Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part II: Plot summary)

On its face, Demian might seem like a very simple, lightweight novel, with only eight chapters, less than 150 pages, a very small cast, a rather episodic structure, and a plot that’s mostly about the journey through life and Emil Sinclair’s moral and spiritual development. But despite all of those things, the story truly shines as so much deeper and more profound.

Emil Sinclair’s story begins about 1906, when he’s ten years old. All his life, he’s felt safe, comforted, well-ordered, and secure in his family’s shiny, happy, peaceful, calm, pious, wealthy home. However, this home also contains an entirely different second world, that of the servants, who talk of things like prison, ghosts, alcoholism, murder, robbery, suicide, wife-beating, evil spells, injured horses, arson, and cops. From a young age, he’s been inextricably drawn to this forbidden underworld and has felt his family’s world to be boring and depressing in comparison.

Sinclair’s life begins changing forever when Franz Kromer, a 13-year-old public school student and son of an alcoholic tailor, joins him and two of his friends as they’re exploring the town. To try to impress the others when they’re swapping stories about heroics and pranks, Sinclair makes up a windy about robbing gourmet apples from an orchard.

Kromer makes him swear by God that it really happened, and when Sinclair reaches home, the nightmare begins. It so turns out that this orchard really was robbed, and the owner has offered a reward of two marks to anyone who can name the thief. Since Kromer doesn’t come from money like Sinclair, he’s eager to claim this reward.

Sinclair only has 65 cents, which means he’s entirely in Kromer’s servitude until he can produce the full sum of two marks, always summoned by a sickening whistle. During this period, Sinclair does a lot of stealing, lying, and performing humiliating tasks demanded by Kromer, like hopping on one leg for ten minutes and sticking notes on people’s jackets. His health suffers horribly, and his parents know something very wrong is going on, but he can’t tell them the truth.

While these torments are going on, a new boy comes to school, a few years older than Sinclair, who recently lost his father. Like Sinclair, his family is also well-to-do. Max Demian seems so much older than his years, since he carries himself with such maturity. None of the other boys like him, since he keeps to himself, refuses to fight, and acts more like a man than a schoolboy. The only thing they like about him is “the firm and confident tone he took with the teacher.” He and his mother also never attend church, and rumors about his true religion swirl.

One day when they’re walking home together, Demian tells Sinclair a fascinating alternative interpretation of the Cain and Abel story. Cain wasn’t the villain, he was the forward-thinking hero who was already marked and feared because he was so different from other people.

The situation with Kromer intensifies, and Sinclair begins having horrific recurring nightmares, the worst of which involves him murdering his father. Kromer also demands he bring his older sister, which Sinclair refuses to do. But then, after a personal conversation about the matter with Demian, Kromer mysteriously vanishes, and when he encounters Sinclair a few times afterwards, he flees in terror. Sinclair never finds out just how Demian did this.

A few years later, Demian shows up in Sinclair’s confirmation class, since he wasn’t confirmed at the usual age. In a world without separation of church and state, his mother presumably felt being unconfirmed might cause problems for his future.

In this class, Demian’s seat changes several times, until he ends up next to Sinclair. He also introduces Sinclair to psychic games, like compelling the pastor to not call on them or make other boys do a certain gesture. Even more profoundly, thanks to the earlier Midrash about the Mark of Cain, Demian has caused Sinclair to begin interpreting Biblical stories in a more creative, less literal fashion. In confirmation class, Demian shares a new Midrash, about the unrepentant thief at the Crucifixion having the courage of his convictions, while the story of the weepy, repentant thief is “nothing but a sanctimonious fairytale, treacly and dishonest, insipid and sentimental and obviously didactic.”

During one class, Demian goes into a statue-like trance which Sinclair tries and fails to replicate at home.

The next year, Sinclair starts a boarding school in another city, where he feels like a total outsider and unwanted loser until he begins going to bars and getting drunk regularly. His grades plummet as a result, and his parents are quite displeased. But then he encounters a beautiful, intelligent-looking woman whom he names Beatrice, in homage to Dante, and everything immediately turns around. His grades improve and he regains the respect of his teachers and parents, though his old friends reject him with mockery.

Sinclair begins painting, in the hopes of capturing Beatrice’s face, but all his efforts fail. Finally, he creates an image which eerily calls to him, a face both male and female, ageless, dreamy, strong-willed. He hides it in his drawer so no one sees it and makes fun of him, but when he’s alone, he pins it up over his bed so he can constantly gaze upon it.

It dawns on Sinclair that this is Demian’s face, though the features aren’t quite identical. Later, rain smudges the painting, and when it dries between heavy blotting paper, the mouth becomes exactly like Demian’s.

Sinclair’s next artistic mission is to paint the sparrow hawk on top of the coat of arms over his family’s front door, which Demian was very drawn to. He sends the painting to Demian, and in response finds a cryptic note in the pages of a textbook:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That god’s name is Abraxas.”

In that very lecture, the teacher discusses Abraxas, “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.”

The winter before graduation, Sinclair is entranced by beautiful organ music from a small church, music that sounds like a prayer and with a great deal of personal expressiveness. He eventually tracks down the organist at a bar, and it turns out this fellow also knows about Abraxas.

Sinclair and Pistorius become fast friends, and spend much time together at Pistorius’s house, mostly lying on their stomachs and staring into the fireplace as the embers, smoke, and flames form pictures, shapes, and letters. However, Sinclair later feels himself growing apart from Pistorius. While Sinclair wants to find his own unique path to wisdom and enlightenment, Pistorius looks entirely to the past and other people’s ideas.

During Sinclair’s first semester at university, he finally encounters Demian again, after not seeing him since a brief meeting during Sinclair’s drunk phase. Demian and his mother Eva, whom Sinclair discovers in shock is the true face he painted and the woman in the recurring sexual dreams he’s had for years, have gathered a group of people who bear the Mark of Cain like they do. For the first time in his life, Sinclair feels like he belongs somewhere and is encouraged to find his own unique destiny and truth.

And then World War One breaks out, and nothing or no one will ever be the same again.

Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part I: My personal relationship with the novel)

Published in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair (the name of the narrator), Demian was Hermann Hesse’s long-awaited breakthrough novel. He felt compelled to publish it under a pen name because he was at such a moment of personal crisis, and also wanted a fresh slate after his five previous books hadn’t done as well as he wanted.

I cannot say enough about how very much this special book changed and influenced my entire life. It drew my attention in the summer of 1994, perhaps because of the cover. Many of my father’s old books were kept in my closet, and since my parents never believed in screening my books and forbidding me from reading certain things (except an adult book about the Shoah my mother found me reading at age eight), I had free rein to dive in immediately.

Though I always read about four grade levels up and have never been a slow or reluctant reader, I nevertheless didn’t finish reading it until February 1995. All these years later, I couldn’t begin to tell you what my reading schedule was or why I took about seven months to read a book with only eight chapters and less than 150 pages. Perhaps I just wanted to savour this special grownup book, the very first adult book I read on my own instead of for a school assignment, and the indescribably otherworldly mood it wrapped me in.

Many nights I read Demian in bed after my lights were supposed to be out, which increased the feeling of being right there with Emil Sinclair as he has all these esoteric, spiritual, supernatural experiences. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it like astral projection, but I did truly feel myself transported into the pages of this novel in a very eerie, indescribable, suprarational way.

Almost as if to make up for my longago slow reading, I reread the book in a single day when I was twenty-four.

Demian is one of those books where every time is like the first time all over again, and a book that speaks to you in new and different ways on the journey through life. Different details pop out; symbolism and literary references resonate more clearly; bits you overlooked now shine very prominently; personal experiences you’ve had since the last time make you relate even more strongly to those aspects of Sinclair’s life.

At fourteen and fifteen, Demian opened my mind to another dimension, with things like Abraxas (a half-good, half-evil deity) and the Midrash about the Mark of Cain being the mark of a nonconformist unafraid to go against the crowd. At twenty-four, the Mark of Cain theme shone even more prominently and personally. At forty-two, I understood how closely it parallels Hesse’s own life and immediately connected to prominent symbolism and cultural references, such as how Sinclair names his ideal of unrequited love Beatrice.

At forty-two, I also appreciated the details of the Mark of Cain Midrash and the concept of Abraxas in greater depth. Abraxas isn’t just a god who’s half-good, half-evil; he’s “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.” This very much reminds me of the Jewish teaching that without the yetzer hara (evil inclination), no one would ever marry, have children, build a house, or go into business. It’s just a matter of channelling it in the right direction and having the proper motivation.

Likewise, the Mark of Cain was already there before he killed Abel, and may not even have been a physical mark. People were afraid of him either because he looked different or carried himself differently, a proud black sheep in a world of white sheep, one in a million instead of one of a million. Cain challenged their uncomplicated, conformist beliefs, and they started a story that he and his descendants were dangerous, sinister, immoral.

Also at forty-two, the constant references to Sinclair’s awakening sexual feelings, his recurring sexual dream involving a woman whom he eventually meets and discovers is Demian’s mother, and his frustration at having no outlet for these perfectly natural feelings were impossible to miss or brush aside as a minor plot point. Believe it or not, when I reread the book at twenty-four, I was still 100% virgin myself and believed I would be so until I found a husband. That only changed when I was twenty-eight. I wasn’t asexual; I just had no opportunities to experience sexual desire, and thus didn’t think I was missing anything.

And so many other interpretations, references, symbols, and details that didn’t pop out earlier, like how Demian isn’t just Sinclair’s dear friend, but his guiding daemon, and the very realistic depiction of childhood bullying and what draws certain types of children to be bullies.

I need to stop putting so many years between my rereading of this wonderful book! For over 100 years, it’s spoken so very deeply to so many people around the world.

A Sad Anniversary

Because 17 and 18 July are the 104th anniversary of the murder of Russia’s last Imperial Family, I’m sharing Chapter 15, “A Sad Anniversary,” of my alternative history And Aleksey Lived. It closes Part I, “The Boy Tsar.”

A gallery of pictures follows the chapter.

In the middle of the night on 17 July, Aleksey awoke with a sharp, bitter feeling crushing his entire being. When he turned on the bedside lamp and looked at the little clock Mikhail had gotten him for his name-day in October, he saw it was a bit after one in the morning, about the same time he’d been awoken exactly a year ago today. A year ago, he’d still had parents, a complete family, somewhat more of a sense of innocence. The shattered innocence of captivity was preferable to the completely destroyed innocence which had descended in the cellar. Now he had no choice but to forever live with the images of his parents being murdered in front of him, and being shot at himself.

He threw off the covers and stood up, almost forgetting there were calipers encasing his legs. After taking a few minutes to adjust to the darkness, so he wouldn’t trip or bang into anything, he carefully walked around the room and turned on every light. He also lit a few candles, though they were only supposed to be used for emergencies or religious purposes. Even after the entire room had become flooded with light, the nightmarish images wouldn’t be chased away as easily as the light had chased away the darkness. He still saw his father picking him up and carrying him out of their bedroom, out of the house, through the courtyard, down the stairs, and into the cellar, with his mother and sisters following behind, along with their servants. Even his sisters’ two dogs had come into the cellar. Only Joy had been spared that cataclysm, though had Aleksey been able to walk, he would’ve brought his dog there too.

Aleksey clomped over to the easel and uncapped a container of black paint, not caring which particular type of paint it were. Paint was paint, even if his new art tutor was trying to teach him the differences between each medium. He then found the largest brush in the tin can stuffed full of brushes, plunged it into the paint, and frantically moved it around the canvas. After filling about half the canvas with black swirls and streaks, he opened a canister of dark grey paint, found a new brush, and added that slightly different color to the painting. A little bit of space was still left, so he found the darkest red possible and maniacally jabbed the brush into the white spaces. As he shoved the dripping brush all along the bottom of the canvas, his throat tightened and he began hyperventilating.

Hoping to open the windows for fresh air, he went to stand up, but was paralyzed in place. He could feel his legs, but couldn’t compel them to move. His hands shook as he rolled up his pajama pant legs and fumbled for the buckles on the right caliper. This wasn’t successful either, as his fingers were shaking too badly to perform any fine motor operation.

“What’s happening in here?” Mikhail asked. “Why are there so many lights on in the middle of the night? I heard odd noises and went to investigate, thinking there might be a rodent.”

Aleksey opened his mouth to respond, but his throat was too dry to speak, and his tongue was just as paralyzed as his legs. He struggled to raise his arm and point at the calendar.

Mikhail’s eyes softened. “It’s been a year since you lost your parents, hasn’t it?”

Aleksey could only nod.

“What are you painting? That’s a lot darker and more abstract than anything I’ve ever seen you draw.” Mikhail looked down and saw his nephew’s rolled-up pant legs. “Were you trying to remove your calipers? You’ve made too much progress to suddenly reverse it all now.”

“It’s the cellar.” He barely managed to utter these words. “If I put it on paper, it might leave my mind forever.”

Mikhail strode over to his nephew, knelt by him, and enfolded him in his arms. “Those memories will live as long as you do. You can’t compel them out of your brain by painting them, drawing them, sculpting them, or writing about them. If I could, I’d put all your bad memories in a sealed iron box and throw it into the bottom of the ocean, but memory doesn’t work like that. We have to live with all our memories, both good and bad, our entire lives. We can’t just remember the happy times. Ugly memories are part of who we are, and shape us into the people we become.”

“But I have more bad memories than most people. Not just the cellar, but all those times when I almost died before that. Why couldn’t I die with my parents in the cellar, or any number of times before that? I was never destined for a long life. God should’ve taken me long before then, so I wouldn’t have to become a prisoner and be shot at so many times.”

“We can’t understand God’s reasoning for keeping you alive so long, in spite of your disease. Maybe it means God really wants you to become Tsar, and has destined you for great things beyond your imagining.” Mikhail released his nephew and stood up. “If you want, I’ll spend the rest of the night here, so you’ll feel better if you have another nightmare. There’s a special memorial service for your parents in the morning.”

“In the Palace Chapel?”

“It’s in Saint Catherine’s Cathedral, since we’re expecting a very large crowd. You can walk there and back without crutches, can’t you? Thank God you’re no longer a shadow of yourself as you were when all this madness happened. Maybe taking a longer walk than usual will help to restore more of your strength.”

“I guess I can walk that far, though I prefer to pray in the Palace Chapel and Fyodorovskiy Cathedral, if I have to leave palace grounds.”

“I wouldn’t make you walk that distance if I didn’t think you could do it. We never really understand what we’re capable of till we’re right there in the moment. The bounds of a human being are something we can never comprehend, no matter how much we’re astounded by them.”

Aleksey clomped back to bed as Mikhail went around turning off all the lights and extinguishing the candles. Before Mikhail put off all the lights, he turned the easel around, just in case that image might frighten his nephew even more upon awaking.

“You’re my favorite uncle, Dyadya Misha,” Aleksey said after Mikhail shut the door and got into bed. “I bet my other uncles would think I were a baby if I asked them to spend the rest of the night with me. I’m almost fifteen.”

“You can’t know for sure unless you ask them, but I can’t imagine anyone, family or not, volunteering for that duty.” Mikhail patted his nephew’s shoulder. “Now try to go back to sleep, and conserve all your strength and emotion for the memorial service.”

2

Mercifully, Mikhail decided to go to St. Catherine’s Cathedral in one of his luxurious automobiles instead of walking all the way there. No one wanted to walk when they could drive, particularly considering this church wasn’t as close as Fyodorovskiy Cathedral, so Mikhail took out his dark green Chalmers and two Peugeots. Aleksey’s sisters and their husbands would take the Peugeots, and everyone else would ride in the exquisite Chalmers.

“Your uncle’s always falling asleep at the wheel,” Natalya said as she climbed into the car. “If I don’t poke him in the ribs when he nods off, he’d land in a ditch or roll over in the middle of the road.”

“I won’t nod off when my own nephew is a passenger,” Mikhail said. “How could I risk the life of our only hope for the future? That would be so hypocritical, after I’ve been so strict about the management of his health.”

“You nod off no matter who’s in the car or where you’re going. Actions speak louder than words.” Natalya reached for her almost-three-month-old baby Vera as she was handed over by an English governess.

During the brief drive to the church, Aleksey sat between his cousins and looked at the passing scenery. He’d always loved riding in cars, and driving his toy Mercedes Benz and his father’s cars. It was horrid to be forbidden from driving again, but at least Mikhail hadn’t barred him from being a passenger. So long as he was in a car, he could try to live vicariously through the driver and pretend he were the one driving. When he was older, he might have a nice collection of cars like Mikhail, from faraway places like Italy, France, England, and America. Perhaps when a few more years had passed, he could acquire German cars. The taboo against anything and anyone German would have to eventually dissipate.

Mikhail brought the car to a stop near the church, and let Natalya out before opening the passenger doors. The usual crowd milled around, waiting for a glimpse of their ruling family. Aleksey took his uncle’s other arm and stayed close to his side as they walked through the crowd into the church, though people still reached out to touch them and pronounced blessings.

“Behave yourselves,” Mikhail barked inside the church. “My nephew and I aren’t circus animals to be gawked at. We’re normal people, not just the Regent and Tsar.”

While the crowd was distracted with looking at Aleksey’s three obviously expecting sisters, Mikhail found his nephew a chair close to the ikonostasis. By the time everyone moved into the church, Mikhail, Natalya, and Vladimir blocked the view of the seated boy Tsar, and no one was any the wiser.

The priest began chanting the prayers for the dead and swinging a censer. As always, Aleksey couldn’t bring himself to follow along or respond. As much as he still believed in God, the God he’d believed in had died in the cellar along with his parents. It was impossible to go back to that innocent, overly pious faith. He knew too much, and couldn’t pretend everything was the same. Even his nun aunt Ella hadn’t resumed exactly the type of faith she’d had before her captivity.

“Don’t clutch the sides of the chair too tightly,” Mikhail whispered. “You don’t want to bruise your hands or fingers.”

Aleksey called to mind images of his parents in happier days, on Shtandart, at Livadiya, watching films and slideshows on Saturday evenings at home, as they appeared in the picture inside his Fabergé egg. Then the ugly, hateful images returned, of his parents’ shocked expressions right after the evil ringleader had pronounced the death sentence on his father, how they’d looked as enemy bullets entered their bodies and killed them instantly, their lifeless, bloody bodies lying on the cellar floor as a thick haze of gunsmoke drifted through the room and his sisters screamed. No one came to comfort him during the mêlée, as his sisters had comforted one another. He’d been all alone in that armchair, his father’s lifeless body slumped in front of him, his mother’s lifeless body off to the side, no one to hold him during his threatened final moments. Only a last-minute reprieve from the Angel of Death had saved him from the grave.

Aleksey stood up from the chair and put his arms around his uncle, as the final words of the prayer for the dead filled the air. He shut his eyes to try to stave off the thick grey clouds threatening to rupture, but to no avail. They still trickled from behind his eyelids, so copiously his uncle’s shirt had to be getting drenched.

“Why couldn’t the last year have been a nightmare? I wasn’t supposed to lose my parents like that, and I don’t want to be the Tsar when I’m so young.”

“You’ll be okay, no matter what’s going on in your mind and heart now,” Mikhail reassured him. “I’ll always have your back and give you all the love, protection, and normalcy your parents can no longer provide. You’ve got me and your sisters to grieve with, and we’ll never abandon you.”

“My sisters abandoned me in the cellar. None of them came to hold my hand, hug me, or anything. They knew I was too sick to move, and they only cared about themselves.”

“Don’t be upset at them for that. Who could think straight in such a terrible situation? You probably weren’t thinking straight either.”

“I was too scared to do anything. At least I never screamed or cried. I wish I hadn’t let myself get so emotional now. You must think I’m really babyish.”

Mikhail patted his nephew’s auburn hair. “I’ve told you, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. This is a sad anniversary, and even if it were just another day, men are allowed to cry.”

“You really think of me as a man?”

“No matter how young you are, I don’t think anyone can deny you’ve become a man in your heart. The people might consider you their boy Tsar, but as far as I and everyone in our family are concerned, you’re more of a real man than other people your age. Your heart has a special maturity and sensitivity that don’t come to just anyone, and those precious characteristics will help make you into a great Tsar, just as they made you into such a special young man.”

*************************************

Murdered on 17 July 1918:

Tsar Nicholas II (Nikolay Aleksandrovich), born 6/18 May 1868

Empress Aleksandra Fyodorovna, née Princess Viktoria Alix Helena Luise Beatrice of Hesse and by Rhine, born 6 June 1872

Grand Duchess Olga Nikolayevna, born 3/15 November 1895

Grand Duchess Tatyana Nikolayevna, born 29 May/11 June 1897

Grand Duchess Mariya Nikolayevna, born 14/27 June 1899

Grand Duchess Anastasiya Nikolayevna, born 5/18 June 1901

Tsesarevich Aleksey Nikolayevich, born 30 July/12 August 1904

Dr. Yevgeniy Sergeyevich Botkin, born 27 May/8 June 1865

Anna Stepanovna Demidova (lady-in-waiting), born 14/26 January 1878

Ivan Mikhaylovich Kharitonov (cook), born 2/14 June 1870

Aloiziy Yegorovich Trupp (footman), born 5 April 1856

Murdered on 18 July 1918 (though most took several days to die):

Grand Duke Sergey Mikhaylovich, born 25 September/7 October 1869

Sister (formerly Grand Duchess) Yelizaveta Fyodorovna, née Princess Elisabeth Alexandra Luise Alice of Hesse and by Rhine, born 1 November 1864

Sister Varvara Alekseyevna Yakovleva, born circa 1850

Prince (né Grand Duke) Ioann Konstantinovich, born 23 June/5 July 1886

Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich the younger, born 20 December 1890/1 January 1891

Prince Igor Konstantinovich, born 29 May/10 June 1894

Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley (really a Romanov), born 28 December 1896/9 January 1897

 

Second from left above and second from right below is Grand Duke Sergey’s secretary Fyodor Semyonovich Remez, birthdate unknown

WeWriWa—Painting away the pain

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

Because today, 17 July, is the 104th anniversary of the execution of Russia’s last Imperial Family, I’m taking a brief detour and sharing something from my alternative history And Aleksey Lived. The book was released four years ago today, on the 100th anniversary.

Chapter 15, “A Sad Anniversary,” concludes Part I. In the middle of the night, 14-year-old Aleksey wakes up and sees from his alarm clock that it’s exactly the time he was awoken by his would-be murderers one year ago. He tries to calm his fears and drive away the nightmarish images by turning on all the lights in his room and lighting a few candles, but he’s still tortured by these feelings and memories.

Aleksey clomped over to the easel and uncapped a container of black paint, not caring which particular type of paint it were. Paint was paint, even if his new art tutor was trying to teach him the differences between each medium. He then found the largest brush in the tin can stuffed full of brushes, plunged it into the paint, and frantically moved it around the canvas. After filling about half the canvas with black swirls and streaks, he opened a canister of dark grey paint, found a new brush, and added that slightly different color to the painting. A little bit of space was still left, so he found the darkest red possible and maniacally jabbed the brush into the white spaces. As he shoved the dripping brush all along the bottom of the canvas, his throat tightened and he began hyperventilating.

Hoping to open the windows for fresh air, he went to stand up, but was paralyzed in place. He could feel his legs, but couldn’t compel them to move. His hands shook as he rolled up his pajama pant legs and fumbled for the buckles on the right caliper. This wasn’t successful either, as his fingers were shaking too badly to perform any fine motor operation.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“What’s happening in here?” Mikhail asked. “Why are there so many lights on in the middle of the night? I heard odd noises and went to investigate, thinking there might be a rodent.”

Aleksey opened his mouth to respond, but his throat was too dry to speak, and his tongue was just as paralyzed as his legs. He struggled to raise his arm and point at the calendar.

Mikhail’s eyes softened. “It’s been a year since you lost your parents, hasn’t it?”

Aleksey could only nod.

“What are you painting? That’s a lot darker and more abstract than anything I’ve ever seen you draw.” Mikhail looked down and saw his nephew’s rolled-up pant legs. “Were you trying to remove your calipers? You’ve made too much progress to suddenly reverse it all now.”

“It’s the cellar.” He barely managed to utter these words. “If I put it on paper, it might leave my mind forever.”

Mikhail strode over to his nephew, knelt by him, and enfolded him in his arms. “Those memories will live as long as you do. You can’t compel them out of your brain by painting them, drawing them, sculpting them, or writing about them. If I could, I’d put all your bad memories in a sealed iron box and throw it into the bottom of the ocean, but memory doesn’t work like that. We have to live with all our memories, both good and bad, our entire lives. We can’t just remember the happy times. Ugly memories are part of who we are, and shape us into the people we become.”

The perfect conclusion to a classic Bildungsroman series

Betsy has just returned home from her interrupted Grand Tour, which her dad sent her on to get inspiration for her writing. (If only everyone had that kind of class privilege!) Before she left London (due to the outbreak of WWI), she and her ex Joe arranged to meet in New York Harbor on 7 September and make another go of their relationship.

Betsy and Joe were practically engaged as university students, but broke up when she sort-of cheated on him. During Betsy’s entire Grand Tour, she frequently found herself thinking about Joe, and when they meet again, they immediately decide to marry.

Since most of their relationship happened between books, though, and Joe was always more of a secondary character, the lightning speed of their reconciliation and their intense feelings don’t feel entirely believable. I wish Mrs. Lovelace had written a few books about the years between Betsy and Joe and Betsy and the Great World. The infodumpy backstory in Chapter 2 of Great World and Betsy’s appearances in spinoff books don’t have the same impact.

Betsy and the Great World/Betsy's Wedding: Lovelace, Maud Hart: 9780061795138: Books: Amazon.com

Betsy and Joe have a grand time in NYC, though Betsy keeps pressing Joe for a formal proposal. She sensibly doesn’t want Joe to waste money on an engagement ring, but he buys her a wedding ring at Tiffany’s. Soon after their reunion, Betsy journeys home to Minnesota.

Since the Rays are joined at the hip, Betsy’s parents are convinced she’ll stay at home for many years. When she breaks the news about her engagement, they’re stunned. Particularly because she and Joe want to be married in a week, and Joe lives in Boston.

But Betsy reassures them she’ll still be nearby, since Joe quit his job in Boston. Without having a new job in Minneapolis lined up! And he didn’t even ask Mr. Ray for permission. (An unthinkable horror!)

Betsy's Wedding (Betsy-Tacy): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780064405447: Books: Amazon.com

Since there are no truly black clouds in Betsy’s idyllic life, her parents’ objections are quickly overcome, and Joe finds a newspaper job after going to several offices (racking up a huge cab fare in the process). Tacy and her husband Harry (whom I will never see as anything but a creepy groomer) loan them a cottage by the lake for their honeymoon, and there’s a lovely wedding at the Rays’ house.

After an idyllic honeymoon, Betsy’s little sister Margaret finds them a great apartment. The landlady is the mother of her BFF Louisa, whom Margaret calls Boogie. Louisa in turn calls her Bogie, and Mrs. Ray and Betsy can’t believe these high school girls aren’t boy-crazy yet.

Betsy is determined to be the perfect housewife, though she’s never been domestically inclined. She puts her mind to learning how to cook, clean, bake, budget, and iron, having many funny failures along the way. Betsy even refuses a job offer from Joe’s boss, saying her only job is being Joe’s little wifey. (A complete departure from her well-established character!)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the character Anna Quindlen thinks is such an incredible, unsung feminist! A few books earlier, Betsy and Tib lamented how Tacy would be an old maid because she wasn’t interested in dating at the ripe old age of seventeen.

Betsy and Tacy’s schemes to marry off Tib backfire, and Betsy eventually realizes how wrong it was to try to choose a husband for another woman. You can’t force a relationship on anyone, and it’s better to marry for love. I was very happy when Tib found her perfect match all by herself.

A monkey wrench is thrown into Betsy and Joe’s lives when Joe’s aunt Ruth comes to live with them. They’re forced to buy a house and give up their lovely apartment. More challenges come when Joe starts working the night shift

But through all these ups and downs, Betsy emerges as a mature adult in her own right, and still finds time for her old friends. These things become very useful when the U.S. joins WWI and Joe enlists in the Army.

Betsy's Wedding - Lovelace, Maud Hart/ Neville, Vera (ILT) - 9780606141635 | HPB

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