Trespasses by Lacy M. Johnson

Thursday, July 26, 2012

by Lacy M. Johnson 
Sightline Books, University of Iowa Press

In Lacy M. Johnson’s first book, she returns to her childhood home even as she tries to journey past it. For the most part, Trespasses takes place in a small town in rural Missouri where Johnson was born, and where generations of her family have lived as far back as anyone can remember.  Johnson has collected the stories of her mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings and woven them together with her own story. She also grapples with issues of race and class in the rural Midwest and the weight of the term white trash. In doing so, Johnson effectively illustrates how completely her identity depends upon her roots, deep below the surface of the Great Plains.

The book is made up of short scenes and ruminations. Most chapters are shorter than two pages. This makes reading Trespasses feel like flipping through a scrapbook, with each turn of the page revealing a new snapshot. The snapshots are not arranged chronologically. Some chapters are detailed accounts of particular events, and many have specific years as their titles. Others seem to be compilations of events that have happened many times and are happening still. In a few chapters, the author speaks directly to the reader.

Yet other chapters are not so much scenes as they are impressions. The language in these chapters meanders, doubles back on itself, and paints emotions in broad brushstrokes. The chapter “cast out” begins: “Tell me again about the time we became human, when our arms unbarked, unbranched, broke just a little from the long-held pose and a tide of groundwater became soft, blonde fur. As though a nudge was all we needed. As though the nudge split us apart—sparked in you; in me flaked off like birch.” Another chapter, titled “on the other hand,” is a maze of words about the difficulties of telling the story of Johnson’s culture and history:

The silence can’t be broken. Or it can be broken, but not by asking questions. Not by asking them again in a different way. Not by telling stories about galvanized tubs, or blackberries growing wild along the fence line, or a bridge in the forest made entirely of fallen trees. But then again, if the silence is held too long in the mouth, it might mean this is the muddy river’s end, winding down the carcass of history to stop short of the delta—not dammed by a wall of silt, but disappeared like a rabbit into a hat, a puddle on the blacktop: evaporated.

Trespasses floats between past and present tense, as well as between first, second, and third person. It is disorienting in a good way. The reader must question who each story is “about” and when it is happening. This gives the impression that the author is also struggling to untangle herself and her future from her own family history.

The bits and pieces of stories that make up Trespasses are skillfully assembled. In the beginning, the narrative is heavy with stories borrowed from the young lives of Johnson’s parents and grandparents. Almost all of them detail one precise moment, frozen in time. For instance, she tells the story of the night her grandparents Aurthur and Wilda Eloise got married. She anchors the moment by titling the chapter “1944” and closing with this specific detail: “So they drive all night across the border where the judges don’t know she’s only sixteen, and the whole way back she leans into his shoulder, rubbing her fingers over his knuckles on the wheel.” All of the stories about her family’s past have a similar stagnant quality. Some chapter titles even begin, “still life with…,” by which Johnson artfully conveys the agelessness of her hometown. The young people in Trespasses exist only in the stories of people who have already grown old – they already know what happens in the end, and everything in-between. They live in a vacuum where past, present, and future are all one and the same.

In one chapter, Johnson recalls being embarrassed at her school’s heritage day. She makes up a story about where her ancestors came from. The truth is, no one in her family can remember where they came from. As far as they know, they have never been anywhere but here.

Only Johnson herself seems to be on a journey with any movement at all. As the book progresses, the family stories give way slowly – almost imperceptibly – to Johnson’s own story. Her un-borrowed memories come into sharper focus. Scenes begin to take place farther and farther from Johnson’s childhood home. And yet even she cannot leave forever. She continues to come back to the place she came from, feeling both love and disgust for her hometown.

There are places where the scrapbook quality of Trespasses can make it feel a little overstuffed. In her foreword Johnson writes, “At first, I dedicated a lot of time to transcribing the interviews [of my family]. I focused on getting the details right, sticking to the facts. Then I stopped. Because I know these stories like I know my reflection in a mirror. And at a certain point the facts got in the way of the truth.” Yet the book is peppered with asterisks that point to factual asides at the end of the book. There are also a few chapters titled “Random Facts,” made up of bits and pieces that Johnson couldn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. These notes and facts appear to indicate Johnson’s attempt to tell a story that is both emotionally and factually true.  But Johnson’s instinct that these facts would get in the way of the story was correct. Most of the asides disrupt the emotional current that makes Trespasses so vibrant and compelling.

In her most poetic chapters Johnson’s prose truly sings. She uses quiet, unhurried language to open up a landscape full of frank, simple beauty:

The fields, where nothing at all grows, lie dormant under layers of ice and snow, a luminescent sea broken only by the crests of brush and bramble, and the road, which does in fact lead here, and further beyond, though nothing now marks it but drift upon drift across the miles between the houses and right up to the outer walls, which do not block the wind but make it howl at least as loud as the three half-clothed children huddling under the patchwork quilt, waiting for a turn to bathe.

In her narratives, beauty and ugliness exist on opposite sides of the same pages. She switches between the two with grace and subtlety. Readers may feel as though they are standing still in one place and if they turn their head to one side, what they see will break their heart. Then, if they turn to the other side their heart will swell with the beauty of what they see. One chapter, called “1955,” is a portrait of a mother lovingly bathing her son: “Wilda pours a last kettleful of water into the tub, pulls Barry from under the quilt, wraps him in steam as he shivers into the bath, the water rippling around him, releases a bar of white soap from its crisp wrapper, myrrh and aloes and cassia floating over acre upon acre of dormant land…” Two pages later, Johnson visits a bleaker side of the same year. In another chapter, also called “1955,” a man watches his deceased father’s farm get auctioned away: “Harold places another steamer trunk in the grass beside the truck, goes back into the house for a box of white dishes. Judy can’t take her eyes off his face: clean wet tracks plowing through the fields of dust and dirt.” One family grows closer while another disintegrates. Both are described with the same level of tender, intimate detail.

Much of the book is about boundaries in the rural Midwest that are invisible to outsiders but absolute. Johnson opens up her cultural inheritance wide enough to make those invisible boundaries visible. She makes it possible for her readers to trespass with her.

Once or twice Johnson flirts with self-indulgence. Occasionally she adopts a scholarly tone: “Social norms and conventional wisdom dictate that white trash (or their variants: hillbillies, rednecks, and crackers) are incongruous with the college classroom, even more so with the lectern at the front of it.” At these times she appears more concerned with winning an argument about her identity than telling the story of it. But for the most part, Johnson’s openness and vulnerability prevai, making her book beautiful, haunting, and compelling.