|Elizabeth Berg: Durable Goods|
Ballantine (Paperback), ISBN 081296814X
A few weeks ago I encountered Elizabeth Berg's writing for the first time. Her short story "The Party," published in the Fall 2003 issue of Ploughshares Literary Journal at Emerson College, flitted in and out of my thoughts long after I read it. The honesty in the details and characters sent me searching for more Berg.
I decided to begin at the beginning with her first novel Durable Goods, a 192-page coming of age book narrated by 12-year-old Katie who, as most girls that age, spends much time waiting. "Waiting to grow up, waiting for Dickie Mack to fall in love with her, waiting for her breasts to blossom, waiting for the beatings to stop."
The blurb on the cover about 'beatings" almost stopped me from reading this book. I burn out easily on the endless string of stories about horrific inhuman abuse. But, this book tells of the "acceptable" abuse that parents inflict, and call it discipline. I can identify with the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child concept of child-raising, having been raised by parents who embraced such a theory.
Katie recounts her life in Texas with her authoritarian father, the Colonel; her best friend Cherylanne; Katie's older sister Diane; and her sister's boyfriend Dickie Mack. They live on a military base and as military brats do, they move frequently. While at this Texas base, their mother dies of cancer, the family reconfigures itself, and Katie takes a step toward adulthood.
Berg writes with a poignant and honest understanding of people, relationships and life in general. In this book, named Best Book of the Year by the American Library Association, she captures that "tweener" time of twelve when a girl teeters on the edge of womanhood. (Katie returns in two more novels: Joy School and True to Form.)
Often labeled as a woman's writer, the author enriches this little gem with insightful observations regarding the realistic minutiae of family life and the essence of being a woman. She successfully marries everyday scenes with deeper meanings such as when describing the military recruits during drills.
The plot stretches a little thin, even for such a short book, yet Berg's exploration of the resilience of the human spirit and honest details and descriptions carry through to the end. I wonder if the short story could be her strongest medium.
Anyone who embraced A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel will enjoy Durable Goods.
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