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Collaborators – Janet Kauffman


Janet Kaufman‘s second book with Lish is this wonderful, beautifully composed 132 page novel, set (as is much of hr fiction, where she is from) Michigan farmland country, among the mysterious Mennonite community.

Publishers Weekly wrote:

Against a landscape composed of and by women, men hardly register in this thin, elegant novel by the author of Places in the World a Woman Could Walk. Dovie (formally named Andrea Doria) listens closely to her Mennonite mother, who seems to carelessly transcend the conventions that circumscribe their lives, substituting her own strict rhythm and a personal catechism that she imparts to her willing pupil. As a child, Dovie believes her mother fiercely, uncritically absorbing her views on sexuality, God and men, while bthe farmwork of the long tobacco season unfolds around them. It’s only in retrospect that she concludes, “”My mother lied to me about everything . . . She crooned and ranted and cooked up powerful storms of lies that held like uncalled-for weather over my childhood.” Yet in her turn, betrayed by the stroke that steals her mother’s memory and then her life, Dovie conspires to pass on the lessons she learned to her own daughter. Although the novel cannot transcend its fragmented structure, those who savor rich cadences and the unexpected, beautifully turned phrase will find much to satisfy the senses.

Kauffman’s prose, more here than in her stories, is so precise, so elegant, that you have to stop and go back and reread various paragraphs two or three times.

The narrator is Dovie, or Andrea, as she looks back on her relationship with her mother and the quiet life they led on the Mennonite farm. The mother admits to a number of harrowing, shocking things such as an escapee from the nearby prison who raped her mother (and could be Dovie’s real father), to her mother’s dark secrets of incest:

The child in me then that crouched, small and jubliant, the part of me that assumed an indistinct shape in my mother’s mind — that child was the daughter she talked  to about her lovers, her three lovers, grandfather, father, and son, whom she loved equally, she insisted on that, and dreamed oif equally, whom she had coupled with compassionately, each in his sickness, and each in his righteous self. I asked her which was my father, and she said the man who took is in the summer to the ocean, who walked on the beach with my brother, he was my father. (p. 16)

They farm tobacco, which has its pluses and minuses, and it is a hard way of making a living.  As Kauffman stated herself in one of her art exhibits:

The vision of farming as a peaceful way of life, surrounded by idyllic and pastoral landscapes, is a deeply-rooted dream in American life. That dream has turned nightmare where I live, and in many areas of the country.

There have been two reprint editions, one from Penguin and one from Graywolf Press, which as been instrument in keeping Kauffman’s old and new works in print.

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