And the more I meditated on it, the more the "usurp" word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person's unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces. My soon-to-be twenty-two years on this earth had been an obstacle course mined with potential or actual usurpers.
Since day one, it seemed, I had been confronted by them in one form or another. After my alcoholic father crashed his car fatally into a tree on the day of my birth, Mother's Alabama cousin, a childless woman married to a rich man, tried to annex me. The offer included my widowed mother, but my grandmother Loney was not part of the packagethe cousin thought Loney was "too undemonstrative"and so Mother had to decline.
Next came a string of suitors who were willing to take on a little girl to get the attractive, sexy mother, but not willing to take on the grandmother, so once again I was spared. Next came World War II, four years during which my mother's job as a reporter on the Mountain City Citizen sufficiently engaged her libido. She covered the Veterans Hospital overflowing with wounded soldiers straight from the battlefront, interviewed visiting celebrities, reviewed books, and even contributed the occasional seasonal poem. But then the war ended and the men came home and wanted their jobs back and three of them wanted my mother. She chose the one my grandmother and I liked least, an oversensitive bully who brought to the match his overflowing trousseau of sermons and insecurities. After great storms of tears and reproaches between the women, my grandmother was left behind in our old apartment and I found myself part of a new family in a worse apartment on the other side of town, with new rules to follow and new things to worry about.
Earl immediately began his campaign to remove me from my "snobbish" grandmother's influence altogether. It took three years for him to get us out of Mountain City, but at last he succeeded, which meant plucking me out of my beloved St. Clothilde's, to which I had won a full high school scholarship the year before. Thus at the end of ninth grade, when I was going on fifteen, we packed up and drove out of our mountains, to begin our strange migrant years of "transferring" up and down the East Coast, gradually adding more human beings to our family mix, while Earl discovered, or his bosses discovered for him, that he was temperamentally unsuited to a career in chain store management. In those gypsy years of Earl's and Mother's, I felt like someone kidnapped from my rightful environment and tethered to a caravan of someone else's descent.
In my last year at St. Clothilde's, when our ninth grade had been immersed in David Copperfield, Sister Elise, a svelte, scholarly young nun recently transferred from Boston, read us a letter the adult Dickens had written to a friend, describing his terrible experience of being sent to work in a blacking factory at age twelve. It was for less than a year, while his family was bankrupt and living in debtors' prison, but, Sister Elise informed us in her Back Bay accent, it left a scar ("skaah") on Dickens forever, even after he had become rich and world famous and was surrounded by an adoring family of his own. No words could express, Dickens had written to his friend, the secret agony of his young soul as he sank into this low life, pasting labels onto blacking bottles for six shillings a month in a rat-infested warehouse with urchin boys who mockingly called him "the little gentleman." Snatched from his studies with an Oxford tutor, obliged to pawn all his books (The Arabian Nights, his favorite eighteenth-century novels), the young Dickens felt his early hopes of growing up to be a distinguished and learned person crushed in his breast. All that he had learned and thought and delighted in was passing away from him day by day. His whole nature, he wrote to the friend who, Sister Elise told us, was to become his first biographer, had been so penetrated with grief and humiliation that even now he often forgot in his dreams that he had escaped it all and was famous, caressed, and happy.
Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin Copyright © 2006 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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