A friend from Cincinnati called one morning to say that a writer named Elizabeth Berg had written a riveting and transcending novel that was, in amazing detail, the story of her life. She asked me to read Durable Goods so that we could discuss it. I did and after praising the remarkable ability of the author to create immediacy, bringing her readers into the moment, we discussed our own childhood experiences. Our conversations were deep and intimate and we cried over how rich and beautiful life can be, even when sad and lonely. When a novel can produce this much affect, why not read more from that author? I have, in fact, devoured all of Berg's novels and I recommend them all, beginning with the most powerful and her first work of fiction, Durable Goods.
Durable Goods is about the thoughts and feelings of a twelve-year-old girl named Katie. Her mother has recently died and she and her eighteen-year-old sister Debbie are more than ever, victims of an abusive father. He is a colonel in the army and they move often and without warning. When the story begins, they are living on a base in Texas and it is the 1960's. Katie feels okay about her Texas life at the moment but she has no confidence that it will continue beyond tomorrow. She tells us how her father insists they accept each move:
"He doesn't like to hear complaining about the way we move so much. We are not allowed to cry when we drive away—or at any other time, either—about any place we leave behind. Sometimes it aches so hard, the thought of all you can't have anymore, your desk the third in the third row, the place where you buy licorice, the familiarity of the freckles on your friends' faces, the smell of your own good bedroom. You will have to be the new girl again, the one always having to learn things. But you cannot cry about it in front of him. You have to hold it in, hold it in, stare out the car windows at the cows in the fields and the endless telephone poles and the hopeful buildings in the small towns you pass through and you have to hold it in."
The durable goods that the army packs up when moving a family to a new assignment serves as a metaphor for how Katie is expected to be, strong and able to withstand harsh treatment. Katie opens her heart to us, the reader, and she tells us her secrets for survival. She also invites us into her imagination, explaining in vivid detail her fantasies of how she'd like things to be:
"For a while when I was younger, I used to pretend-run-away all the time. I would dump my doll out of her suitcase and use it to pack all my underwear in, and go far into a field that was behind the house we lived in then. There I would sit on a big rock and contemplate the distance around me in four directions. I would listen to the buzzing insects, make up ideas for new parents. Mostly they were tall and slender. She had long red hair with a wave over one eye. He had short blond hair and wore a blue blazer with a family crest. They had many kinds of drinking glasses and two servants. "Look at her!" they would say, introducing me to their astonished and jealous friends. "Lost, can you imagine! Turns out she's real intelligent, too. Why, we just took her right in! Of course it helps that we're millionaires, but we would have taken her even if we didn't have one red cent." I'd heard that phrase, "one red cent," and it appealed to me. I used it whenever I could."
Katie is funny without knowing it and her capacity to feel empathy and love is boundless. This is, in fact, how she survives. She knows that she must bow to authority -definitely to her father, also to her sister because she's older. And, yes, she needs to play second fiddle to her best friend Cherylanne as well. Cherylanne is two years older so she knows things about being a teenager that Katie wants to learn - how to dress, how to apply makeup, how to act around boys, that sort of thing. Katie plays her submissive role in these relationships with great skill and without a serious loss of integrity or self-esteem because of her ability to see humor in human foibles and her ability to go inside herself to understand and feel compassion. She is resilient, individualistic and always her natural self. When she feels unable to accomplish understanding and compassion on her own, she hides underneath her bed and consults with her mother as she imagines her to be in heaven:
"I need to talk to her. I go under the bed to call her. I close my eyes, try to bring back the vision I had last, the blue robe, the throne. She appears, but there is no throne. She is the only thing in a background of soft blackness. I think, well, now it's Missouri, and she nods her head. I think, this will be a new place, where you've never been. She nods again, kindness. Out loud, I say, "That's what bothers me, that you will never have been there." And out loud, I hear her voice answer, "But I will still be with you." I gasp, open my eyes, and see her still. She is floating above me. "
Berg writes about ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary places. From this, she creates phenomenal stories by focusing on the heart and the soul of her characters.
Durable Goods is said to contain elements of Berg's own personal story more than her other novels. I sense this and choose it as my favorite. It brings me closer to my friend in Cincinnati, whose childhood was amazingly the same as Katie's, and I feel very close to the author—to Elizabeth—now that I know her through her work.
Elizabeth Berg was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up on army bases around the U.S. She has written eight highly acclaimed novels: Durable Goods, which Richard Bausch called "a gem," and the bestsellers Talk Before Sleep (an ABBY honor book), What We Keep, Range of Motion, The Pull of the Moon, Joy School, Until the Real Thing Comes Along and her latest is Open House. In 1997 Berg won the New England Booksellers Association Award for fiction. She lives in Massachusetts. Her excellent book on the art of writing true, Escaping into the Open, was published in 1999.
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