Monday, December 28, 2009

RICH, POETIC LANGUAGE: A Season of Gifts

Dear Allyson,
Happy Monday morning to you. I hope you and your family had a magical and beautiful Christmas. Today we wrap up our discussion about A Season of Gifts, and I wanted to focus on the book’s rich language.

The storyteller voice of A Season of Gifts, complete with characters’ grammatically incorrect dialogue, slang, and clich├ęd metaphors, makes the book an easy read. And yet underneath its casual and chatty tone lies a wealth of examples of rich, poetic language.

Let’s start with word choice. Every writing class I’ve ever taken says to use active verbs. Richard Peck puts verbs to work in A Season of Gifts:
Seethed. Peppered. Slumped. Nuked. Plunked. Teetered. Hoisted. Drifted. Flinched. Billowed. Quivered. Inventoried. Craned. Veered.

Even out of context, don’t these words create vivid images of specific types of action?

Peck also gets the most out of nouns, creating texture by focusing on specific descriptive details. After Thanksgiving, for example, Mrs. Dowdel gets busy baking for Christmas:
Her kitchen was stacked to the ceiling with black walnut fudge, candied orange peel, Linzertorte, sugar cookies in shape, pfeffernuss, gingerbread people, spingerle, brandy snaps, heavenly hash, popcorn balls, glazed chestnuts, and some fifty pounds of peanut brittle rolled out on a marble top from one of her front room tables.

Wow! This list conveys Mrs. Dowdel’s enthusiasm for Christmas, her ambition, and her energy. It even hints at her cultural background (Linzertorte, pfeffernuss and springerle).

Words aren’t just workhorses, though. Peck also plays with words and language. The double-meanings and word sounds of puns lighten the mood and provide humor. Early in the book, Bob meets the town thugs after a day helping his father fix up the church.
“You smell funny, preacher’s kid,” said another voice from on high. And he should talk. “What’s that you smell like?”
“Shellac,” I said in a puny voice. “I’ve been shellacking a pew.”
“Pew. You can say that again,” said another voice, and they all did a lot of hee-haw laughing (p. 19)
Taking a step away from individual word choice, we can look at how Peck crafts sentences. Sometimes, as with the list of cookies above, he uses long sentences. Sometimes, he shifts into staccato mode. Here’s an example from the Christmas Eve church service at the end of the book:
Brad and I were at the back, flanking the door when it banged open. Wind blew in. Candles blew out. People jumped. Brad and I fell back. An enormous figure filled the door—bear big. “Hit the lights,” it said (p. 153).

The short sentences keep the action coming. Peck stays in the moment, paying attention to every detail, and by doing so, he builds tension for the reader. What’s happening? Who’s there?

Varying the length of sentences affects how they sound. Another way Peck manipulates sound is through alliteration. “White cold cream clung in all the crevices of her face” (p. 94). All of those hard C sounds stick in the back of my throat, just as the cream sticks to Cora Shellenberger’s face.

As with puns and word choice, Peck also plays with sentence structure to create moments of humor. Several examples occur when Mrs. Dowdel tells Mr. Barhnart that every church needs a good funeral to build followers.
“Without a funeral, you ain’t got a chance in—“
“The world,” Mrs. Wilcox said (p. 71).
Then, on the next page, Mrs. Wilcox explains her desire to bury the Kickapoo Princess.
“I’m sick to death of all this fussin’ and fumin’ about restless spirits and floatin’ princesses and such horse—“
“Feathers,” Mrs. Wilcox said (p. 72).
The interrupted sentence, marked by the dash, clearly implies what Mrs. Dowdel would like to say, while Mrs. Wilcox provides comic relief and prevents the need for a cursing.

The sentences throughout the novel read easily, but Peck clearly paid attention to crafting them for maximum impact, sound, and meaning. This same attention shows on a larger scale in the work. For example, Peck repeats details periodically for an effect that is similar to a refrain in a song. At the beginning of the book, little sister Ruth Ann worries that “he” won’t find her in their new home. Bob, the narrator, doesn’t understand who “he” is. “'S-A-N-T-A,' Phyllis spelled, 'C-L-A-U-S'” (p. 37).

At the end of the book, Ruth Ann sulks, upset that Mrs. Dowdel treats her like a little kid, worrying for Ruth Ann that “he” will look for her in their old home.
“Who, honey?” Dad said.
“You know who, Daddy. S-A-N-T-A,” Ruth Ann spelled, “C-L-A-U-S” (p. 132).
Repetition of details such as this unify the story. They help us remember who Ruth Ann is. When well done, such as this example, repetition can also reveal change. Not only does Ruth Ann know the truth about Santa now, but she can spell his name too.

While looking at the larger scale of the book, I also want to mention section breaks and chapter endings. Peck takes advantage of line and space to emphasize dialogue, build tension, and create hooks to the next chapters. In Chapter Ten, Bob, his parents, and Mrs. Dowdel race to the Shellenbergers to care for Phyllis, who was in a car crash after a night out with bad-boy Roscoe Burdick. Mrs. Dowdel sniffs Phyllis’ breath.
She pointed past us at Phyllis, growing smaller on the settee. “She’s had one too many.” 
Silence fell hard. The mantlepiece clock ticked off several slow seconds (p. 97).  
Notice how the visual space of the section break creates the very silence that Bob experienced.

What I find fascinating about A Season of Gifts is that while reading it, I feel like I’m in the presence of a storyteller. It feels so easy, so conversational. Effortless. The book feels like it should be read aloud. And yet, clearly, Peck worked hard to create that feeling.

Then, when I looked at the general groupings I made in my notes about language, I started to think about poetry. Word choice. Sentence length. Alliteration. Word play. Repetition. Line breaks. Tone. I could flip through A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver and find those very topics.

The gift I take away from reading Richard Peck’s novel is a greater awareness of how poetic language enriches fiction, allowing the casual reader to experience the book as effortless while rewarding careful readers with the treasure of beautiful language.

StorySleuths Tip #36: Pay attention to language on every level, from word choices and sentence structures to sections and chapters. Don’t be afraid to include poetic language and rich imagery.