I don’t use “white trash” in conversation, don’t generally label people, or groups of people, or see them in such a one-dimensional way, but I have to use “white trash” here because I understand the way it’s used, and what people think it is, and how they look at “those people”… and I appreciate the way R.J. Keller offers a deep exploration of “those people.”
First, here: a “white trash” definition offered at the blog WhiteTrash.net:
“…a racial epithet usually used to describe certain low income persons of European descent, especially those perceived as having crude manners, abnormally low moral standards, and lack of education.”
Well. If I’m not one of “them” now, I sure used to be. When I lived where I lived and did what I did. Or didn’t do.
And I think the characters in R.J. Keller’s Waiting for Spring are people those who use that particular pejorative would call “white trash,” too.
What I love about Waiting for Spring is that Keller’s small-town Maine “white trash”-ians are examined so closely and so honestly that – even if it wasn’t her goal – Keller’s readers get a quick lesson in people-are-people, whether a first-impression glance leaves you thinking they’re “white trash” with dirty jobs or sophisticates who might nibble shiny, little fish eggs in the Hamptons.
I shouldn’t admit, here, that I don’t read much of what would be called “women’s fiction,” because I’m a female fiction writer. What I mean, though, is that I don’t read much fiction written by women that uses, in an obvious way, any of the following as the central conflict:
2. Disease (namely cancer)
3. Depression (or other mental maladies)
5. Abuse (rape, spousal beatings, or the like)
It’s not snobbery; I’m just not drawn to it. It’s possible I got my fill during my Danielle Steel years, or maybe I’ve seen too many movies on a popular cable women’s network that seems to think women are only interested in death, family, children, disease, spousal abuse, and – of course – crazy stalkers, be they men or women. (Why can’t they play more romantic comedies? Or more movies with hot guys in them doing hot guy things? Or even just a straight-up comedy? What, we don’t like funny? The man-channel, at least, offers a variety with its action and comedy mix.)
Keller’s novel isn’t the kind of fiction by women I usually pass by. Instead, it’s the gritty and straighforward and honest fiction I love. The kind of fiction that doesn’t care to pretend politeness out of respect for people’s personal beliefs or subjective morality: it is what it is, whether you like it or not.
Sure…in Waiting for Spring, Keller’s characters have been touched by life’s unpleasantness (drugs, emotional neglect, abuse), but those touches are presented as scenery, the way a dark spot in the forest would look on a drive down a country road. We notice it, it’s there, it affects the larger picture, but we’re not consumed by it. Life is life, and almost everyone, at one point or another, has suffered from something. A life wouldn’t read realistic without giving those sufferings mention and recognizing they add to, and take away from, who a person is.
Keller’s novel is character-driven, and her characters – so real, and revealed to such a degree it’s difficult not to wince at their vulnerability and feel the need to walk away, apologize for prying – create a powerful story of strength and weakness, untidy but pure love, and both the destructive nature and the beauty of human bonds. And they remind us – as we so often need to be reminded – that as unique as we like to fantasize we are, none of us is really so different from the other.
. . .