Mary Arno’s Thanksgiving is set against the backdrop of the city of New Orleans and it is, at one level, a love letter to the city of her birth.
It is also a great deal more.
“God, for the gladness here where the sun is shining at evening on/the weeds at the river,/Our prayers of thanks.
/For the break of the game and the first play/and the last,/Our prayer of thanks.”
And so we suspect, as we read this epigraph, the kind of writer we are about to encounter.
Mary Arno chose, from all the poems she had read, this fragment from Carl Sandburg’s “Prayers of Thanks.” Mary Arno chose this poem that prepares us for her awareness of both the sunshine and the weeds, of the first play of the game, and the last.
Mary Arno chose a few lines of a short poem that reveal a novelist whose vision is whole.
And so, Thanksgiving begins, in that best of all possible places–in the middle:
“Arkansas was the last street for as far as you could see in the newest, barest western end of Kenner, Louisiana.”
Before we know it’s happening, we have met our first narrator, Peg, and already hear her clear voice–straightforward, unflinching, honest, funny, self-deprecating–the voice of an observant and articulate child. I liked her right away. She brought to mind the narrator in one of my favorite films, “Days of Heaven.” I think I would know Peg’s voice anywhere, even without the italics (shown in teal, against olive green).
“I could walk from our house to the Napoleon Avenue library and read at a table in the old brick building, cool and quiet on a hot day. . . . So when Mama tells me that we are going back to the city, I know God has answered my prayers.”
The Napoleon Avenue Library
What Arno does with narrative voice in this novel is complex, intriguing, sometimes puzzling, requiring either that the reader ignore the shifts, or that the reader pay very close attention indeed. I chose the latter.
“They went in to clean up in the pleasant air-conditioned coolness of the Browns’ house. The only moving air in the Hennessy house was from the giant attic fan in the hall, and that was only about half a degree cooler than outside. When it rained in the afternoon—about every day—they had to turn off the fan or it would draw puddles of water in through the windows.
Peg used toilet paper to wipe all the blood off her legs, but some of it had gotten onto her shorts.
I am still thinking about the Witch as I clear the table after dinner. Phyllis and I need to do some more sleuthing. Then Mama asks me to help with the dishes.
I went over to the sink and turned on the water. ‘I know you want to go out and play, Peg, but I thought we could talk for a bit.’
Play? Does she think I’m six years old?
‘Well.’ Mama handed Peg a plate, which she rinsed and placed on the drain board. Then two forks. Peg put them in the silverware holder. Then a saucer. Peg placed it at the opposite end of the drain board from the plate.”
I first became aware of Mary Arno’s novel because I spotted the cover on Koehler Books’ website. I am always intrigued by a puzzle, and this book cover made me stop, look closely, and then try to figure out what each piece might be. I’m still not sure I got them all.
It was a good while before I went back for another look and discovered the locale and read a synopsis of the book and some background on the author. A while later, I stumbled on Arno’s “Thanksgiving” Board on Pinterest. Oh, the wonderful photographs of New Orleans, each paired with a short passage from the book. And so, reminded of a wonderful city, discovering these small teasers of a novel well-written, I approached Mary to find out if she would submit the book for my review.
She sent me Thanksgiving.
Mary R. Arno is an award-winning author and journalist who has worked at newspapers across the southern United States, from Los Angeles to New Orleans to Orlando, with a couple of others in between. As a reporter and editor, she covered everything from murders and refinery explosions on the police beat to small-town politics to national political conventions and campaigns. At the Los Angeles Times, she was part of teams awarded Pulitzer Prizes for covering the L.A. riots in 1992 and the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
A native of New Orleans, she lives on a farm in Upstate New York with her husband and the youngest three of her four children, spending as much time as possible in the city of her birth.
Thanksgiving is based on a short story that won the gold medal in the Faulkner Wisdom competition.
Peg is not always that child whose voice we hear on the first page, and intermittently throughout the novel–readily identifiable by the italics in which it always appears.
Peg grows up, of course; Peg goes out; Peg has a life.
“I think we need some coffee,” Gabe said. They slowly crossed Decatur, Peg trying to avoid pebbles on her bare feet, to Café du Monde.”
Arno is willing to give her readers at least a hint on this tangled, and essential, matter of storyteller:
“Thanksgiving is told through the stories of four main characters, representing upper, middle and lower-class New Orleans society beginning in the 1960s. Three are women (girls at the start); one is a teenage boy and then a man.”
It is the storyteller, after all, who decides what parts of the story are important, which characters are likable, which details must be included, and where the story ends. And when there are four? The reader had better, as I’ve said, be paying very close attention. The reader of Thanksgiving had best be paying very very close attention.
“THE WOODEN THEATER SEATS in the back of the lecture hall creaked as Peg sat down. She pulled up the swing-arm half desk, and placed the Psych 201 textbook, notebook, and pen from her knapsack on it. Leaning down, she fished out a brush and ran it through her hair. Then she tucked the knapsack under the desk. It was freezing cold in the room. She was sitting right under an air-conditioning vent. She began to pack up and move when students started filing in the end of the row and blocked her.
It’s September, and for the first time since I arrived here at Lockett Hall, I look around. Every single person in this class, girls and boys, old and young, is wearing blue jeans and T-shirts or work shirts. Hanging out. Except for the girl who sits down next to me. She seems to be wearing a pajama top over a pair of cutoff blue jeans. She slumps down and closes her eyes.
And what about me? Me, the “M. Margaret Hennessy/ Kenner, Louisiana” who smiles out from the “Who’s New at LSU” book in her high school cap and gown photo?”
LSU Evangeline Hall
“They had a Tom Collins before he drove her back to Evangeline Hall. They sat in his car and talked about psychology and politics and Vietnam until the flashing porch lights signaled curfew.”
Thanksgiving is, in many ways, a classic and not surprising tale of several generations of resident families in a small town somewhere in the South or the Midwest. One thinks immediately of To Kill A Mockingbird or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Multiple narrators are not uncommon. A narrator heard both as a child and as an adult–a typical literary device, usually effective but nothing revolutionary. Why, then, am I so taken with Mary Arno’s novel? Even the ending, a bit of a surprise, is not unheard of in the canon of American literature. There are novels that are well-written (though not nearly enough of them).
Mary Arno’s Thanksgiving is a fine piece of writing that employs many of the tried-and-true devices of good literature and employs them with skill. Mary Arno’s Thanksgiving juggles narrators with a particular deftness of hand. Mary Arno’s Thanksgiving is a wonderful evocation of a specific time and place.
Mary Arno’s Thanksgiving is, above all else-and for this reviewer, the thing that defines it–a piece of writing from the heart and rich with the tradition of the best American literature.
Thanks, Mary Arno, for sharing your history, your sense of place, your writing skills, and a piece of your heart with all of us.
St. Louis Cathedral
“Musicians played for groups of tourists along the closed-off block of Chartres between Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral”
I am providing no color-coding for this passage. Can you identify the narrator? Perhaps you’ll need to order and read Arno’s Thanksgiving.