MY MOTHER'S SHOES

A NEW MEMOIR by Susan Osborn

 

 

My Mother's Shoes

 

     In 1925, when the author’s mother was two, she was struck down by polio. Marjorie survived, but not unscathed: her left leg was severely withered and partially paralyzed. 

     Marjorie’s life as a crippled woman began just as American entered one of the most disturbing and least discussed periods of its history.  By the end of the 19th century, cities across the country had enacted “ugly laws” designed to keep the lame, the blind, the diseased, and other “miserable objects” including women who offended the standards of beauty off the streets. These laws were fueled by the growing eugenics movement, aimed at purifying the national stock through genetic engineering and euthanizing “the unfit.” By 1927, when Marjorie was four, mandatory sterilization of the lame, the imbecilic, and the degenerate had become the law of the land and “merciful death” of “human trash” by gas chamber, an American idea embraced by Hitler, was openly advocated. 

     But Marjorie’s deformity did not just offend the legal and moral codes of society. Her disfigurement also dealt a severe blow to her status-conscious family. Her shamed socialite mother refused to be seen with her in public. At home, she kept her distance through criticism: “If there’s an awkward way of doing things, you’ll find it.” Her father, a well-established physician, adopted a different tack: he taught his daughter to walk on the toes of her withered left foot and flat on her right and he rewarded her with a dollar when she could walk across the living room without limping.

     In My Mother’s Shoes, the author also turns her discerning eye inward and in vivid and supple prose explores the ways Marjorie’s deformity disfigured their relationship, distorted the author’s own body image, and affected the author’s ability to love herself and others. Written toward the end of Marjorie's life, this profoundly moving account shows the power of compassion when allied with acute intelligence.

Surviving the Wreck

 

I am running toward my mother. She is standing at the door of our cottage in Connemara.  I can see here even though we are still a hundred miles apart. A horse appears, white, gallant, and keen, and I jump on its back and we race across the Moorish cliffs and down the ferny glens, leaping across the gullies as if my horse were Pegasus. We look like a great white blur, my horse and I; as we get closer to my mother, thistles and thorns scratch at my face, but they do not hurt, there is no blood. I am riding too fast, yet as long as I keep her in my sight, I feel utterly, absolutely protected.

 

     So begins Osborn’s lyrical coming-of-age novel. In arresting and shimmering language, Osborn’s book tells the story of Megan Arbuthnot, a successful writer haunted by her past as she begins an unforgettable odyssey through her memories of childhood. As Megan works to peel back the layers of half truth and falsehood that cover the secret that threatens to expose the family to public humiliation and outcry, she struggles to understand the tangled relationships that have left her filled with ambivalence and longing. Megan's father, the scheming and charming Shep, a con man-ad man,  master of disguises--“Call me ‘The Old Kipper,’ call me ‘The Second or Third King of the Scottish High Seas,’ call me ‘The Great Chef Louis,’ ”-- and manipulator extraordinaire, mocks his dutiful wife, Evelyn, while he deviously pursues the adoring young Megan. While Megan struggles to resist his seduction, Evelyn turns a blind eye and lavishes her attention on Megan’s brother, Kyle, a self-absorbed and straight-laced intellectual. Throughout, family tensions are subtly, forcefully registered, yet Megan's disturbing and breathtaking memories are always measured against the family’s love for one another. Set against the backdrop of the Kennedy Camelot years, this arresting and graceful novel is sure to leave an indelible mark on its readers.

Elizabeth Bowen: New Critical Perspectives

 

     Susan Osborn’s collection of insightful and illuminating essays expound the dynamics of Bowen’s fiction’s originality and value. Specifically, the volume focuses on previously ignored tensions and pressures in Bowen’s style and addresses two signature but overlooked characteristics of her art: her intimidating artistic, linguistic, and substantive difficultness and her aesthetic moral and cognitive complexity and distinctiveness. By so doing,  Osborn cultivates new ways of thinking about Bowen’s work next to a range of contemporary concerns such as the relationships among modernism, sensationalism, and realism, ongoing debates about trauma and identity, and literary representations of class, nationhood, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.