It's been a hectic few weeks in our household, and it was only today that I heard of writer Grace Paley's death last week. The New York Times printed a moving and literary obituary. If you've never read any of her writing, this is a great introduction, quoting some of the most delicious bits from her short stories and giving a great sense of Paley as an activist as well.
Paley never wrote for children (though her friend and sometime collaborator, Vera B. Williams, did and still does), but her stories have the honesty and immediacy that I associate with the best writing for kids, and there are kids all over them: dumping sand on each other in the park; riding daredevil between subway cars; carried on their fathers' shoulders, and always, always, worried over and talked about and arguing with the mothers who are the heroes of most of her writing.
It's killing me right now that I can't find in our box-stacked living room a copy of Paley's first book, The Little Disturbances of Man, which includes the first short story of hers that I ever read, "The Loudest Voice." It's the story of a little girl, Shirley Abromovitz, who gets a coveted part in the Christmas pageant at her (circa 1930's, somewhere in New York City) school. You see, she has the loudest voice: so strong and clear it can peel the paper off Campbell's soup cans, so she's a cinch for the narrator's role in the school's annual reenactment of the Nativity story.
Naturally, Shirley's mom and several of the other parents in her Jewish neighborhood are horrified at this "creeping pogrom" of a public-school activity. But theirs isn't the only opinion; Shirley herself is thrilled, and her dad is encouraging, and the conclusion is more nuanced than anything I've read before or since on the whole Jewish-kid-at-Christmas topic. The important and unquenchable thing is, indeed, Shirley's voice; at the end, after her triumph in the pageant, she hunkers down and prays for everyone: her family near and far, her teachers, and "all the lonesome Christians." She's sure her prayers will be heard: "my voice was certainly the loudest."
Paley herself has quite the voice, zippy and sneaky; she started off as a poet, and it shows. Her verbal path is loopy but at the same time direct--straight to the heart. She's a master of first lines. One story starts out: "There were two husbands disappointed by eggs. One was livid and one was pallid." The narrator refers to the two men as Livid and Pallid throughout the rest of the story. (Not surprisingly, neither of them comes off very well, either as a husband or as a dad.)
After reading and admiring her since high school, I got to see her in person, once. The Seattle Arts and Lectures series hosted an evening with Grace Paley and Anne Lamott, a possibly inspired combination that nonetheless was pretty much a disaster as far as literary events go (Anne Lamott wrote about it in Salon here, and also in one of her recent books). They tried for an unscripted discussion, which resulted in Anne Lamott, nervous and fast-wired, stepping into any pause before Grace Paley got a chance to say much. As the evening wore on and Lamott got more visibly anxious about how it was going, she only talked faster, until I thought the audience would start throwing things.
I only remember one thing Grace Paley said that evening, but it was worth the price of the ticket all by itself: one audience member asked what advice she would give to a new writer, and she said that she would give the same advice she gave her writing students: "Keep a low overhead, and don't live with anyone who doesn't respect your work." Nothing about "write what you know," or "kill your babies"--just smart common (or maybe not so common) sense on how to live and survive as a writer.
Grace Paley always struck me as one of a very few people (Jessica Mitford was another, and maybe Molly Ivins too) who managed pull off three tough feats simultaneously: she knew how to have great time in life; she stayed committed to serious political activism over several decades; and while she was at it, she wrote some kickass books. Not too shabby. But I wish she'd had just a little more time to do all those things.
Her voice will be remembered. It might not have been the loudest, but it was, and is, one of the strongest.