Life Among the Savages
By Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson, author of the classic short story The Lottery, was known for her terse, haunting prose. But the writer possessed another side, one which is delightfully exposed in this hilariously charming memoir of her family’s life in rural Vermont. Fans of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Cheaper by the Dozen, and anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote will find much to recognize in Shirley Jackson’s home and neighborhood: children who won’t behave, cars that won’t start, furnaces that break down, a pugnacious corner bully, household help that never stays, and a patient, capable husband who remains lovingly oblivious to the many thousands of things mothers and wives accomplish every single day. “Our house,” writes Jackson, “is old, noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books.” Jackson’s literary talents are in evidence everywhere, as is her trenchant, unsentimental wit. Yet there is no mistaking the happiness and love in these pages, which are crowded with the raucous voices of an extraordinary family living a wonderfully ordinary life.
Life Among the Savages was originally published in 1948. Some parts fell quite dated – smoking while pregnant, being able to pay for things with nickels and dimes because some things only cost a nickel or a dime, being knocked out to give birth, the constant repair and reuse of clothing (although that’s not a bad lesson to pick back up – while others are timeless – the cacophony of children, mothers coming together to deal with a fight between their children, growing into a home, the entire family coming down with the same bad cough at the same time.
I find this style of memoir very charming. I typically stumble across them and find myself yearning for a raucous house full of children and a husband prone to retreating. Jackson’s style of writing provides the tenor of the household. Scenes around the table have people speaking over each other and small comments on peas that roll off plates. It’s a neat trick that doesn’t often appear in novels, no matter how realistic they purport to be. The dialogue is messy and overlapping, although never confusing. Her skill as a writer shines in this element.
She also uses long paragraphs of ‘what if’ style conversations with other women to show how the housewife is prone to lists and handling information. “I share this” and then “she’ll share that” with the husband’s piping up and being ignored because this is actually all during a bridge game.
These could be very distracting and confusing but she is adept at guiding the reader through her story to its conclusion.
Memoirs like these are lovely and idyllic. They are very different from a memoir about a difficult childhood or abusive relationship or even a life that has both highs and lows. This subgenre of memoir – I have no idea what to call it – revels in the charming parts of life; frustrating at times but still the stories to look back on fondly. I’m sure Jackson had plenty of rough patches in her life, her ability to see these stories shows she can keep her attention on the good parts when she needs to.
Some of the charming parts that made me want to live with this family:
- The rundown house they rent in Vermont that has its own personality.
- Her son Laurie’s tall tales about a bad boy at school. (Guess who’s really the bad boy?)
- Her daughter Jannie’s vivid imagination – at one point she has seven children that she speaks of as if they are currently around her, frightening strangers at times, until the children grow up and move away.
- Her husband who continues to read The Wizard of Oz out loud even after Jannie has left the room because one of her ‘daughters’ is sitting with him.
- Her youngest child Sally’s constant talking and singing described as “part song, part story, part uncomplimentary editorial comment.”
Disappearing into a delightful world such as this is a wonderful gift on a tough day. My life looks nothing like this and may never but knowing that it existed, even if exaggerated or handpicked for maximum effect, is a balm. Life can be difficult but then your children put on a show in the living room to entertain you.