Brief History of the Floodby Jean Harfenist
Lillian Anderson is a strong-minded, backwoods-Minnesota girl, well-versed in the basics of survival. She can find air to breathe under a capsized boat, drive in a blizzard, or capture a wild duck. As part of a large struggling family, she tiptoes around her explosive father whose best days always come right after he’s poached something and her neurotically optimistic mother whose bursts of vigor bring added chaos. Lillian barrels through adolescence with no illusions about her future, honing her clerical skills while working the nightshift as a salad girl in the airport kitchen. Just as she’s on her feet and moving out, their house is literally sinking into the marsh. Stunningly honest, this story explores the fierce love that binds family together.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Santa Barbara News-Press
New York Times
“A granite-tough perspective on a wild and sometimes dangerous childhood. . . . One thinks of the flinty poetry of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, say, or the cocksure ease of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Hilariously wrought . . . without a whit of melodrama . . . equal parts humor and steel.”—Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe
“Rigorously beautiful without an ounce of dangerous pretension, a book I’ll put on my book club’s list and keep by the bed for dark nights when I need a language booster shot.”—Kaye Gibbons
“We root for Lillian because she’s an utterly convincing character, fiercely loyal and loving, [with] that rarest of gifts, a sane heart.”—Emily Carter, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Reading Jean Harfenist’s [writing] is like finding a hot slot machine in a casino. One winner after another? In wild defiance of the odds? Who cares. Stay seated.”—Richard Russo
"[A] luminous [story] about growing up on a Minnesota lake. Harfenist has spun gold out of the daily lives of the Andersons and their four children in Acorn Lake." –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Few authors [have] the grace and generosity of Harfenist, whose writing is almost dreamlike in its lyricism." –Entertainment Weekly
"Charming. . . . Jean Harfenist shows a sure touch with characterization . . . deft and subtle. . . . [Harfenist's] narration is consistently absorbing and enlivened by flashes of description that are unexpected yet completely in character." –Washington Post
"Harfenist's integrated themes and evocative prose style elevate A Brief History of the Flood . . . giving it the satisfying, rounded feel of a good novel." –San Francisco Chronicle
"Funny and sad and somehow good natured, [A Brief History of the Flood] brings us in to the painful intimacies and troubled hearts of the Anderson family. . . . Jean Harfenist explores the interface between love and dysfunction through young Lillian whose voice will stick with you long after you turn the last page." –Santa Barbara News-Press
"Harfenist has endowed her narrator with an eminent toughness and scathing wit that make being with Lillian the baddest kind of fun." –Chicago Tribune
"Tender, brutal, funny. . . . I doubt there is a person born who could not 'relate to' this book." –Mark Costello, author of Big If
"Wryly funny, unflustered and watchful . . . an impressive debut." –The Arizona Republic
"Jean Harfenist is an excellent writer. . . . [A Brief History of the Flood] is so honest that you could almost swear that it's her memoir." –Florida Sun-Sentinel
"This writer can't put a word wrong." –Pawling News Chronicle
Read an Excerpt
Mom says, "Now this is how it's supposed to be." She smiles her sparkly smile and looks around the breakfast table at all of us while the breeze off the lake comes through the screens and the red squirrels chitter in the oak trees. Our living and dining room are one big square with golden knotty-pine paneling and a high-beamed ceiling. Dad built it that way. Then he nailed deer heads and rifle racks to the walls and named it Jack's Hunting Lodge. But Mom put a sign out by the road with just our name next to a mallard hen: ANDERSON.
Randy always sits next to me. I kick his bare foot and nod at Dad who's jabbing his sliced bananas with his fork, click-click, click-click against the Melmac bowl. Randy raises his sun-bleached eyebrows at me, which means just let it go, but Mitzy jumps to her feet, points her skinny finger in Dad's face and says, "Mom says it sets her teeth on edge when you do that." I'll be eight this month, Mitzy's nearly ten and Randy's twelve. Mom looks at Dad. She's biting the tip of her tongue with her tiny white teeth. Dad pokes his bananas faster, like some mad guy knocking on our door, so she goes back to peeling her orange in one long strip using just her thumbnail. Without looking up, she laughs once, and says real loud, "Sure do love all of you."
Randy says, "Love you, Mom."
Mitzy says, "Love you."
I say, "Love you."
Dad rattles his coffee cup on the saucer for a refill, not saying a word even though we're all looking at him. When his upper lip flattens out, we stop looking. Then Mom stands up so fast her chair falls over backward. Her head's turning this way and that, when our black Lab, Happy, howls from the end of the dock with a sound that lifts the rest of us out of our chairs and sets us on our feet. Randy runs fastest, down the lawn. By the time I reach the end of the dock I have to squeeze between Mom and Dad and shove Mitzy aside to see Randy standing waist-high in the lake, holding Davey facedown over his shoulder like a sack of flour, pounding his back while Davey screams like he's being born again, but this time he's nearly two. Randy looks up at Mom and Dad, all huge eyes and big ears, wondering what he's supposed to do now.
When Davey gives a watery gasp it's as if Mom, Dad and Mitzy wake up and jump into the water. Davey's so slippery wet they almost drop him trying to flip him right side up. Then Mom has him tight against her chest. "My baby, my baby." Like My Baby is his real name. She's rubbing her cheek against his even though he threw up and now it's on both of them. Dad says, "For Chrissake, Marion," as if she's done something else wrong. "The kid'll be fine," he says. She looks at him like she can't remember who he is.
Davey is screaming again, shaking his little fists, when I realize I'm the only human being still standing on the dock with the dog. I jump in, hoping no one noticed. I can't stand babies, but I'm picking weeds off Davey now, shivering, just glad he's alive.
Later that morning the four of us kids and Happy are sitting on the floor of our pontoon boat, passing around a saucepan of chicken noodle soup Randy heated. The boat's a big red floating version of Davey's playpen--just a flat wooden deck with side railings, a steering column in the middle, and a little motor on the back. The whole thing sits on two giant aluminum floats called pontoons. We keep it tied to our dock. I let Happy lick soup from my hand, laughing when her tongue tickles my palm. She's a hero.
Davey stands up slowly, looking confused and kind of green from almost drowning. When the wake from a big inboard hits, his arms shoot up like he's surrendering, Randy snags him, hauls him onto his lap, and rearranges his fat baby legs to make him comfortable while we ride it out together, up and down, waiting for Mom.
Mom always says she wanted twelve kids, an even dozen to love her forever, but Dad put his foot down after I was born and it took her six years to sneak in Davey. She likes talking about the eight kids she never had as if they're off waiting somewhere--maybe in the toolshed back by the road. She points to her stomach and says her tubes are tied in knots so we're all she's ever going to have: Randy, Mitzy, me and Davey. And Happy.
Mitzy's sitting with her feet straight out, slapping the backs of her knees against the deck, drinking soup from the pan. She stops and says, "It was your fault, Lillian. You were supposed to watch the baby."
"No I wasn't," I lie. "Randy was."
"You're jealous because you're not the baby anymore."
I eyeball her. I always thought when I watched the baby, Mom was watching both of us, that it was a helping-out job like breaking eggs into the bowl when she bakes brownies.
Mitzy slaps my arm with the spoon, leaving a warm wet speck of noodle. I grab the spoon, fling it over her head into the lake. She shouts, "Goddamnit!" and kicks out at me like a thresher. "Mom's been sleeping too goddamned long."
As if it's up to me. I roll into a ball and cover my head. My sister's thin as a toothpick, but being mean makes her strong.
Randy says, "You don't have to swear, Mitzy."
"But moms shouldn't sleep so long," she says, covering us with spit the way she does every time she says something with an s in it, like her tongue's too thick or her lips are too big or her front teeth are too short. Something's wrong with her. She grabs the pan by its handle and sails it out over the lake, where it lands upright, does a couple of slow spins and sinks like the weeds pulled it under. "I'm waking her up."
Ten minutes later Mitzy walks back down the lawn toward us, eating from a tub of chocolate chip ice cream with a new and bigger spoon. Her short hair is already white-blond from the sun, just like Randy's and Davey's. In the winter their hair turns yellow. I'm the only redhead. Mitzy says, "Mom's got the bedroom door locked." She jumps onto the boat, folds herself down onto the deck without missing a bite. "I knocked, but she wouldn't even answer."
Randy asks, "Dad?"
"Must have gone into town."
. . .
By one o'clock we've stashed Davey in his playpen on the beach and we're bobbing around in inner tubes. I'm hanging by my armpits, kicking slow, licking the hot black rubber so I can watch the sun dry off the wet mark, when music explodes from the house. Two seconds later Mom's on the patio, dancing by herself in her yellow bikini, elbows in the air, fingers snapping. She was the Minnewashka High School Posture Queen. When Dad's in a good mood, he pats her fanny, tells her she's a looker and they kiss because they're in love.
We paddle toward her as fast as we can.
"See, Mitzy?" I say, kicking my tube onto the grass. "She just needed a nap."
Mom leaps onto the pontoon boat, light as Tinkerbell, and swivels to face the three of us on the dock. She's perfect except for a scar like a crooked seam where her belly button was before she had Davey, and Dad made her get her tubes tied because she was already in the hospital. Her scar never tans.
"Kids, your mother has an idea," she says. "Mitzy? Drag that roll of chicken wire down here from the ditch across the road, and get all the white paint you can find. Chop-chop. Lillian? Sweetheart? Art supplies. Dry markers, glue. And my sewing kit. Randy, honey, get a bottle for Davey."
We ask what we're going to make, but she just points in the direction she wants us to go and we run off still wearing our wet swimsuits. All summer we get to hang them on the clothesline at night and put them right back on in the morning. We even wear them into town and run squealing through the freezer section of Gill's Grocery.
Later we're on the dock, painting, hammering and tying this to that, music so loud it's like the house is bending its knees, dancing to Louis Prima. Mom says, "Can't you feel that bass in your chest?" holding her breast like her heart's in there. Mitzy grabs herself with both hands where her breasts would be if she had any, turns to Randy, arches her back and slides her hands down her sides and over her hips. He gives her a fake smile, showing every tooth. I say, "Gross."
We sprint to the shed and the woodpile, finding things, then jump into the lake because it's eighty-five degrees and we're sweating like pigs. Having a blast. We race across the sizzling sand--Mom says it only burns if you think about it. She holds up a finger that means stop! We wiggle our fingers in the air and shake our bottoms while we sing the chorus: "So Chattanooga Choo-choo, won't you choo-choo me home? Whoooo-whoooo." That's the Andrews Sisters.
Mom says, "Drag two stools out onto the boat." We ask, "What's it going to be?" She shouts, "Screwdriver," holding her hand in the air for it. "Mommmmmm." We eat an entire package of Oreos. Mom shouts, "All the snow goose decoys!" Pepsi-Cola, Frosted Flakes. "You kids won't know what I'm creating until it's done." We feed ripple chips to the dog, cookie crumbs to the sunfish that live in the shadow of the dock.
I'm wrapping railings in white crepe paper, Randy and Mitzy are cutting cardboard hearts, when Dad appears on the lawn in his baggy black swim trunks, carrying a tall glass of tomato juice. We're hoping he's out of his mood. Otherwise he'll sit in a lawn chair all day shouting, "Marion, why can't you sit here with your husband for a while?" If Mom's awake, she's working on something.
Dad walks hard on the wooden dock, barefoot, heel-toe, thud-thud, pigeon-toed like Mitzy, and thin all over except for a potbelly like a bowling ball. He has a scar across his middle too, a giant frown where the doctors cut out seven-eighths of his stomach because we gave him ulcers. He still pushes there with the heel of his hand when we upset him, and Mom whispers, "Must have been the wrong seven-eighths."
She's standing in the shallow water behind the boat, a paintbrush in her hand, her face paint-speckled white. She's beautiful.
Dad steps to the edge of the dock to look, and his mouth falls open like she's running naked down Main Street. "What in creation?"
She dabs at the motor, lifts her chin. "Tah-dahhhh!!! Tomorrow we're going to win the Fourth of July float contest!"
Randy whistles like a train and we all clap except Dad who points his finger at her like otherwise she couldn't figure out who he's talking to. "For Chrissake, Marion. You don't paint motors."
Randy and I move toward her, but she tilts a hip, cocks her head and winks at Dad. "Darling, later I'll paint your motor any color you want."
After a long drink of tomato juice he smacks his lips. I hate lip-smacking. "After dinner?"
With the tiny tip of her paintbrush, Mom circles the top of the motor again while he watches.
"Heh," he says finally, smiling now, shaking his head because he can't get over how cute she is.
Randy shouts, "Camouflage. Mom, you could paint it camouflage for duck hunting. Gray and green and brown. All swirled together. I could show you."
Dad walks back toward the house.
Mitzy's finger shoots out toward Randy. "Drop dead. It's not a duck-hunting float. Don't be stupid."
Me? I'm hoping for yellow. Mom's favorite color and mine. We paint everything yellow.
. . .
We're moving like the wind. We work straight through until dark, when Mom strings extension cords all the way from the house to clamp a spotlight on a dock pole. We can't stop for dinner, but Mom slows down long enough to lift her arms to the sky and twirl, saying in a voice like she's praying, "Star light, star bright," while tiny waves kiss the pontoon floats and the crickets are the loudest you've ever heard.
Later, Randy whispers, "Hey," and points at Dad standing under the front door light. When we look, he shakes his head and goes inside, which is just as well because he would have told Mom not to get carried away when she's just having an up day. When a pointy-winged bat flies fast and low over our heads, we hit the deck, then lie there laughing at ourselves. By ten o'clock we're battling mosquitoes so big that Randy wraps Davey in a towel and runs for the house. Mosquitoes never bite Mom. Her blood's too sweet. Mitzy and I run screaming after Randy, swatting at ourselves. Mom shouts, "Love you." We holler back, "Love you, love you, love you." And it's true.
Early the next morning I rip off my nightgown and pull on the swimsuit I dropped on the floor next to my bed last night. It's cold and wet and there's sand in the crotch. Mitzy's on the other half of our naked bed, sleeping on her knees with her butt in the air, face in the pillow. She only lays down flat when she's going to wet the bed. Right now every mattress in the house is bare because the sheets are on the float.
Downstairs Mom's sleeping on the davenport with one of Dad's undershirts over her bikini, catnapping like she does in the middle of every project. Nothing to worry about. I move her cup of coffee and sit on the floor. Her hands are tucked under the side of her face, squishing her cheek up against her nose. When I touch a blond curl on top of her head, it wraps around my finger, her eyes pop open and she sits up, perky like she's never been asleep in her entire life.
She asks, "You didn't see it yet, did you?"
I shake my head no.
"Close your eyes." She takes my hand and leads me outside. The screen door slams behind us as she kneels next to me on the brick patio she laid last summer. She folds an arm around my shoulders, and I rub my nose on her neck for the warm smell of coffee and cigarettes. "Okay, Lily Nilly," she says. "Now open your eyes." She's pointing toward the lake. "Lily, sometimes you need to squint at something before you can tell what it is."
But I can see it perfectly. A wedding cake is floating next to our sagging dock. The bottom layer is a rectangle, and above that are two round layers, a little one on top of a big one. While we watch, the frosting turns from white to buttercream as the sun rises over the hill in the field behind the house.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
This is Jean Harfenist’s first book. It was a Minneapolis Star Tribune Best Book of the Year. Stories excerpted from it won the Prism International Fiction Prize and received special mention for The Pushcart Prize. She was named a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Nimrod/Hartman Award, the Kirkwood Literary Prize, the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize, and the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, The Barcelona Review, Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, Crazyhorse, Sonora Review, Wisconsin Review, The Sun, and the Cream City Review. She is a native of Minnesota, a graduate of New York University, and now lives in Santa Barbara with her husband.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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A Brief History of the Flood is that rare book that can't be put down, and one you'll want to read again and again. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, each chapter fits together with a satisfying click to reveal an insightful picture of an unforgettable family of unique characters. Read the excerpt and I guarantee you'll be captivated by Harfenist's voice, wit, and the wisdom that comes with understanding how we all grow up survivors of imperfect families. If you liked Mary Karr's memoir, The Liars Club, you will love this book. It may be billed as fiction, but it has the unmistakable ring of truth. Ironically, A Brief History of the Flood turns out to be a life preserver--reminding each of us how our unique childhood journeys help determine our destination in the world, and how understanding the past can buoy us in the present.
Lil Anderson is young, gutsy, brave, naive, quirky, fast-talking, quick-witted, and totally affecting. She is also the memorable debut creation of California writer Jean Harfenist. Presented as a series of short stories, which segue easily from one to another very much like chapters, "A Brief History of the Flood" traces the life of Lil from 1950 through 1979, between the ages of eight and 18. She shares a usually flooded, much in need of repair lakefront home outside of Acorn Lake, Minnesota with older brother and sister, Randy and Mitzy, younger brother, Davey, and a black Lab, Happy. Mother Marion in tiny shorts with a wide belt encircling her tiny waist has a world view determined by the words of every love song she has ever heard. She sees only what she wishes and wishes for the impossible. If she's awake, "she's working on something," weaving a rug from panty hose or even building a floating wedding cake for the Fourth of July Float contest. Dad Jack is an intrepid hunter who built their home then dubbed it "Jack's Hunting Lodge." He delivers dictates and diatribes in equal measure as he clinks ice cubes in his glass of Old Heaven Hill. Lil learned early in life to avoid him because as her Mom explains the young girl has "a talent for saying the one thing that'll launch him. Like good morning or hello." As an eight-year-old Lil enjoys carefree days on the water, drifting in the family's pontoon or flipping over a rowboat to make breathing room underneath. Harsh reality strikes with 1965 as Randy is of draft age. Mitzi has a busy social life, having "dated every other boy who comes to school without manure on his shoes," and Lil surrenders her virginity to a teacher, Mr. C. At the age of 15, along with five friends, Lil finds work putting together salads for airline passengers at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. It's driving 62 miles each way but that night shift duty pays $1.73 an hour, even though they're overseen by a hefty supervisor who "fills the cafeteria door like a new refrigerator." Noting that her Mom knows Lil can run her own life and "Dad doesn't care," the teenager moves quickly into shop lifting with best pal Irene who pierces Lil's ears in the basement restroom of a shopping center. Being caught doesn't stem their taste for further adventure. A teacher mentions that Lil's Mom has "bursts of vigor," little knowing that these spasms may be due to the Dexedrine she pops, and generously shares with her daughter. This drug induced energy enables Lil to whip through her high school classes, and land a job as a typist at an insurance company in St. Paul. Keeping the pounds off, Lil finds, is another benefit of her "speed system." Growing up has not been easy for Lil, but reading this masterfully crafted coming-of-age tale is pure pleasure. Jean Harfenist is definitely a writer to watch with her knack for presenting an arresting narrative voice that lingers in readers' minds. In precise, penetrating strokes the author portrays off-beat characters with their foibles full-blown. "A Brief History of the Flood" is a winner.
THIS IS LILLIAN ANDERSON¿S LIFE IN Sioux County, Minnesota from aged 8 to 18 going into, 1970 as brilliantly told by new novelist author Jean Harfenist, and what a find Harfenist is. She displays wit, a catching voice, skilled writing, and creates engaging, believable, family characters, and friends ¿ as she flashily flaunts family flaws and foibles. Lillian, a happy youngster begins to recognize her parents are a badly flawed couple, as she starts to grow older and matures. She would like something better for her own life, and recognizes that inadvertently her parents¿ lack of family skills leave opportunity open to her. That also means the opportunity to make mistakes. As the stories progress we wonder if she will every be any better than her surroundings and her folks that she can now recognize as lazy drunks. After all, she muses at one point, a rust-proof car and money for a gallon of gas is all one needs . . . Isn¿t it? Harfenist continually produces the wry line, the funny sentence, the howling paragraph in a manner that refreshes each turned page, as with close pal Irene who can ¿can sweep a room clean of guilt,¿ Usually that¿s what you want in a friend.¿ Irene can put Lillian at ease by confirming (in connection with the mother) that a woman cannot get pregnant after age 40. Sometimes Irene ¿grins like she just discovered birth control pills.¿ As teens, they do not do anything by half. On a shopping spree they collect 3 blouses, six skirts, 18 greeting cards, a dress, a teddy bear, a lighter, a scarf, cosmetics, a pair of cuticle scissors, socks, 12 underpants, and a stroller. ¿The stroller¿s a first,¿ they tell the constable defensively. Under arrest, Lillian hurriedly tries to get Mom on the phone. Mom will do anything asked of her as she wards off migrames and hangovers but driving over 70 miles is out of the question. So . . . With an airy sweeping gesture over the goods, Lillian philanthropically, declares to the police ¿ You can have it all back.¿
Smart and crisp, Jean Harfenist's debut collection of linked stories will appeal to both lovers of short fiction and those who prefer novel-length works. Lillian Anderson of Acorn Lake, Minnesota, is a fresh and memorable character who leaves an impression long after the last page.