Overview

Ever since Ellen Tote can remember, she has dreamed of her mother walking slowly into a river. The mystery of this memory, as it unfolds in her recollections, is the haunting story of MY DROWNING.
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My Drowning

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Overview

Ever since Ellen Tote can remember, she has dreamed of her mother walking slowly into a river. The mystery of this memory, as it unfolds in her recollections, is the haunting story of MY DROWNING.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The third novel by this PEN/Hemingway Award finalist (Dream Boy; Winter Birds) is an evocative, uncompromising account of a hardscrabble childhood in rural North Carolina that shows Grimsley to be an accomplished stylist and a complex moralist. The narrator is the aged Ellen Tote, refugee from a life of bitter privation. "When I look back... [at] that hard winter in a house not fit for people," Ellen muses, "I amaze myself that my hatred does not burn me crisp." A full stomach nourished by more than fatback and biscuits, steady work, a life unimpeded by the shadows of superstition and poor health, even the homely sight of a full refrigerator-one of "a thousand insignificant details" that come to mean freedom to the adult Ellen Tote-seem cruelly unreachable to the struggling family. The girl is cowed by the sullen and sometimes violent marriage between Mama and her taciturn spouse, who bristles with bitterness. In the carefully honed episodes of the novel, Ellen remembers a father whose fist lashed out at his infant son; her sodden, lecherous Uncle Cope; her older sister Nora, blindly hostile to her; a crippled brother, Joe Robbie, dead before his eighth birthday; and two recurrent dreams, metaphors for the inroads that poverty has made on the family and on the soul. The first dream reflects young Ellen's fear of a monster in the woods, ready to make a child its prey-a nightmarish vision that even Ellen's mother comes to share. The second recurrent dream is of Ellen's mother surrendering her body to "the black water" of the river. A book that begins with a drowning and ends with a funeral certainly maps somber territory, but here, as in his other novels, Grimsley's delicate prose and the defiant resilience of his protagonist make reading his work a richly gratifying experience. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Grimsley returns to the economically depressed and emotionally brutal rural North Carolina landscape of his earlier Winter Birds (LJ 8/1/94) in this compelling tale of a woman haunted by a half-remembered past. Ever since she was a small child, Ellen Tote has had a recurring, and inexplicable, dream of her mother descending into a river as if to drown herself. Now an old woman, far removed from the hardship of her youth, she finds the dream coming back to her more powerfully than ever, leading her to survey her childhood memories for clues to its source and meaning. This novel is richer and deeper than Winter Birds and is fully steeped in the culture and folklore of the rural South. Readers will find it as harsh, and as haunting, as an old woman's dreams. Highly recommended for all collections.-Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, Mass.
Kirkus Reviews
A young girl comes of age under duress and in the worst of circumstances, in Grimsley's (Dream Boy, 1995, etc.) delicate, perfectly paced narrative of childhood's pains.

Although Ellen Tote is quite advanced in years, most of her story is a reminiscence, and she succeeds so well in bringing it to life that one quickly forgets that she is telling it across the span of many years. Ellen's childhood world, in the rural foothills of North Carolina, was a place of extraordinary simplicity: poor, brutal, and somehow quite innocent in its isolation from the rest of the world. Ellen's family, like most everyone in the region, makes do with very little. The homeless relatives who pass through the house on their way to and from prison, the persistently drunken men and pregnant women, the tormented familiarity with religion that pervades daily life are all drawn with the sort of ease that makes an exceptionally unfamiliar world at once compelling and recognizable. Ellen is a representative of the contradictions that surround her: An unwanted child, sometimes loved, often brutalized, she finds herself quite passionately attached to the frequently ugly and usually crude kinfolk in her life. A recurring dream of her own mother walking into the nearby river begins during childhood and continues into her old age, forming both the impetus and centerpiece of her tale. "She glares at me coldly, as if I am some fish she has dragged off the end of her line, and she takes me by the shoulder and flings me high, end over end, into the middle of the river, and I sink into the cold, and I am falling forever, and I never look down." The gradual sorting-out of her childhood that the dream engenders is as credible and rich as the world that contains it.

Moving, vivid, and very real: a work of tremendous, quiet intensity.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565127852
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 1/1/1997
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 250
  • Sales rank: 914,596
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Jim Grimsley is the author of four previous novels, among them Winter Birds, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; Dream Boy, winner of the GLBTF Book Award for literature; My Drowning, a Lila-Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award winner; and Comfort and Joy. He lives in Atlanta and teaches at Emory University.
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Read an Excerpt


The Low Grounds

I can still remember the whiteness of my mother as she slips beneath the surface of the river. Years later I am standing in my clean kitchen when the memory returns. We are somewhere near the Holcomb River in the shade and my mother wears a white slip that flutters up in the water. She is very pale and fat and the blossoming of the slip makes her seem immense. Kneeling in the river, submerged to her shoulders, she turns her face to the sky. The fat of her arms sways in the air, dips into the dark water. She takes a breath and closes her mouth. From me, from all of us, she slides away.

I am hardly old enough to know how much like drowning this is. Why have we come to the river when it is swollen with rain, when it is running so hard and fast? The reason is lost; I remember nothing. Since I am wearing shoes, this must be autumn or winter. The world shows brown and dry. Only the daughters have come; my older sister, Nora, stands with me but none of my brothers has followed. Why not?

Mama rises out of the river gasping, throwing water from her hair. Her breath rises in trails of steam. The surprise of seeing her move so freely still echoes in me years afterward. Her large, flat breasts lift, the yellowed bodice of the slip clinging to the high flesh. She says something, I can't remember what it is, something about the cold. But she addresses the air above my head, not me. Another person stands behind me, I can't remember who. How can such a vivid memory be so imperfect?

In the present I am standing in my kitchen with the light on. I am alone in my house but I am seeing everything around me in a strange way. All the objects have a patina, a film of iridescence. I am seeing a river at my feet as if it is flowing darkly there; I understand this is happening because I am old and all the rivers of my memory are rushing toward the sea, unstoppable. I understand that I am prone to remember the most ridiculous things, same as Nana Rose when she died. I have grown old enough that a memory becomes as real as the real thing.

Mama steps ashore. She stands over me, shivering and dripping, and I see the outline of her heavy belly, her rolling thighs. She looks down at me with the blankness of a cow. I am so in love with her, every part of me aches. The feeling returns vividly, an electric current running through me. She scoops me up, her arms are strong but soft; I burrow into them. I weigh less than the wet slip.

She holds me almost level with her face. Her eyes are blank and blue. She sets me onto the ground abruptly, having forgotten why she lifted me in the first place. The wet fabric of the slip heaves as she steps away from all of us.

I have seen and will see these simple images again and again, in memory and dreams. We have come to the river, Nora and Mama and me -- Ellen -- and Mama in only her slip. We stand out in the cold while Mama sobs in the woods.

We lived in the Low Grounds, in a house with a fireplace, a wood stove, a well outside where Nora pumped water. We had a bed in the kitchen for Uncle Cope. We had kerosene lamps for light and an outhouse for shitting. My daddy was a tenant farmer on this land. He was thirty-two, my mother, the same.

I was hungry, watching the fire, wishing for something to eat. We would have biscuits soon, I could smell them, but I never ate fast enough to fill my stomach, and afterward there was never anything left over. So I huddled in Mama's lap and watched the fire and felt the hollow fist in my belly.

The smell of the biscuits filled the house, drawing my brothers, Carl Jr., Otis, and Joe Robbie, slouched like dogs along the walls. The smell awakened Daddy, who shuffled from the bedroom pulling a flannel shirt over his thin shoulders.

He spooned sugar into his coffee and said nothing. When nothing but biscuit appeared to eat, he stared into the top of the table. He chewed the biscuit as if he were grazing in a pasture.

I got half of a biscuit. The sensation of warm bread in the stomach made me happy, and I was allowed to eat in Mama's lap. We were eating, all of us. We crowded near the fireplace. No one talked.

I slept with Nora. We had a bed in the same room with the boys; they slept across the room. At night Nora tucked me against her like a warm brick, and we breathed peacefully while our brothers snored.

Early every morning Mama woke Nora by pulling her feet, under the covers, from the foot of the bed, and Nora slid away from me with the groan that meant she knew better than to linger. Mama hovered, a large round shadow at the foot of the bed. I could see the softness of her eyes in the light of the kerosene lantern she carried. "Get on up, now."

I slid out of the bed with Nora. The floor struck cold at the bottoms of my feet, and I ached. I slid into clothes in the cold while Mama with the lantern sailed toward the door.

Nora had already dressed and stumbled after her.

We made a fire in the stove in the kitchen and another in the fireplace in the adjacent room where Daddy would sit to take his coffee and eat his grits. The fires had to be lit before Daddy would rise. Mama and Nora crept into the kitchen to build the fire in the stove, because Uncle Cope slept in the kitchen, and they were afraid of him. They heard him breathing in the dark while they fumbled with the wood. Once the fire was lit, Nora began to make biscuits. She ladled water, pumped the night before, and scooped lard from the tin. She measured by eye and kneaded the white dough carefully. She shivered in the cold kitchen, the kitchen fire only beginning to throw its circle of heat. She stood near the stove, warming as the oven awoke.

She made coffee. She boiled water for grits. She added wood to the fire from the firebox. I stood near the stove along the wall and watched. I fetched and carried whatever I was told.

Uncle Cope, when he lived with us, got out of bed and roamed the house on crutches from the time Nora lit the fire in the stove. He woke, the first of the men, after the fire began to make heat. Mama and Nora had said over and over not to be alone with him, so I never was. If he came into a room when I was alone in it, I left. Even in the morning he smelled like whiskey, and he never shaved; he buttoned his shirts crooked, and his belly hung over his belt. His teeth were dark and bluish and had jagged shapes. I did not like him. Uncle Cope busted his leg to splinters when he fell off a truck, drunk, a long time ago, Mama said. He lived with Daddy part-time since Daddy was his brother.

When the sky lightened and the coffee began to boil, Mama headed to the bedrooms to wake up Carl Jr. and Daddy. By then biscuits were baking in the oven and grits boiled in a pot. Daddy's shaving washpan waited in the warm room for the water we heated on the stove. Nora gave me biscuit dough when Mama was out of the room. I ate it greedily, raw. Hardly morning, and I was already hungry from the night before.

Carl Jr. stumbled out of the bedroom, pulling on his pants. The rest of his clothes he carried in his hands, dropping them on the floor near the fireplace, where he stood shivering and rubbing his hands together. He hurriedly pulled on an undershirt and buttoned another over it.

When he washed his face, he took care to use no more of the hot water than Daddy would be willing to spare. Carl Jr.'s beard hardly required daily attention, though he rubbed his palm along his throat as if he longed for thicker growth. He would carry this gesture, and this wispy, blondish beard, into manhood.

Daddy glided out of the back of the house, thin and sharp as a blade. His small, round head shone, the hair thinning at the top, wispy as Carl Jr.'s beard. Carl Jr. carried away the washpan and emptied it while Daddy backed up to the fire. Daddy fingered the buttons of his overalls. He knelt and laced up his boots. When Carl Jr. delivered the washpan, Nora filled it with the hot water and they both looked at it before Carl Jr. carried it back. That morning hot water satisfied Daddy, and the minutes passed quietly.

Odd, the detail that a person remembers among all those that lie forgotten or pass unnoticed. I remember the red-checkered oilcloth we had when I was very young, scored with dark holes where cigarettes had burned it. Daddy always rolled his cigarettes and smoked them sitting at the table. What makes the memory particular? The oilcloth was finally thrown away when there was more burn than cloth, and we never had another. But I remember kneeling in a chair and running my hands along the oily surface, counting the bright checks, sticking my fingers through the burns.

What do I fail to notice? What do I continue to forget? Why this particular morning?

Mama emerged from the back of the house. She had pulled a pair of socks over her feet and walked with her shuffling gait, holding her knees wide apart. In the kitchen she stirred four spoons of sugar into a cup of coffee, hot and strong. She carried the coffee to Daddy herself this morning.

He took the cup and swallowed. Satisfaction spread through his features. The fire warmed him sufficiently, and he found comfort.

Out the window dawn climbed in the sky, a purple light behind the pine trees. I stood at the window beside the stove, near Nora's skirt. Objects emerged from the murky outside, becoming the chicken house, the toolshed, the outhouse. Tobacco barns leaned to the side in the distance. In the morning a pale mist glided over the yard, between the trees. The sky flushed every color of the rainbow, but mostly it burned like fire, especially along the tops of clouds.

I was cold, but I avoided the fire. I would warm myself when Daddy left.

"Go put on some socks, Ellen," Nora whispered, "before you catch pneumonia," and I nodded and skipped into the cold bedroom. None of us knew what pneumonia was, but we were all agreed it would be bad to catch.

In our room the boys were still sleeping. I walked on tiptoes so only a bit of my foot touched the cold floor. Mama would wake up Otis soon, since he had to get dressed for school. Joe Robbie would lie in bed as long as he liked, and Mama would bring him a biscuit and some sugared coffee later, when everyone else left the house. But right now the room was still dark, and I found my way between shadows. I grabbed socks and returned to the kitchen. There were spooks in the dark; they would get you if you lingered.

In the kitchen, by the stove, I slipped the socks over my feet, hopping to avoid having to sit on the floor. Nora smiled at me from the side. Carl Jr. joined Daddy with his coffee and they drank together by the fireplace, sitting in the two chairs. Nora served them biscuits. We had syrup, and today Daddy poured syrup on one of the biscuits, to get him started, he said, and Mama laughed. She brought the syrup, kept on the top shelf out of reach of us little ones, as if it were a holy object. The stream of syrup oozed over the biscuit in thin, lacy trails. My mouth watered. Daddy smiled, showing the gap where a tooth was missing.

Daddy's face had paled from its summer bronze. His forehead was deeply creased from days in the weather. He was thin as a rake but strong as wire. He possessed, in my opinion, huge hands and feet. The feet could strike as swiftly and unexpectedly as the hands, and even Carl Jr. had no defense against Daddy's kicks and licks. An offense could be major or minor, even an offense as insignificant as moving too slowly across Daddy's striking range. I stayed on my toes around Daddy, I had learned that. I kept my back to the wall.

Carl Jr. left for work when the truck came. I had no notion when or why the truck arrived, only that it did. A dark round-hooded pickup truck with wooden rails at the back pulled up beside the ditch and beeped. Carl Jr. leapt into the back, and the truck vanished down the steep curve of road.

Not long after, Otis stumbled through the kitchen ready to walk with Nora the half mile to the place where the school bus stopped. Nora's coat had grown tight across the shoulders. Otis wore an old coat of Carl Jr.'s, a little too big for him, but he looked warmer than Nora.

When they were gone, the house became quiet.

Daddy sat at home in the kitchen and poked around in the yard. For much of the day he stayed in the shed. Later I learned he kept his liquor there. Sometimes Uncle Cope trekked across the yard on his crutches, to sit on a crate and fold his arms across his knees with Daddy in the shed. We could hear them laughing.

Mama studied the building with her milky eyes.

In the winter, Joe Robbie and I played near the fireplace or in the kitchen or, at worst, in one of the cold bedrooms. Joe Robbie never walked on his own legs, because of something I did not understand. I never liked to watch him because of the way he moved, but he could be right much fun, sitting down.

Daddy did no work on the farm. Daddy refused to go with the loggers and earn more money. We ate biscuit and meat grease half the week, till Friday when there was sometimes money. Then we had meat in beans, and maybe rice. Daddy had quarreled with the man who owned the land, about money. I knew about the fight. But it was less important to me than Mama's dreams about the dead baby boy.

We awoke the night before with Mama moaning. Maybe this is the reason for memory. She was shuffling in the hall, screaming, and Daddy ran behind her yelling at her. I had never before heard fear in my Daddy's voice. Mama called out that she saw the dead baby's ghost again, that it wouldn't leave her alone. And she kept crying and screaming till Daddy beat her to shut her up, and then led her, exhausted, back to bed.

Mama told me the dreams that day, when Nora and Otis were in school. The baby boy lay under the house, crying. At first he sounded like a cat, but then she could hear him scratching at the floorboards, and she knew he was trying to get into the house, wanting to get warm again. She told me this and stood at the window watching the shed, wanting to see through the walls.

She told me she had seen the baby's ghost before, floating in the air above her bed. She described it as if some angel had wrapped it in swaddling clothes.

Most days we ate biscuit for the noon meal. In this we were luckier than the ones who went to school. They got nothing to take with them to eat and could expect nothing much when they returned home. In the afternoon Mama made beans, if we had beans. If we had an onion, she cut up an onion into the beans. If she had managed to save a dollop of bacon drippings from the weekend (if there was bacon), she spooned this into the pot. For meat we ate fatback, souse meat, pig's feet, when we could get it, from the Little Store or from an aunt or uncle. Mama ate lard in the biscuit sometimes, syrup others. She gathered wood for the fire when we ran out during the day. She made a slow job of it, and sometimes she required the better part of an afternoon to find enough. While I was too little to carry wood, it was my job to watch Joe Robbie and fetch what he needed. Even in my earliest memories I am tending him.

Daddy wandered in and out of the house. He played with the mule harness, pretending to repair it. He walked into the field with his straw hat in his hand.

We owed the landlord money. Mama loved to say so, to me and Joe Robbie. We owed so much money, she said, Mr. James would put us off the land. Daddy refused other work. She looked out the window at Daddy's spidery figure in the field. He won't go to work to save his neck nor mine, she said. His neck nor mine. She was prone to repeat words, as if she were her own echo. Her sentences trailed off, as if the words were thin and would soon die away.

Copyright © 1997 by Jim Grimsley

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Table of Contents


CONTENTS

The Low Grounds 1

The Dead Fox 11

Moss Pond 24

Learning About the Monster 36

Alma Laura 52

Uncle Cope 59

Uncle Cope Variations 76

Corrine 89

The Snake's Tooth 97

Joe Robbie 110

Holberta Winter 124

Mama Said 135

Aunt Addis 145

Nana Rose's Dreams 159

A Man's Mama 176

In the Present 183

Nora 223

My Drowning 245

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

THE LOW GROUNDS

I can still remember the whiteness of my mother as she slips beneath the surface of the river. Years later I am standing in my clean kitchen when the memory returns. We are somewhere near the Holcomb River in the shade and my mother wears a white slip that flutters up in the water. She is very pale and fat and the blossoming of the slip makes her seem immense. Kneeling in the river, submerged to her shoulders, she turns her face to the sky. The fat of her arms sways in the air, dips into the dark water. She takes a breath and closes her mouth. From me, from all of us, she slides away.

I am hardly old enough to know how much like drowning this is. Why have we come to the river when it is swollen with rain, when it is running so hard and fast? The reason is lost; I remember nothing. Since I am wearing shoes, this must be autumn or winter. The world shows brown and dry. Only the daughters have come; my older sister, Nora, stands with me but none of my brothers has followed. Why not?

Mama rises out of the river gasping, throwing water from her hair. Her breath rises in trails of steam. The surprise of seeing her move so freely still echoes in me years afterward. Her large, flat breasts lift, the yellowed bodice of the slip clinging to the high flesh. She says something, I can't remember what it is, something about the cold. But she addresses the air above my head, not me. Another person stands behind me, I can't remember who. How can such a vivid memory be so imperfect?

In the present I am standing in my kitchen with the light on. I am alone in my house but I am seeing everything around me in a strange way. All the objects have a patina, a film of iridescence. I am seeing a river at my feet as if it is flowing darkly there; I understand this is happening because I am old and all the rivers of my memory are rushing toward the sea, unstoppable. I understand that I am prone to remember the most ridiculous things, same as Nana Rose when she died. I have grown old enough that a memory becomes as real as the real thing.

Mama steps ashore. She stands over me, shivering and dripping, and I see the outline of her heavy belly, her rolling thighs. She looks down at me with the blankness of a cow. I am so in love with her, every part of me aches. The feeling returns vividly, an electric current running through me. She scoops me up, her arms are strong but soft; I burrow into them. I weigh less than the wet slip.

She holds me almost level with her face. Her eyes are blank and blue. She sets me onto the ground abruptly, having forgotten why she lifted me in the first place. The wet fabric of the slip heaves as she steps away from all of us.

I have seen and will see these simple images again and again, in memory and dreams. We have come to the river, Nora and Mama and me--Ellen--and Mama in only her slip. We stand out in the cold while Mama sobs in the woods.

We lived in the Low Grounds, in a house with a fireplace, a wood stove, a well outside where Nora pumped water. We had a bed in the kitchen for Uncle Cope. We had kerosene lamps for light and an outhouse for shifting. My daddy was a tenant farmer on this land. He was thirty-two, my mother, the same.

I was hungry, watching the fire, wishing for something to eat. We would have biscuits soon, I could smell them, but I never ate fast enough to fill my stomach, and afterward there was never anything left over. So I huddled in Mama's lap and watched the fire and felt the hollow fist in my belly.

The smell of the biscuits filled the house, drawing my brothers, Carl Jr., Otis, and Joe Robbie, slouched like dogs along the walls. The smell awakened Daddy, who shuffled from the bedroom pulling a flannel shirt over his thin shoulders.

He spooned sugar into his coffee and said nothing. When nothing but biscuit appeared to eat, he stared into the top of the table. He chewed the biscuit as if he were grazing in a pasture.

I got half of a biscuit. The sensation of warm bread in the stomach made me happy, and I was allowed to eat in Mama's lap. We were eating, all of us. We crowded near the fireplace. No one talked.

I slept with Nora. We had a bed in the same room with the boys; they slept across the room. At night Nora tucked me against her like a warm brick, and we breathed peacefully while our brothers snored.

Early every morning Mama woke Nora by pulling her feet, under the covers, from the foot of the bed, and Nora did away from me with the groan that meant she knew better than to linger. Mama hovered, a large round shadow at the foot of the bed. I could see the softness of her eyes in the light of the kerosene lantern she carried. "Get on up, now."

I slid out of the bed with Nora. The floor struck cold at the bottoms of my feet, and I ached. I slid into clothes in the cold while Mama with the lantern sailed toward the door.

Nora had already dressed and stumbled after her.

We made a fire in the stove in the kitchen and another in the fireplace in the adjacent room where Daddy would sit to take his coffee and eat his grits. The fires had to be lit before Daddy would rise. Mama and Nora crept into the kitchen to build the fire in the stove, because Uncle Cope slept in the kitchen, and they were afraid of him. They heard him breathing in the dark while they fumbled with the wood. Once the fire was lit, Nora began to make biscuits. She ladled water, pumped the night before, and scooped lard from the tin. She measured by eye and kneaded the white dough carefully. She shivered in the cold kitchen, the kitchen fire only beginning to throw its circle of heat. She stood near the stove, warming as the oven awoke.

She made coffee. She boiled water for grits. She added wood to the fire from the firebox. I stood near the stove along the wall and watched. I fetched and carried whatever I was told.

Uncle Cope, when he lived with us, got out of bed and roamed the house on crutches from the time Nora lit the fire in the stove. He woke, the first of the men, after the fire began to make heat. Mama and Nora had said over and over not to be alone with him, so I never was. If he came into a room when I was alone in it, I left. Even in the morning he smelled like whiskey, and he never shaved; he buttoned his shirts crooked, and his belly hung over his belt. His teeth were dark and bluish and had jagged shapes. I did not like him. Uncle Cope busted his leg to splinters when he fell off a truck, drunk, a long time ago, Mama said. He lived with Daddy part-time since Daddy was his brother.

When the sky lightened and the coffee began to boil, Mama headed to the bedrooms to wake up Carl Jr. and Daddy. By then biscuits were baking in the oven and grits boiled in a pot. Daddy's shaving washpan waited in the warm room for the water we heated on the stove. Nora gave me biscuit dough when Mama was out of the room. I ate it greedily, raw. Hardly morning, and I was already hungry from the night before.

Carl Jr. stumbled out of the bedroom, pulling on his pants. The rest of his clothes he carried in his hands, dropping them on the floor near the fireplace, where he stood shivering and rubbing his hands together. He hurriedly pulled on an undershirt and buttoned another over it.

When he washed his face, he took care to use no more of the hot water than Daddy would be willing to spare. Carl Jr.'s beard hardly required daily attention, though he rubbed his palm along his throat as if he longed for thicker growth. He would carry this gesture, and this wispy, blondish beard, into manhood.

Daddy glided out of the back of the house, thin and sharp as a blade. His small, round head shone, the hair thinning at the top, wispy as Carl Jr.'s beard. Carl Jr. carried away the washpan and emptied it while Daddy backed up to the fire. Daddy fingered the buttons of his overalls. He knelt and laced up his boots. When Carl Jr. delivered the washpan, Nora filled it with the hot water and they both looked at it before Carl Jr. carried it back. That morning hot water satisfied Daddy, and the minutes passed quietly.

Odd, the detail that a person remembers among all those that lie forgotten or pass unnoticed. I remember the red-checkered oilcloth we had when I was very young, scored with dark holes where cigarettes had burned it. Daddy always rolled his cigarettes and smoked them sitting at the table. What makes the memory particular? The oilcloth was finally thrown away when there was more burn than cloth, and we never had another. But I remember kneeling in a chair and running my hands along the oily surface, counting the bright checks, sticking my fingers through the burns.

What do I fail to notice? What do I continue to forget? Why this particular morning?

Mama emerged from the back of the house. She had pulled a pair of socks over her feet and walked with her shuffling gait, holding her knees wide apart. In the kitchen she stirred four spoons of sugar into a cup of coffee, hot and strong. She carried the coffee to Daddy herself this morning.

He took the cup and swallowed. Satisfaction spread through his features. The fire warmed him sufficiently, and he found comfort.

Out the window dawn climbed in the sky, a purple light behind the pine trees. I stood at the window beside the stove, near Nora's skirt. Objects emerged from the murky outside, becoming the chicken house, the toolshed, the outhouse. Tobacco barns leaned to the side in the distance. In the morning a pale mist glided over the yard, between the trees. The sky flushed every color of the rainbow, but mostly it burned like fire, especially along the tops of clouds.

I was cold, but I avoided the fire. I would warm myself when Daddy left.

"Go put on some socks, Ellen," Nora whispered, "before you catch pneumonia," and I nodded and skipped into the cold bedroom. None of us knew what pneumonia was, but we were all agreed it would be bad to catch.

In our room the boys were still sleeping. I walked on tiptoes so only a bit of my foot touched the cold floor. Mama would wake up Otis soon, since he had to get dressed for school. Joe Robbie would lie in bed as long as he liked, and Mama would bring him a biscuit and some sugared coffee later, when everyone else left the house. But right now the room was still dark, and I found my way between shadows. I grabbed socks and returned to the kitchen. There were spooks in the dark; they would get you if you lingered.

In the kitchen, by the stove, I slipped the socks over my feet, hopping to avoid having to sit on the floor. Nora smiled at me from the side. Carl Jr. joined Daddy with his coffee and they drank together by the fireplace, sitting in the two chairs. Nora served them biscuits. We had syrup, and today Daddy poured syrup on one of the biscuits, to get him started, he said, and Mama laughed. She brought the syrup, kept on the top shelf out of reach of us little ones, as if it were a holy object. The stream of syrup oozed over the biscuit in thin, lacy trails. My mouth watered. Daddy smiled, showing the gap where a tooth was missing.

Daddy's face had paled from its summer bronze. His forehead was deeply creased from days in the weather. He was thin as a rake but strong as wire. He possessed, in my opinion, huge hands and feet. The feet could strike as swiftly and unexpectedly as the hands, and even Carl Jr. had no defense against Daddy's kicks and licks. An offense could be major or minor, even an offense as insignificant as moving too slowly across Daddy's striking range. I stayed on my toes around Daddy, I had learned that. I kept my back to the wall.

Carl Jr. left for work when the truck came. I had no notion when or why the truck arrived, only that it did. A dark round-hooded pickup truck with wooden rails at the back pulled up beside the ditch and beeped. Carl Jr. leapt into the back, and the truck vanished down the steep curve of road.

Not long after, Otis stumbled through the kitchen ready to walk with Nora the half mile to the place where the school bus stopped. Nora's coat had grown tight across the shoulders. Otis wore an old coat of Carl Jr.'s, a little too big for him, but he looked warmer than Nora.

When they were gone, the house became quiet.

Daddy sat at home in the kitchen and poked around in the yard. For much of the day he stayed in the shed. Later I learned he kept his liquor there. Sometimes Uncle Cope trekked across the yard on his crutches, to sit on a crate and fold his arms across his knees with Daddy in the shed. We could hear them laughing.

Mama studied the building with her milky eyes.

In the winter, Joe Robbie and I played near the fireplace or in the kitchen or, at worst, in one of the cold bedrooms. Joe Robbie never walked on his own legs, because of something I did not understand. I never liked to watch him because of the way he moved, but he could be right much fun, sitting down.

Daddy did no work on the farm. Daddy refused to go with the loggers and earn more money. We ate biscuit and meat grease half the week, till Friday when there was sometimes money. Then we had meat in beans, and maybe rice. Daddy had quarreled with the man who owned the land, about money. I knew about the fight. But it was less important to me than Mama's dreams about the dead baby boy.

We awoke the night before with Mama moaning. Maybe this is the reason for memory. She was shuffling in the hall, screaming, and Daddy ran behind her yelling at her. I had never before heard fear in my Daddy's voice. Mama called out that she saw the dead baby's ghost again, that it wouldn't leave her alone. And she kept crying and screaming till Daddy beat her to shut her up, and then led her, exhausted, back to bed.

Mama told me the dreams that day, when Nora and Otis were in school. The baby boy lay under the house, crying. At first he sounded like a cat, but then she could hear him scratching at the floorboards, and she knew he was trying to get into the house, wanting to get warm again. She told me this and stood at the window watching the shed, wanting to see through the walls.

She told me she had seen the baby's ghost before, floating in the air above her bed. She described it as if some angel had wrapped it in swaddling clothes.

Most days we ate biscuit for the noon meal. In this we were luckier than the ones who went to school. They got nothing to take with them to eat and could expect nothing much when they returned home. In the afternoon Mama made beans, if we had beans. If we had an onion, she cut up an onion into the beans. If she had managed to save a dollop of bacon drippings from the weekend (if there was bacon), she spooned this into the pot. For meat we ate fatback, souse meat, pig's feet, when we could get it, from the Little Store or from an aunt or uncle. Mama ate lard in the biscuit sometimes, syrup others. She gathered wood for the fire when we ran out during the day. She made a slow job of it, and sometimes she required the better part of an afternoon to find enough. While I was too little to carry wood, it was my job to watch Joe Robbie and fetch what he needed. Even in my earliest memories I am tending him.

Daddy wandered in and out of the house. He played with the mule harness, pretending to repair it. He walked into the field with his straw hat in his hand.

We owed the landlord money. Mama loved to say so, to me and Joe Robbie. We owed so much money, she said, Mr. James would put us off the land. Daddy refused other work. She looked out the window at Daddy's spidery figure in the field. He won't go to work to save his neck nor mine, she said. His neck nor mine. She was prone to repeat words, as if she were her own echo. Her sentences trailed off, as if the words were thin and would soon die away.

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Introduction

  1. Grimsley evokes a deep and vivid sense of poverty. What elements, details, and images does he use to create this feeling? Is there any beauty in the world that Grimsley has created?
  2. In My Drowning, Grimsley uses the voice of a woman. Why might he have made this choice? Is it important or inconsequential? What effect does choosing a women's voice have on the story? What difference, if any, would it have made if Grimsley had told the story through the eyes of a man?
  3. Memory plays an important role in My Drowning, What elements does Grimsley use to evoke memory, in particular Ellen's? On Nora's deathbed, Ellen remembers how she loved Nora as a little girl and says, "I understood what memory was for, then." What does she mean by this statement? What other purposes does memory serve in My Drowning? Is memory good thing, a bad thing, or an indifferent thing? Why?
  4. In My Drowning, Grimsley makes many references to water. What are some of them? What does water symbolize in the book? How does it relate to the themes of poverty, deprivation, growth, and nurturing embodied in this work? Grimsley also describes many rituals connected with water, such as bathing or boiling, even cleaning. Why does he do this?
  5. As well, Grimsley uses many similes, in describing his characters: he was "thin as a rake, but strong as wire," she was "quiet like an egg,....Mama blew out breath Eke a bellow," he "threw her across the room like a sack of sugar,...he sleeps in my kitchen like a white worm." What do these similes have in common? Why does Grimsley choose to relate people to daily items and animals? How does itrelate to the larger themes of the novel?
  6. Death is a constant presence in My Drowning. What role does death play in the lives of Grimsley's characters? Is it an important event or is it insignificant? What is the effect of Alma Laura's death, of Nana Rose's death, and of Joe Robbies death on Ellen's life? Are the effects different or the same? Are there any other characters affected by death? If so, who?
  7. In My Drowning, there are many references made to a monster that lives in the town. "One day a monster appeared in the woods...and the rumor drew visitors...from as far away as Kingston." What is the monster, and what does it represent? What function does it serve? How does it draw the community and the generations together? How does it tear them apart?
  8. In the novel, Ellen remembers, "Carl Jr. and Daddy laid out under the tree drinking while the rest of us did laundry in the yard." And when she is growing up, her friend June Frances says, "I don't see why we have to wait on them (her brother and father) all the time." Why do they? What roles do the men and women play in the world of My Drowning? Why is their world set up this way? Do their worlds ever meet? If where?
  9. In the novel, Ellen's father tyrannizes her, her mother, and her sister. He hits her mother and humiliates her in front of others. He is also lazy and doesn't work. Why does her mother put up with him? Why don't the women stand up to the father? When Ellen's mother finds out that he may be going to jail, she says, "I won't have anybody." What does her mother fear losing?
  10. Asa grown woman, Ellen hates the sight of flower petals decaying on the ground underneath blooming flowers. As a young girl, Nora cannot bear to see deformed beans, nor can Ellen now as a grown woman. Why might this be so, particularly in light of their childhood? What do the decaying flower petals and deformed beans represent to them?
  11. When Nora is on her death bed, she remembers the blue-flowered dress that she loved as a child. Why is it significant? Why might she remember this at this particular time? Why did Nora want to ruin the dress rather than hand it down? For what is the dress a metaphor? Are there any other such metaphors in My Drowning?.
  12. When Ellen's mother fights with her father about whether he was with Cope when Cope was arrested, she glares at Ellen and calls her a little strumpet. When Ellen tries to sneak out of the room, she doesn't want her to and kicks her. Why does she want Ellen to stay in the room and why does Ellen wish to leave? What do Ellen's fear and cowering bring up in her mother? Why does her mother react so strongly? Why does she use the word "strumpet," a word with a sexual connotation and not another word such as idiot or coward?
  13. Ellen loved her sister Alma Laura. She feels warmed when she sees her suckle on her mother's breast. But when her brother Madson and her sister Corine are born she cannot relate to either of them. She even hates them. Why can she relate to Alma Laura and not to Corine nor Madson? How does this affect all their lives? What role does the dead Alma Laura play in Ellen's life?
  14. In My Drowning, one sees the many deleterious effects of poverty. Does Grimsley show us any benefits whatsoever in being poor? Is there anything redeeming in Ellen's childhood? What, if anything, did her mother and father give her? What did "God" give her? Do any of Grimsley's characters get what they want?
  15. The title "My Drowning" refers to Ellen's dream of her mother drowning. To what else might the title be referring? When Otis is dying, he tells Ellen the story of how her mother wanted to drown her as a child. Is the 'real" story more meaningful than the power of Ellen's dream? Does knowing the "truth" make any difference to Ellen's life or is the power of memory more important? Do we as readers understand anything more about Ellen's life once we know the "real" story? If so, what do we understand? What, for Grimsley, do you think is more important: truth, or dreams and memory, and why?

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Reading Group Guide


  1. Grimsley evokes a deep and vivid sense of poverty. What elements, details, and images does he use to create this feeling? Is there any beauty in the world that Grimsley has created?
  2. In My Drowning, Grimsley uses the voice of a woman. Why might he have made this choice? Is it important or inconsequential? What effect does choosing a women's voice have on the story? What difference, if any, would it have made if Grimsley had told the story through the eyes of a man?
  3. Memory plays an important role in My Drowning, What elements does Grimsley use to evoke memory, in particular Ellen's? On Nora's deathbed, Ellen remembers how she loved Nora as a little girl and says, "I understood what memory was for, then." What does she mean by this statement? What other purposes does memory serve in My Drowning? Is memory good thing, a bad thing, or an indifferent thing? Why?
  4. In My Drowning, Grimsley makes many references to water. What are some of them? What does water symbolize in the book? How does it relate to the themes of poverty, deprivation, growth, and nurturing embodied in this work? Grimsley also describes many rituals connected with water, such as bathing or boiling, even cleaning. Why does he do this?
  5. As well, Grimsley uses many similes, in describing his characters: he was "thin as a rake, but strong as wire," she was "quiet like an egg,....Mama blew out breath Eke a bellow," he "threw her across the room like a sack of sugar,...he sleeps in my kitchen like a white worm." What do these similes have in common? Why does Grimsley choose to relate people to daily items and animals? How does it relate to the larger themes of the novel?
  6. Death is a constant presence in My Drowning. What role does death play in the lives of Grimsley's characters? Is it an important event or is it insignificant? What is the effect of Alma Laura's death, of Nana Rose's death, and of Joe Robbies death on Ellen's life? Are the effects different or the same? Are there any other characters affected by death? If so, who?
  7. In My Drowning, there are many references made to a monster that lives in the town. "One day a monster appeared in the woods...and the rumor drew visitors...from as far away as Kingston." What is the monster, and what does it represent? What function does it serve? How does it draw the community and the generations together? How does it tear them apart?
  8. In the novel, Ellen remembers, "Carl Jr. and Daddy laid out under the tree drinking while the rest of us did laundry in the yard." And when she is growing up, her friend June Frances says, "I don't see why we have to wait on them (her brother and father) all the time." Why do they? What roles do the men and women play in the world of My Drowning? Why is their world set up this way? Do their worlds ever meet? If where?
  9. In the novel, Ellen's father tyrannizes her, her mother, and her sister. He hits her mother and humiliates her in front of others. He is also lazy and doesn't work. Why does her mother put up with him? Why don't the women stand up to the father? When Ellen's mother finds out that he may be going to jail, she says, "I won't have anybody." What does her mother fear losing?
  10. Asa grown woman, Ellen hates the sight of flower petals decaying on the ground underneath blooming flowers. As a young girl, Nora cannot bear to see deformed beans, nor can Ellen now as a grown woman. Why might this be so, particularly in light of their childhood? What do the decaying flower petals and deformed beans represent to them?
  11. When Nora is on her death bed, she remembers the blue-flowered dress that she loved as a child. Why is it significant? Why might she remember this at this particular time? Why did Nora want to ruin the dress rather than hand it down? For what is the dress a metaphor? Are there any other such metaphors in My Drowning?.
  12. When Ellen's mother fights with her father about whether he was with Cope when Cope was arrested, she glares at Ellen and calls her a little strumpet. When Ellen tries to sneak out of the room, she doesn't want her to and kicks her. Why does she want Ellen to stay in the room and why does Ellen wish to leave? What do Ellen's fear and cowering bring up in her mother? Why does her mother react so strongly? Why does she use the word "strumpet," a word with a sexual connotation and not another word such as idiot or coward?
  13. Ellen loved her sister Alma Laura. She feels warmed when she sees her suckle on her mother's breast. But when her brother Madson and her sister Corine are born she cannot relate to either of them. She even hates them. Why can she relate to Alma Laura and not to Corine nor Madson? How does this affect all their lives? What role does the dead Alma Laura play in Ellen's life?
  14. In My Drowning, one sees the many deleterious effects of poverty. Does Grimsley show us any benefits whatsoever in being poor? Is there anything redeeming in Ellen's childhood? What, if anything, did her mother and father give her? What did "God" give her? Do any of Grimsley's characters get what they want?
  15. The title "My Drowning" refers to Ellen's dream of her mother drowning. To what else might the title be referring? When Otis is dying, he tells Ellen the story of how her mother wanted to drown her as a child. Is the 'real" story more meaningful than the power of Ellen's dream? Does knowing the "truth" make any difference to Ellen's life or is the power of memory more important? Do we as readers understand anything more about Ellen's life once we know the "real" story? If so, what do we understand? What, for Grimsley, do you think is more important: truth, or dreams and memory, and why?
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