Feminist Reality, Feminist Mystery: Julie J. Nichols’ Pigs When They Straddle the Air

Some titles, like Many Things Have Happened Since He Died by Elizabeth Dewberry and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, have made me want to read a novel when I know nothing at all about the author and haven’t read a review. The title itself creates a sort of tension that seems to suggest the upcoming conflict of the work, or it creates a mystery I have never imagined and want to investigate. Pigs When They Straddle the Air is such a title: Where does this phrase come from? What can it possibly mean?   I know Julie Nichols to be a remarkable woman, but I would have wanted to read her new novel for its title alone, which promises originality and surprise and literary intelligence in the work it represents. In my opinion the promise of this title is legitimate; the characters are as memorable as their dilemmas; the prose is thoughtful and fluid; the issues the book embodies are complex and timely.

Even though this novel is directed at a general audience, it may be classified as feminist Mormon literature. The characters are mostly Mormons trying to solve the conflict between cultural/religious expectations and authentic personal choice. The protagonist of each story is a woman, most of them attempting to break from constraints arising from patriarchal Mormon culture. Most of the problems these characters face do seem to come from attitudes fostered by the Mormon milieu, but sometimes the culture is implicated when the problem is not Mormon but personal prejudice. For example, the child Annie MacDougal seems to be thwarted in her love of poetry because her parents are rigidly Mormon and therefore distrust the imaginative space poems might open in their daughter’s life. But those attitudes come from her parents’ own interests—Annie’s mother is a food writer and her father a businessman—not from a truthful representation of real-world Mormon hostility to poetry. Most Mormons are indifferent to poetry, much like the rest of contemporary America, and so it is an exaggeration to link the MacDougals’ dislike of poetry to their faith. On the other hand, many real-world cultural constraints are accurately represented in the novel: the pressure women feel to marry and have children as their best or only option; the way expectations of husbands and fathers shape their wives and daughters’ lives; Mormon prejudice against lesbians; and Mormon cultural denial of women’s spiritual gifts. The novel is substantially concerned with healing and women’s power to heal, and with women claiming their spiritual power and connection to both an eternal Mother and Father.

The book is identified as “A Novel in Seven Stories,” so the chapters are actually stories, four of the seven having been published between 1988 and 2010. The characters in the stories reappear, but their relationships are not established from one story to the next. Annie MacDougal’s story is followed by that of Riva Maynard. Both Annie and Riva struggle against family expectations—Annie’s parents discourage her love of poetry and her connection with the women who are helping her to become the poet she is. The young wife Riva feels trapped in her marriage, pushed into it by a doting father and husband Paul, neither of whom really understands or cares about her needs. The next story is also narrated by Riva but is about Paul’s grandmother Jean. The fourth is in the voice of Adela Suaros, who hasn’t appeared previously in the book. The fifth centers on Suzanne, the sister of Paul.

There are also gaps of time, the stories moving from 1987 back to 1978, then to 1980 with flashbacks to 1975 and the early 1900s. The fourth story is set in 1990; the last three in 1995, 1996, and 2003, respectively. A reader is often disoriented moving from one story to the next. The most satisfying way to read the book is not to expect the plot development of a traditional novel, but to read each chapter as an individual story, complete in itself, and not to worry about the connections between them, except perhaps to keep track of the characters in the stories and their relationships to each other. (There is a “Cast of Characters” at the beginning to help out.)

Julie Nichols has clearly mastered the short story. Each of these here contains a complete action, as Flannery O’Connor would say: the characters’ engagement with each other fulfilled, the choices made and carried out. Like any good story, these leave the reader with much to think about and with a sense that, whatever the consequences, the protagonist will be able to continue her life’s quest.

It seems to me that the last two stories were written with the intention of bringing the first five together into a novel. They are much longer and more complex than the others. The sixth story, “Incident in a Schoolyard,” establishes the relationships of all the previous characters to one another. The protagonist is a girl named Katie who feels that her mother has abandoned her; soon after she was born, the mother left the family to live with another woman. Even though Katie now works in her mother’s school, her mother ignores her and seems more interested in the problems of her students than in Katie. Katie, now 17, is influenced by a reckless, almost diabolical young man named Sean, who has suffered his own father’s hypocrisy and neglect and whose anger is huge and irrational. He leads Katie to try to take revenge on her mother, with terrible consequences. This is a story with a great deal of suspense and tragedy, a great read.

The final story and the longest, “Everything to Do with You,” is left with the work of bringing all the different story lines together into a novel, creating a single whole of these disparate stories, and providing a satisfying resolution for all the characters, which labor is too much for a single story to carry out, given the lack of sequence and plot connections in what has come before.

Set seven years after the previous one, this story is closely connected to it and shows in a more linear fashion the effects of Katie and Sean’s earlier actions. But important characters from earlier stories become peripheral, their needs and desires excluded from consideration in the narrative. For example, Suzanne, protagonist of “Pigs, When They Straddle the Air” (the titular story), symbolically releases herself from the past after her husband’s death. She seems to need to do this in order to go on with her life, to claim her own talents and identity. The reader comes to care about what she will do, what her next adventure will be. But in this final story, she is scarcely mentioned: she has met the charismatic healer whose help is so significant in this last story, but there is no sense of what she has done in the seven years since her original story occurred, where she lives, and whether or not she is satisfied with this new phase of her life. Other characters—Paul and Rita, for example—are not given the consequences the reader expects for them. The reader can’t understand their final position in the book, because although they are included in the last story, they are not centered in the plot.

Such analysis is not a concern as one actually reads the book, however. The characters are naturally drawn, and their lives seem as complex and full of passion and yearning as our own. It is interesting that this feminist work is full of male characters who are helpers and healers. In fact, some of the men who seem obtuse and self-centered wind up being strong, loving, and supportive in the end. The novel points to an inclusive society. “Who has the right and authority to help others heal?” it asks. To give healing blessings? Those who most love the injured person, the novel answers: young women, priesthood holders, mothers, fathers, close friends, charismatic male leaders not of the Mormon faith.

To invoke again Flannery O’Connor: “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind,” she wrote, “but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” Julie Nichols’s fiction is good because it provides readers with that experience exactly.

So what, finally, does the novel’s title mean? In “Incident in a Schoolyard,” one of Sean’s poems alludes to the Gadarene pigs that Christ sends the evil spirit into, propelling them off a cliff. These pigs “straddled the air” as they fell toward the sea. What that means in terms of the whole novel, I’ll leave willing readers to consider for themselves as they engage with this excellent work.

Read full review here.

Pigs When They Straddle the Air
By Julie J. Nichols