin's old seventh grade math teacher, Mrs. Kitteridge -- Olive Kitteridge of the book's title. In her inimitable fashion, Olive insinuates herself into the story. And, in Strout's inimitable way, the story of Kevin and Rose's lives, somehow deepens readers' understanding about the main character Olive Kitteridge. But, I digress. 


As I said, I don't want to give away too much, but, you get the picture; a young man returns to his childhood home where something momentous happened to him which changed the course of his life, and which he has never fully come to terms with and he's brought along a gun.


And what about the setting?


Look at the first sentence of the story.


"The bay had small whitecaps and the tide was coming in, so the smaller rocks could be heard moving as the water shifted among them."


Already, with the very first sentence, Strout has suggested the internal turbulence of the main character.   "Small whitecaps." And, what about those "smaller rocks heard moving?" She doesn't tell us that Kevin is thinking about the events of his early adolescence which left unresolved emotions that still boil inside. She puts them in the landscape. She creates an atmosphere of unease, with the threat of danger thrown in – rocks and whitecaps - and then she shows us Kevin's back-story through flashback. 

She could almost have said, the boy "had small whitecaps . . . ."


Also critical to the story are the wild rugosa bushes that grow on the cliffs along the narrow path which runs from the marina. Those bushes appear four times in the story. Again, I don't want to say too much, but just look at how Strout uses this DETAIL– the wild rugosa – to conclude the opening paragraphs of the story.


"Kevin had not been to this town since he was a child; thirteen, when he moved away with his father and brother. He was as much a stranger up here now as any tourist might be, and yet gazing back at the sun-sliced bay, he noted how familiar it felt; he had not expected that. The salt air filled his nose, the wild rugosa bushes with their white blossoms brought him a vague confusion; a sense of sad ignorance seemed cloaked in their benign white petals."


Now, go read the rest of this story.


And let me end today's post by quoting Tim from one of his lectures. 


"A setting is not simply where a scene unfolds, it is part of the unfolding."


Exactly, Tim. Thank you!


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 19th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
Very helpful post. Thanks!
Jun. 19th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC)
Whitecaps and Wild Rugosa
You're welcome. Thank you for reading!
Jun. 19th, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
I loved that book, and my favorite story was this one. But I will have to reread and look for the roses. Thank you!
Jun. 20th, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, Jeannine. It's one of those stories you can return to again and again, isn't it?
Jun. 20th, 2009 12:19 am (UTC)
I love Olive Kitteridge and especially Incoming, too. Every writer could be helped by reading that one chapter/story again and again. Pace, suspense, telling detail, and yes objective correlative all come together with gorgeous subtlety. It's also perhaps the first time Strout introduces a nicer, more empathetic side of Olive, which contrasts so wonderfully with the action. Unity of opposites, I guess.
Bravo post, Sarah.
PS A Little Burst, the chapter about Christopher Kitteridge's wedding reception, is my favorite of all. How I admire Olive for her use of black magic marker.
Jun. 20th, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)
Olive Kitteridge
Well-said, Tami! Olive is a wonderfully complex character.
And yes, the magic marker... that's a scene that sticks in your head, isn't it?
Jun. 21st, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC)
I'm getting so much out of these posts, Sarah! Thank you.

I'm going to find that book and read it, too. It sounds wonderful.
Jun. 21st, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Excellent!
Glad you enjoyed them, Kelly. Hope the work is going well for you! I hope you enjoy Olive Kitteridge as much as I did. What a wonderful book!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )