Shirley Jackson •
Life Among the Savages •
Shirley Jackson, whose name is almost synonymous with her short story “The Lottery,” shows her versatility in a howlingly funny account of her family’s move to Vermont.
It’s the 1950s, and escalating rents have driven the Jacksons out of New York City. The old country house they settle in has a mind of its own, as does the furniture. “An old wooden rocker that Mr. Fielding had given us insisted upon pre-empting the center of the hearth rug and could not in human kindness be shifted.” A five-year-old hooligan terrorizes the local kindergarten; Jackson’s older daughter calls herself “the second Mrs. Ellenoy” and shepherds around seven invisible stepchildren—all named Martha; her husband makes book in the village on the arrival date of their next baby.
Against a background chorus of nursery rhymes (“Old Mother Hubbid”), taunts (“You bad bad webbis”), and secondhand dicta on civilized behavior (“Men who smoke are vulgar, especially cigars”), Jackson heroically copes with measles, bike accidents, and stolen overshoes. It may sound trite, but in Jackson’s capable hands even the stuff of sitcoms turns to gold.
Take her story of a bat in the living room. “I do not know what the official world’s record might be for getting out from under a blanket, flying across a room, opening a door and a screen door, and getting outside onto a porch with both doors closed behind you, but if it is more than about four seconds I broke it.”
Jackson’s husband tries to reassure her: “It’s just as frightened as you are.”
“It is not,” she snaps.