In Alison McGhee’s novel “Shadow Baby,” eleven-year-old Clara is struggling to find the truth about her missing father and grandfather and her twin sister, dead at birth, but her mother steadfastly refuses to talk about these people who are lost to her daughter. When Clara works with Georg Kominsky on a school biography project, she finds that he is equally reticent about his own concealed history. The journey of discovery that these two oddly matched people embark upon is at the heart of this beautiful story about friendship and communion, about discovering what matters most in life, and about the search to find the missing pieces of ourselves. The novel is the August “Today Book Club” selection, chosen by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, authors of “The Nanny Diaries.” Together they discuss the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:
Now that the old man is gone, I think about him much of the time. I remember the first night I ever saw him. It was March, a year and a half ago. I was watching skiers pole through Nine Mile Woods on the Adirondack Ski Trail, black shapes moving through the trees like shadows or bats flying low. I watched from the churchhouse as my mother, Tamar, and the rest of the choir practiced in the Twin Churches sanctuary.
That was my habit back then. I was an observer and a watcher.
When the choir director lifted her arm for the first bar of the first hymn, I left and walked through the passageway that leads from the sanctuary to the churchhouse. The light that comes through stained-glass windows when the moon rises is a dark light. It makes the colors of stained glass bleed into each other in the shadows. A long time ago one of the Miller boys shot his BB gun through a corner of the stained-glass window in the back, near the kitchen. No one ever fixed it. The custodian cut a tiny piece of clear glass and puttied it into the broken place. I may be the only person in the town of Sterns, New York, who still remembers that there is one stained-glass window in a corner of the Twin Churches churchhouse that is missing a tiny piece of its original whole.
It’s gone. It will never return.
That first night, the first time I ever saw the old man, I dragged a folding chair over to that window and stood on it so I could look through the tiny clear piece of patch-glass onto the sloping banks of the Nine Mile Woods. Down below you can see Nine Mile Creek, black and glittery. You would never want to fall into it even though it’s only a few feet deep.
I watched the old man in the woods that night. He held fire in his bare hands. That’s what it looked like at first, before I realized it was an extralong fireplace match. Tamar and I do not have a fireplace but still, I know what an extralong fireplace match looks like. I watched the old man for what seemed like two hours, as long as the choir took to practice. The moonlight turned him into a shadow amongst the trees, until a small flame lit up a few feet from the ground. The small flame rose in the air and swung from side to side, swinging slower and slower until it stopped. Then I saw that it was a lantern, hung in a tree. An old-time kind of lantern, with candlelight flickering through pierced-tin patterns. I knew about that kind of lantern. It was a pioneer lantern.
You might wonder how I knew about lanterns. You might wonder how a mere girl of eleven would have in-depth knowledge of pierced-tin pioneer lanterns.
Let me tell you that a girl of eleven is capable of far more than is dreamt of in most universes.
To the casual passerby a girl like me is just a girl. But a girl of eleven is more than the sum of her age. Although it is not often stated, she is already living in her twelfth year; she has entered into the future.
The first night I saw him the old man was lighting up the woods for the skiers. First one lantern hung swinging in the tree, then another flame hung a few trees farther down. I stood on my folding chair and peeked through the clear patch-glass on the stained-glass window. Three lanterns lit, and four. Six, seven, eight. Nine, and the old man was done. I watched his shadow move back to the toboggan he had used to drag the lanterns into Nine Mile Woods. He picked up the toboggan rope, he put something under his arm, and he walked through the woods to Nine Mile Trailer Park, pulling the toboggan behind him. The dark shapes of skiers flitted past. The old man kept walking.
I watched from my folding chair inside the churchhouse. In the light from the lanterns I could see each skier saluting the old man as he walked out of the woods. A pole high in the air, then they were gliding on past.
He never waved back.
I pressed my nose against the clear patch of glass and then the folding chair collapsed under me and I crashed to the floor. My elbow hurt so much that despite myself I cried. I dragged over another chair and climbed up again. But by then the old man was gone.
The old man lived in Sterns and I live in North Sterns. A lot of us in North Sterns live in the woods. You could call a girl like me a woods girl. That could be a name for someone like me, who lives in the woods but who could not be considered a pioneer. Pioneer children lived in days gone by.
I started at Sterns Elementary, I am now in Sterns Middle, and in three years I will be at Sterns High. So has, and does, and will everyone else in my class. CJ Wilson, for example. CJ Wilson’s bullet-shaped head, his scabbed fingers, the words that come leaking from his mouth, I have known all my life. Were it not for CJ Wilson, and the boys who surround him, I might have been a different kind of person in school. I might have been quicker to talk, faster to raise my hand. I might have been picked first for field hockey. I might have walked down the middle of the hallway instead of close to the lockers. I might have been known as a chattery girl. I might have had a nickname.
Who’s to say? Who’s to know?
Jackie Phillips wet her pants in kindergarten. We were in gym class. Jumping jacks. I looked to my right, where Jackie Phillips was jumping kitty-corner from me, and saw a puddle below her on the polished gym floor. A dark stain on her blue shorts.
Six years later, what do the students of Sterns Middle School think of when they think about Jackie Phillips? Do they think, Captain of Mathletics, Vice-President of 4-H, science lab partner of Bernie missing-his-right-thumb Hauser, Jackie Phillips whose hair turns green in summer from the chlorine at Camroden Pool, Jackie Phillips who’s allergic to strawberries?
They might. But they will also think: Jackie Phillips wet her pants in kindergarten while everyone was doing jumping jacks. That’s the way it is.
Does everyone look at me and think, Clara Winter who loathes and despises snow and cold, who lives with her mother The Fearsome Tamar in North Sterns, whose eyes can look green or gray or blue, depending, who has never met her father or her grandfather, who has represented Sterns Elementary at every state spelling bee since first grade, whose hair could be called auburn, who loves books about days gone by? Clara Winter who saw that Jackie had wet her pants in gym class and so stopped jumping jacks and ran out of line and tried but failed to wipe up the spill surreptitiously with a used tissue before anyone else would notice? Is that what they think?
They do, and they do not.
The eyes, they know. That I live with my mother Tamar in North Sterns, they know. The spelling, they know. The fact that I, as a kindergartner, got Jackie Phillips’s puddle all over my fingers from trying to wipe it up, they know. These are the things they know.
You see how much is left out.
Some may not even know about Tamar. Tamar is what I call my mother, but only when she’s not around. I tried it once in front of her.
“Good morning, Tamar,” I said. “Any Cheerios left?”
She gave me a look.
“Clara Winter, what the hell are you up to now? Is this another of your weird word things?”
I tried to look ingenuous, which is a word I believe to be a perfect word. Only certain words fit my personal category of perfection. What makes the word ingenuous perfect is the way the “g” slides into the “enuous.”
“What? What do you mean, Tamar?”
She couldn’t stop laughing. That was the last time I did that. To her face I call her Ma mostly, because that’s what pioneer girls called their mothers. That’s what Laura Ingalls Wilder called her mother. I’m the only girl I know who calls her mother Ma.
You might wonder why a girl of eleven would be interested in an old man. You might think that a girl of eleven would have time only for her fellow sixth-graders. You might assume that the life of an old man who lived alone in a trailer in the Nine Mile Trailer Park in Sterns would hold no interest for an eleven-year-old child.
You would be wrong.
After the first night, when the old man lit lanterns in Nine Mile Woods, I saw him everywhere in Sterns. I saw him in Jewell’s Grocery buying noodles and a quart of milk when I was there buying a lime popsicle. I stood behind him in the checkout line and observed his movements. The old man gave Mr. Jewell forty-five cents-five pennies, one quarter, one dime, and one nickel-and Mr. Jewell gave him a Persian doughnut. The old man reached into his pocket and took out another penny, which he dropped in Mr. Jewell’s “Take a Penny, Leave a Penny” cup.
“Thank you, Mr. Kominsky,” Mr. Jewell said. “And what can I do for you, Miss Clara?”
I waited until the old man had walked out of Jewell’s and down the sidewalk toward Nine Mile Trailer Park.
“I would like to know Mr. Kominsky’s first name,” I said.
“Mr. Kominsky’s name is George,” Mr. Jewell said.
I left Jewell’s and walked across the street to Crystal’s Diner, where Tamar was waiting for me.
“There is an old man who lives in the Nine Mile Trailer Park who will soon become my friend,” I told her. “That is my prediction.”
Tamar sucked her straw full of milkshake, then suspended the straw above her mouth and let it drip in. That’s a habit of hers.
“Well, far be it from me to argue with a Clara Winter prediction,” Tamar said.
That’s Tamar. That’s a Tamar remark. Tamar’s mother died when she was eighteen years old. On Tamar’s seventeenth birthday, her mother gave her a black and red and orange lumber-jacket that Tamar still wears despite the fact that the seams are ripping, the zipper keeps breaking, and moths have eaten holes in the wool.
When I first spoke to the old man, I told him that my last name was winter, which I always keep in small letters in my mind, so it doesn’t gain in importance. Winter is something that should be lowercase, in my opinion. Winter is to be feared. Winter is to be endured. That’s what I believe to be true.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Clara winter. I was wondering if I could do my oral history project with you.”
No answer. He stood there behind his screen door, looking at me.
“It’s for my sixth-grade project.”
Why did I say that? Why did I tell him I was eleven?
“I saw you lighting lanterns. You like lanterns.”
Babbling! But when I mentioned the lanterns, he let me in. Interview an elderly person, they said, and find out all about their lives. It’s called an oral history. The minute they assigned the oral history project I knew that I would interview the old man. I wanted to listen while he told me about lanterns. I wanted him to be my friend. I wanted my prediction to come true.
“I’ll do Georg Kominsky,” I said. “He lives in the Nine Mile Trailer Park.”
I had already found his name in the telephone book. Georg, not George. He wasn’t on the approved list. They had a list of Stern residents who had been oral historied in the past.
“He’s an immigrant,” I said. “He’s old.”
Was he? I didn’t know, but they love old immigrants. The old man was also a plus because Tamar, my mother, goes to choir practice every Wednesday night at the Twin Churches, exactly opposite Nine Mile Trailer Park.
“I’ve never been in a trailer before,” I said when the old man let me in.
I took the liberty of walking around. It was a very narrow place. I had the feeling that if the old man, who was tall, laid down on his back crosswise, he might not fit without having to crumple up a little. Each end of the trailer was curved.
“Sir, is this what being on a boat’s like? I asked the old man.
Already I was getting used to him not talking. I liked the sound of my voice in his trailer. There was something echoey about it.
“I’ve always wondered what life on a boat was like,” I said. “The smallness of it.”
I walked straight to the end of the trailer, past the tiny kitchen with the miniature refrigerator and the miniature sink, past the little room with the sliding curtain-door that had a bed built onto a wall platform and drawers built into the opposite wall, into the tiny bathroom at the end that had a miniature shower, an ivory toilet, and a dark-green sink.
“I like your dark-green sink. It’s unique. It’s a one-of-a-kind sink, just like your house is a one-of-a-kind house.”
“It’s not a house,” the old man said. “It’s a trailer.”
“Why do you think they’re called trailers?”
That’s when I first learned the trick of how to get the old man to talk. Just keep talking and once in a while throw a question in. He wouldn’t answer and he wouldn’t answer, and then he would answer.
“Do you want something to drink?” I said. “I can make you something to drink. I brought a selection of various beverages for you. Tea, instant coffee with instant creamer, and hot chocolate.”
I had little bags of everything.
“I could make you some hot chocolate,” I said. “It would be my pleasure. Miniature marshmallows already mixed in.”
It was the end of March in the Adirondacks that night. We sat at his kitchen table and he stirred his coffee. This is the kind of thing I think about, now that the old man is gone. I submerged all the miniature marshmallows in my hot chocolate until they disappeared. They dissolved. They were no more. You could say I killed them.
“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Say you’re on death row. How would you rather die: electric chair or lethal injection?”
That used to be one of my favorite questions. I used to ask it of everyone I met. The old man stirred his coffee.
“If you had to choose, that is,” I said.
“Did they tell you ask that question for the oral history?”
He kept on stirring.
“Actually, no,” I said.
There was something about the old man. Even though it was my habit then to tell untruths, around the old man I couldn’t.
“This would be for my own personal information,” I said.
“Well then,” he said. “Let me think about it.”
I had hoped for an immediate answer. But immediate answers were not forthcoming from the old man. That was one of his traits.
The Adirondack Ski Club created the ski trail from Utica to Old Forge, fifty miles of cross-country skiing. The night I first observed the old man, they had just finished the portion that wound its way through Nine Mile Woods and up through Sterns. Would you find me skiing on that trail? Would you find me out on a winter night, a scarf wrapped around my face, poling my way through the snow?
You would not.
I had a feeling that the old man knew the power of winter. How did I know that? Because when I told him why I spell my last name with a lowercase w, he nodded. He did not question. I used to love that about the old man.
The first night I ever met the old man, sitting at his kitchen table, I read a book report aloud. You might think that seems like a strange thing to do. You might think, Tamar is right, Clara Winter is indeed an odd child. But still, there we sat, me reading, him listening.
They like us to read a book and do a book report on it once every two weeks. “Now that you’re in the sixth grad,” they say. “Time to develop your critical faculties.” Etcetera. I scoff at this. Their definition of a book and my definition of a book do not coincide. “Fifty-page minimum,” they say.
What kind of book is only fifty pages long? A comic book?
It hurts me to see a book report. It’s painful to me. Book reports are to books that (a) brown sugar and water boiled together until thick is to true maple syrup from Adirondack sugar maples, (b) lukewarm reconstituted nonfat powdered milk is to whipped cream, and (c) a drawing of a roller coaster is to a roller-coaster ride. Give me a real assignment, I say.
I like to read books one after another. Immerse-another perfect word-myself in a book and then immerse myself in the next book, and just keep going until there aren’t’ any more books left to swim in. That’s why I hat it when authors die. I cannot stand it. There will be no more books forthcoming from that person. Their future books died with him. In the past I have found a series of books and loved it so much that all I wanted to do was read and read and read those books for the rest of my life. Then I would find out that the author was dead. Had in fact been dead for many a year. This has happened to me several times.
You can see how much it would hurt me to write a book report every two weeks. I could do such a thing only to a book I hated. And why would I read a book I hated? Self-torture?
My only option was to make them up.
Besides, there’re not too many unread-by-Clara-winter books left in the school library. It’s a stranger feeling, to walk down a row of books with your head bent so you can read the titles, and recognize most of them. Amelia Earhart: American Aviator. Alexander Graham Bell: Inventor of the Telephone. George Washing Carver: American Botanist. I like biographies. I like the early childhoods of famous people. Sometimes they’re what you’d expect them to be, sometimes they’re not.
I like reading between the lines of famous early childhoods.
My favorites are pioneers. Winter explorers. The kinds of pioneers who bore the burden of snow and ice, who faced the cold head-on. Winter is to be feared. But who thinks about that now? Everyone thinks we’ve conquered winter. Houses with heat, cars with heat, stores and schools with heat. They forget what it used to be like. They can’t being to imagine what it was like for the pioneers, with one small fire in an unchinked cabin, or how cold it must have been in the Indian’s winter camps.
We are close to death every winter day. What if the furnace went out and the electricity went out and the phone line went out and the blizzard raged so hard that road was a pure whiteness, and you slowly burned up everything wood in the house, and then twisted newspaper into tight rolls and burned them like fast-burning logs, and then started in on your summer clothes and the sheets and towels and mattress stuffing and anything else you could possibly burn, and finally, even, tore all your books apart and burnt the pages, all the time jumping up and down to stay warm, dancing even, with all your winter clothes on? It wouldn’t matte. You would die. No one thinks about things like that. They all feel so safe.
“Would you like to read my fake book report?” I said. “I have it here in my backpack. It was completed just this afternoon.”
The old man stirred his coffee with the handle of his spoon. He did not use the bowl of the spoon, as I have seen it referred to in books but never, not once, in real life.
“It concerns winter,” I said.
“You read it to me,” he said.
The Winter Without End, by Lathrop E. Douglas. New York: Crabtree Publishers, Inc., 1958. You need to make up a title that sounds possible and an author that doesn’t sound impossible. I always put down a year from long ago, just in case they check. They’d never check, but still. You could always say, “Oh, you couldn’t find it? That’s because it’s out of print.” They’d be impressed that you knew what out of print meant.
“Ready?” I said.
It was the longest winter that Sarah Martin had ever known. Growing up on the Great Plains, she had known many a stark December, many an endless January, and the bitter winds of February were not unfamiliar to her. She was a child of winter. But that winter-the winter of 1879-Sarah knew true cold.
The potatoes had long since run out, as had the cabbages and carrots buried in sand in the root cellar. The meager fire was kept alive with twists of hay. When the first blizzard came, followed every few days by another, Sarah’s parents had been trapped in town. It was up to Sarah Martin to keep her baby brother alive and warm until the spring thaw, when her parents could return to the homestead.
The true test of Sarah Martin’s character comes when her baby brother wanders into the cold in the dead of night. Sarah lames herself for this; she was too busy twisty hay stocks in a corner of the cabin to notice that he had slipped from his pallet next to the fire and squeezed his way outside. “He’s only two years old,” thinks Sarah. “How long can a tiny child survive outside in this bitter cold?”
Will Sarah Martin be able to find her little brother in time? Will she be able to rescue him from a fate so horrible that she cannot bear to think about it?
Did Sarah Martin have the foresight to dig a snow tunnel from the house to the pole barn where Bessie and Snowball are stabled? Or is there nothing beyond the cabin door for her beloved brother but flowing snow, bitter wind, and a winter without end?
Will Sarah have to face the responsibility of her brother’s death?
Will her baby brother be forgotten by everyone but her?
Will she miss him her whole life long?
Read the book and find out.
I live in North Sterns, in the Adirondack Mountains. Winter loves these mountains. Snow is attracted to them. Snow craves falling here. Snow falls on the young and old, the quick and the dead, the CJ Wilsons and the Clara winters.
“Well?” I said to the old man after I read him my fake book report. “What do you think?”
He stirred his coffee so that it slopped into the saucer.
“What happened?” he said. “How does the story turn out?”
“Read the book and find out,” I said.
Most of the time I give my book reports a happy ending. The teachers expect that. An unhappy ending would raise alarm bells in their minds. That’s because most books for children have happy endings. Few end in tragedy. Few contain irredeemable loss.
You might wonder why a girl of eleven would want to be around an old man seven times her age. You might wonder why she craved his presence, what she was hoping to find in Georg Kominsky. You might wonder if she found it.
“Tell me how the story ends,” the old man said when I finished reading the fake book report. “I would like to know what happens.”
So would I.
Excerpted from “Shadow Baby” by Alison McGhee. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Picador, a division of St. Martin’s Press.