Shirley Jackson offers up laughs, instead of screams with “Life Among the Savages”

Life Among the SavagesIt’s always interesting reading an author’s work when she’s writing something markedly different from her most famous work: Stephen King’s literary fiction, Agatha Christie’s romance novels, Stephen Fry’s thrillers and recently I finished reading Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages, a collection of stories and essays of the author’s home life raising her children.

Reading something like Erma Bombeck, Jackson’s stories detail the frustration and foibles that befall her and her family as she forges a life with her husband and her four kids in a large country house. Instead of writing tales of terror, these are comfy, chatty stories of Jackson’s precocious kids and their various adventures that are pretty typical for children growing up – playing outside, interacting with other kids and teachers, and developing character quirks of their own.

Jackson’s voice is that of a patient, sometimes-bemused narrator. She’s infinitely patient with her children. Her husband is a peripheral presence – kind, slightly-put upon and long-suffering – he does veer slightly in the befuddled, clueless dad trope. But it’s the children that dominate the book – eldest child, Laurie (short for Lawrence) is a charming little boy who’s slightly pushy and obstinate. The major drama of Laurie is his accident, when he got hit by a car – it’s not as serious as it sounds, and much of the narration is played for laughs. Her second eldest, Jannie, is a prim and proper little girl, who idolizes her extremely feminine school teacher, and spouts off Miss Manners tips for behaving like a perfect little lady. She has two other children – Sally and Barry – both babies, who don’t leave as distinct a mark as their older siblings.

Jackson’s prose is fantastic and she’s got a brilliant eye for dialogue, character and detail – there’s a terrific story of her shopping trip to the department store with her kids, and being accosted by a pushy salesman trying to get Laurie involved in some sort of advertising scheme. The kids are good-natured, but push Jackson’s buttons, often testing their mother’s limits as she tries to retain her sanity, while keeping up the appearance of a traditional, well-adjusted family. Another great story has Jackson taking Jannie to a party, and feeling that she comes up short with the other mothers, all of whom are richer and more refined. Also great is Jackson’s description of being very pregnant with her youngest and going into labor, while her kids looked askance at the impending birth of their little brother.

Life Among the Savages is a quick and breezy read. It’s not a great representation of Jackson’s talent or strengths as a writer – it’s not a typical work for her. It’s a fantastic, fun read that will leave a lot of its readers laughing, while relating to some of Jackson’s thoughts on motherhood.

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Filed under Book, Comedy, Humor Essay Collection, Literary Biography, Memoir, Nonfiction

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