Our book today is The Gentle People by Era Zistel, her remarkable and utterly memorable slim 1961 book about her longstanding habit of taking wild and semi-wild animals into her home. She forced Eric, the love of her life, to put up with this habit (although as we'll see, he didn't really need to be forced), and she reserved nothing but starchy contempt for the disapproval of others, as she makes clear in the book's wonderful opening salvo:
On occasion a woman will say to me, in some short interval between denying, admonishing, threatening, screaming, yanking, punishing, and wiping the runny noses of her contribution to the human explosion, "Ah, but no children," then shake her head commiseratively or nod knowingly, thus implying, or even audibly suggesting, that this sad lack must be the reason for my otherwise unaccountable love for animals. She couldn't be more in error; the way I have invested the second best life given me has not been second choice. Clicking her tongue, this same dogmatist might add, "But what a shame to waste all that money," as if, having squandered my life, I ought to at least refrain from doing the same with my meager funds.
Zistel is such an immediately captivating narrator precisely for the reason so abundantly clear in that trumpet-blast: she has no illusions about anything. This clarity of vision might at first seem cold, but this is precisely opposite: there's passion aplenty here - there's just no bathos. Take her description of meeting Eric:
I was racketing around in Harlem, having a wonderful time and hating life, when I met Eric. At first I didn't like him; then I liked him a little; then I was in love, for the first time and, as it turned out, the last.
The precision of that 'as it turned out' is a little masterwork of anti-hysteria, and the whole of The Gentle People is like that; what could have been an unending series of Thomas Kinkade vignettes is saved and utterly ennobled by the rock-ribbed Midwestern pragmatism of the author. It's not that she doesn't feel the raw emotions of reaching out to various wild animals and linking as much of her life to theirs as they'll allow - it's that she refuses to serve the experiences raw, as 100 percent all such memoir-writers do today. Instead, she refines her experiences to present them to us for maximum effect. This isn't as haughty or manipulative as it sounds (well, OK, I admit: Zistel can be pretty haughty - but it's so damn winning that you don't mind! Picture a nature book written by Katharine Hepburn's character in .... well, in any Katharine Hepburn movie), mainly because Zistel doesn't exempt herself from that same unblinking pragmatic estimating eye:
In middle youth one becomes most acutely aware of the passage of time, the need to hurry toward something other that routine old age. Where was I, I asked myself, and why? I didn't know. For years I didn't know, until I faced up to inflexible reality: there is no greatness in me, none at all. I am small and can do only small things. I hold in my hands an insignificant, desperate, terrified sickness, give what relief is in my power, either renewed being or non-being, and no longer question my purpose. Tomorrow's death can be met with equanimity because today I have been not entirely useless.
That purpose took her and Eric to a house in the country, where Zistel proceeded to invite an every-increasing number and variety of "gentle people" into her life. The book is a fascinating, fast-paced parade of cats, pigs, rabbits, birds, deer, squirrels, possums, goats, chipmunks, and - in the book's most memorable chapter - a pair of orphaned raccoons named Hansel and Gretel. Naturally there's also a dog, Muff, whose final days and death are rendered as beautifully as any such scene with which I'm familiar:
Sitting with her on the steps in the warm sunlight, her body leaning against mine, my hand on her tousled head, I saw the way her hair was graying and contemplated, dreaded, life without her. A milky film came into her eyes, those mirrors of my moods that were sympathetically reproachful when I sorrowed and danced with joy when I laughed; gradually the film thickened, until only white showed where there had been depth to read her thoughts. Then it was time for more lessons.
Up, Muff. Down, Muff. She acquired a vocabulary of nearly a hundred words, more than she needed to find her way through the dark. Left, Muff. Right, Muff. There is a kitty, don't bump into her. Here is a dog. Good dog, one of your friends. Say hello. Watch out! Stand still. Come, I'll lead you around the tree ...
She obeyed with precision, as always, and at my command would stop with one paw already lifted for the next step. She was much cleverer than I. I had only four words to learn, and could not: Goodbye, Muff, sleep well.
She lay at my feet, breathing slowly and more slowly, and then she was not breathing anymore. That was how she left us.
That 'us' is a consistent, subtle refrain in The Gentle People - gradually, in deceptively informative minimal brush strokes, we get a clear glimpse of this complicated, giving man who shared Zistel's odd passion until he died:
When the house was packed with the dog and all the cats, the hutches with rabbits, the barn with goats, Eric looked from our bank balance to a sheaf of bills and said, "No more animals, now. There's a limit." Even when Bert told us about the raccoons, Eric said, "No more animals. However," he added, "I don't suppose it would do any harm to go look at them." And Bert grinned knowingly.
Those raccoons turn out to be Hansel and Gretel, and their portrait is endlessly charming and even instructive. It's a constant reassurance with Zistel: she might be a loving observer, but you know beyond question she's also an accurate one - if she says one of 'her' animals did something, you can take it as fact that things happened as described. It's because of this that Hansel and Gretel come across as genuine characters in the book, as in the passage describing Gretel at play:
The rest of the day she napped, or played quietly with toys I had given her, an assortment of buttons, spools, bits of metal, and, most prized of all, a long hollow bone handed down from Muff. Her favorite game was to but a button in one end of the bone and retrieve it from the other. If an overlarge button got stuck in the middle she was delighted: here was a problem to work on. Upending the bone, she would shake it, and if neither this strategy nor the efforts of her nimble fingers dislodged the button, she would blow through the bone, to her great glee making a hooting noise that sounded something like a foghorn.
Happy little observations like that one are scattered all throughout The Gentle People, even though its primary mood is melancholy - after all, Zistel's guests most often choose to go back out into the wilderness, which is outside the reach of her various mercies. She knows this as well as anybody, knows it with the calibration of someone who must will herself to hope for anything more. The book's sublime closing is a pragmatist's grudging hymn to hope, with a single 'should' placed as precisely, as impeccably, as a chess piece:
Once I asked a wise person about survival and received the reply, "All those who are loved live on." All. I like that. Somewhere are they waiting, Abbie, Muff, Gretel, Bobs, the squirrel that perched on my shoulder, the mouse that beat like a heart against the palm of my hand? All of them, and among them, Eric, surrounded by them, shaking his head reproachfully, but grinning to give the lie to disapproval?
Yes, I should like that. Meanwhile there are others, always others, coming to the upturned hand.
Zistel might have disagreed, but that sounds like greatness to me.