During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase was published in 1983. I had no idea. That's probably just as well because I am far more able to appreciate it now than I was then. It's a book that sneaks up on you, a silent assassin. It reminds me of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson in that way. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is simply, and complexly, an account of the farm life of a sprawling family in 1950s Ohio told from the perspective of the four granddaughters of a farmwife referred to as “The Queen of Persia.” The author draws you in slowly to what you quickly come to believe is a typical family with their quotidian pleasures and troubles.
But tiny intricately described moments thread through the story, moments that tilt the story slightly and left me wondering: Is this good? Or is something kind of not so good happening here? Like when the father plays a spelling game with his daughters and nieces——a game they play often behind the barn—he taking the role of school master and they the students. The girls seem eager to play and the father doesn't protest as they run ahead, dragging him along. According to the rules of the game, when one of them spells a word wrong the father swipes his switch along the back of her leg. The game is over when one of the girls has accumulated five bloody red welts (I think it's five). The story is told with so much languor that I found myself buoyed along with various of these moments of family life, the darkness of the detail resting small and blurry at the back of my mind.
Chase's writing is luxurious, poetic, illuminating the rich rhythmic details of this family, their quirky members with their peculiar habits and concerns. I came to love them, be amused by them. I thought I knew them. What I did not know was that Chase was piling up one barely uncomfortable detail after another, one forgiven act after another, until in the final scene it all comes due in an ending both surprising and inevitable. I didn't know the book had wormed its way so deeply into my heart until I closed the book and, to my great surprise, burst into tears. I looked back on my own feelings of generous amusement and small acts of forgiveness and times that I, along with the family, looked away or explained, and saw—more importantly felt—where it had all led. It affected me profoundly. What writing! Her discipline in allowing the minute details to pile up without the reader knowing is masterful. I don't think I've read any other book that builds with such slow and devastating beauty.
Here are a few samples of her writing:
This is a description of Grandpa. In a few short sentences with the oddest details, we know him and we know about his relationship with his wife:
“Where's Rossie?” we asked. Grandad didn't answer, the question gone as though it had fallen down a well. He finished his cornflakes, then filled the bowl with Ritz crackers and dumped his coffee over them. They bloated and dissolved. Gram said he'd been feeding pigs so long he ate like one.
Grandma's coping mechanism is to go out every night—rain or shine—to gamble, dressed to the nines. What she wears and what she looks like says more about her than about the evening ahead.
“You feel lucky?” we asked her when she was waiting by the front door, holding her lightweight coat, her neck craned up the drive, her pocket book at the ready in her lap like a shotgun.
Gram's daughter Elinor, who is wealthy and stylish and lives in New York City, has become a fervent Christian Scientist and returns to the farm to minister to her sister Grace, who has cancer, using the opportunity to bring her nieces into the spiritual fold. In her descriptions Chase sets the low note of doom.
Choosing between Aunt Elinor and Gram seemed to us as profound as a choice between good and evil, only we didn't know which was which.
Already Aunt Elinor had said that we might leave off the Aunt in addressing her: simply call her Elinor . . . Yet we never did more than try to say it once or twice, “Elinor.” We didn't want to say the bare name, to break the connection. It seemed we might be asked to give up everything.
It seemed. Criminey.
Chase can give a sense of a character not with the length of her description, the piling on of details, but with a single detail. Grandma’s abrupt response here not only gives us a picture of her, but sums up her relationship with Elinor.
Aunt Elinor was further impressed that Neil was the son of a country doctor and she thought the chances of him eventually making a successful career as a writer were good—heaven knows he had a flair for the dramatic, the gift of gab, and a lot of charisma.
“Speak English,” Gram told her.
I was describing this book to a friend of mine, marveling over the restrained power of Chase's writing, it's ultimate powerful impact. He interrupted me, saying, “That's not a book I would enjoy.” He's right. I refrained from suggesting he go back to another one of the more than 200 books James Patterson has written. That way he’ll never have to be surprised nor moved.
You can buy During the Reign of the Queen of Persia at your local bookstore. If they don’t have it in stock (likely), please ask them to order it rather than ordering it online. It’s a fabulous book, one you’ll want to read immediately, but you can wait five days. Whatever you do, if you want good books to get published, please don’t order it on Amazon. Here’s why: https://medium.com/@andyhunter777/every-book-lover-should-fear-this-graph-4f16d85bf2b1
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >