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Tom Chaney. R760 review: Plain Truth

Of Writers and Their Books No. R760: First appeared 29 April 2007 in the Hart County Herald five years ago, with an introductory comment on the book, The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon, a writer from Todd County, KY. (Wikipedia entry: Caroline Ferguson Gordon (October 6, 1895 - April 11, 1981)
The next earlier Tom Chaney column :Tom Chaney. R759 review: Earth Day column redux

By Tom Chaney

"Plain Truth" Neither Plain nor Simple

Henry James once wrote "the air of reality . . . seems to me the supreme virtue of a novel -- the merit on which its other merits . . . depend." Robert Penn Warren cites this judgment of James in his introduction to to The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon.

As readers we accept a responsibility -- articulated by 19th Century poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge as the "willing suspension of disbelief." As readers we ask the writer to create a believable world, however far from our own. In return, the writer expects us to accept the terms of his created world for the duration of the poem or novel.

I have just finished reading Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult [Washington Square Press, 2000] upon the recommendation of members of the local book discussion group who gather at The Bookstore every third Wednesday evening. Picoult creates such a believable world in Plain Truth.

Plain Truth is the first taste I have taken of the work of Ms Picoult, who has produced more than a baker's dozen novels. It will by no means be the last.

Although the story involves a trial of a young, Lancaster County Amish woman, Katie Fisher (18), accused of the murder of her newborn son, Plain Truth is far more than a murder mystery. It is a story about two cultures existing together with common ignorance -- each of the other's motives, faith, and rules.

The child is conceived both out of wedlock and in defiance of the strictures of the "plain" people against contact with outsiders -- the "English."

Ellie Hathaway, a successful Philadelphia defense attorney, is brought into Katie's case by an acquaintance, Leda, Katie's aunt, who has been shunned by the Fishers for marrying outside of the community.

Katie's father, Joshua, is the epitome of the rigid man, plain or English, who sets for himself standards of strictness far beyond that demanded by either bishop or English authority. He has shunned his son Jacob for pursuing education beyond the Amish standard.

Joshua's wife, Sarah, has suffered a series of miscarriages leaving her unable to have more children beyond Jacob, Katie, and the youngest, Hannah, who drowned while skating on the thin ice of the family farm while in the care of Katie and Jacob.

For six years Katie has been visiting Jacob on a monthly basis at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. These visits, arranged by Sarah behind the back of Joshua, are ostensibly to her aunt. They are made during the time in an adolescent's life before baptism when young are allowed more freedom prior to the taking of the religious vows which will bind one to the rules of the plain life.

Katie has become pregnant. She denies the conception, the pregnancy, and the birth of the child even after her arrest for infanticide.

Ellie, as a favor to Leda, agrees to represent Katie on the murder charge. To keep Katie from jail, Ellie agrees to be responsible to the court for her appearance and to be her constant guardian until trial.

This necessitates her living with the Fishers for the months between arrest and trial.

Thus begins the tenuous but growing relationship between Ellie and Katie.

The novel proceeds much as one might peel an onion -- layer by layer of understanding, misunderstanding, trust, and suspicion. Ellie of the English world, where success depends on standing out from and above the crowd, here learns from Katie the plain view of life which suppresses the individual within the chosen community.

During the process, the tables are turned in the relationship between Ellie and Katie as the accused woman becomes the one to accompany the attorney into an understanding of her own need for love and family.

As an English, I cannot verify the accuracy of the plain world. Picoult says that her friends who are former plain folks acknowledge that "I got it right." The important thing is that Picoult's creation of a different world, unfamiliar to most readers, meets the high standards of James, Warren, and Coleridge. She communicates the "air of reality" -- a physical world within which characters speak and act.

Plain Truth is both a fine courtroom story and a complex psychological novel which plumbs the nature of truth -- both unknowable and anything but plain.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-04-29 03:52:24
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