Thursday, March 25, 2010

"The Willow Pool"

"The Willow Pool" is the third entry in John D MacDonald's 1971 short story collection S*E*V*E*N, and like the other tales in that anthology the author uses the device of imperfect perspective to tell his story. In this particular entry -- written especially for the anthology and the longest in the book -- it's a case of multiple perspectives that depict a protagonist without a voice of her own. Constructed as a mystery, "The Willow Pool" works on a number of levels: it's a character study, a detective story, a commentary on the times, an experiment in story construction and, ultimately, the sad tale of a damaged and disturbed young woman. It's a superior example of writing by an author who began experimenting with this kind of storytelling as far back as 1954 with All These Condemned. "The Willow Pool" is full of compassion, insight and a palpable feeling of regret about the plight of a victim unable to annunciate her own cry for help.

The story is told by seven secondary characters, all people connected in some way to Norrie Ames. Each character has their own section of the story, told in first person and all beginning with "My name is .... " First up is Mable Turner, an elderly farmer's wife who begins by relating how, two years ago, a young college girl arrived at her remote New York apple farm and asked about renting a small cabin, located in a far corner of the property, private and remote and next to a small pond surrounded by willow trees. Mable is a bit uneasy about renting to a single girl, but agrees when told by Norrie that she's there to catch up on some missed school work and is preparing for exams in a month. Things are fine for a while until one day Mable, an upright, God-fearing woman, accidentally discovers Norrie with a boy in her cabin, caught in flagrante, and orders her off the property. It doesn't help matters that "the young boy wore his hair as long as a girl."

Next we hear from Dr, Wyndam Hargier, a physician who works at the college attended by Norrie. He recalls how he was called in two years ago when, after disappearing for ten days following a party, Norrie was dropped off in front of her dormitory by a car that sped away. She was "semiconscious and uncommunicative," and badly bruised as "the result of strenuous copulation with a male either very muscular or of sadistic tendencies." Dr. Hargier recommends sending her home to Philadelphia to recuperate.

Norrie's mother recalls when she was called by the college and how she found it "most irritating that [she] could not speak to [Norrie] on the telephone." Amelia Ames is one of MacDonald's classic and most perfectly realized self-absorbed parent, a typically affluent and distracted person who has little time or inclination to raise a child. When told of her daughter's condition, she is upset, because both she and her husband "had engagements [they] could not easily break." She's also not happy with the college, who she feels could have "kept better track of my daughter." Norrie comes home to a house where her father has just been caught in the middle of an affair and there is little effort to deal with her recovery. Her parents hire a doctor to look after her, "the very top talent available," but Norrie disappears in the middle of her treatment and later notifies them that she is up at the cabin, preparing to return to school.

Norrie's boyfriend Michael relates how he stumbled upon the cabin while hiking one day, became acquainted with Norrie and then fell in love with her. They lived together in the cabin for several weeks in a kind of idyllic fog, but after they were caught by Mrs. Turner they drove across the country living a nomadic life, until they eventually ended up at a hippy commune in Arizona. After three weeks of that lifestyle they tired of it, and tired of each other and split. Michael went on to college and Norrie returned home, where she eventually married, then took her new husband on a honeymoon to a special place... a small cabin by a willow pool.

The final character in the story is William Mass, a criminologist who was asked by police to look into the sudden and mysterious murder of one Paul Warcroft, who was killed on a remote apple farm upstate, and who was Norrie's husband.

"The Willow Pool" is a beautifully written and inexpressibly sad story that covers a lot of ground in it's 42 pages. MacDonald deals with issues of self-worth, psychosis, repression, the sixties youth movement, and even environmental issues, parroting a rant on DDT taken directly from a letter he wrote to friend Dan Rowan. Norrie's problems began long before her ten-day disappearance, evidenced by her preoccupied mother, and is described by her boyfriend Michael as a person who "hated the way she looked, hated her body, hated her build [and] felt as if she was a scrawny, ugly, sickening mess." The unifying theme with all of the narrators -- excepting her mother -- is a profound sense of regret and guilt that they were unable to help her when they had the opportunity. And while it's never made clear until the very end exactly what happened to cause these people to reminisce about this poor girl, it's obvious that it was something terrible and avoidable.

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the only short story MacDonald published the year S*E*V*E*N was issued was a piece in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine titled "He Was Always a Nice Boy." That tale is a kind of mirror image of "The Willow Pool," both in style and substance, as we are told about another troubled child -- a boy -- who was raised by preoccupied, affluent parents and who eventually went off the deep end. There's only a single narrator in "He Was Always a Nice Boy," but his voice could have come directly out of "The Willow Pool;" he is as bemused and as clueless as to how something like "that" could happen as some of the characters in that story are.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the antecedent to this particular style of storytelling is MacDonald's 1954 novel All These Condemned. There we have a story told by several different-yet-connected characters, all talking in first-person about an off-screen character who never speaks for herself. At that point in his career MacDonald felt the need to separate the current with the past by giving each character two chapters, a before and after, where by the time he wrote "The Willow Pool" he was accomplished and talented enough to condense past and present into a single character narrative. Both stories are whodunits featuring a female lead character, but in the novel that character is dead, and in the short story, well...

MacDonald's use of the willow tree as both imagery and symbol is interesting as well, with its echoes of Shakespeare and two of his doomed women. The soon-to-die Desdemona sings a "Willow Song" before being murdered in Othello, and in Hamlet the driven-mad Ophelia drowns herself in a stream overhung by a willow tree, but not before making a crown for herself from its branches. MacDonald never makes any direct references to these plays, thank goodness, but the imagery of the icy pond -- overhung by three willow trees and always in the shade -- paints a sufficiently ominous picture early in the story.

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