Review: Life Among the Savages

Before Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr wrote about life as housewives and stay-at-home-mothers in the 1950’s, Shirley Jackson had already published her account.

You’ve probably read, or at least heard of Shirley Jackson, but you might not remember where or how. Think back to your high school English classes. Remember reading The Lottery? If that doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you are a fan of horror films. If so, you might have seen the 1963 film, The Haunting or its mediocre 1999 remake, both based on her novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

While Ms Jackson is more widely known for her Gothic horror stories, she’s likely the creator of the humorous housewife/mother sub-genre of literature.

In Life Among the Savages, Jackson tells us about raising her three children, Laurie, Jannie and Sally. It’s told with humor and not a little self-deprecation. Ms Jackson was matter-of-fact about not being the perfect stereotypical 1950’s housewife:

Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and–as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I had to make a good many compromises.

I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living–sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves; would we be pleased, I wonder, at a wholesale elimination of these things, so that we were reduced only to necessities (coffeepot, typewriters, the essential little wheels off things) and then–this happening usually int he springtime–I begin throwing things away, and it turns out that although we can live agreeably without the little wheels off things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.

Life Among the Savages begins when Ms Jackson, her husband Stanley and their two children live in New York and decide to move to Vermont, where Stanley (Hyman)has a job at a local college. It describes their house hunt in a small town in Vermont.

One nice thing was, there were lots and lots of houses available. We heard this from a lady named Mrs. Black, a motherly old body who lived in a nearby large town, but who knew, as she herself pointed out, every house and every family in the state. She took us to visit a house which she called the Bassington House, and which would have been perfect for us and our books and our children, if there had been any plumbing.

“Wouldn’t take much to put in plumbing,” Mrs. Black told us. “Put in plumbing, you got a real nice house there.”

My husband shifted nervously in the snow, “You see,” he said, “that brings up the question of…well…money.”

Mrs. Black shrugged. “How much would plumbing cost?” she demanded. “You put in maybe twelve, fifteen hundred dollars, you got a real nice home.”

“Now look, if we had fifteen hundred dollars we could give an apartment superintendent–” my husband began, but I cut in quickly, you must remember, Mrs. Black, we want to rent.”

“Rent, did you?” said Mrs. Black, as though this proved at last that we were mere fly-by-nights, lookers at houses for the pleasure of it. “Well, if I was you folks, small children and all, well, I‘d buy.”

While Jackson’s other works are more widely acclaimed and on some “the best of” lists, Life Among the Savages is a well-told and funny slice of life tale. Some critics call it forgettable. I disagree and like reading about this side of a woman whose tales of darkness have fascinated me for years.

It seems to have been written before the darkness that ended up plaguing her took over. It’s readable and funny. While Jackson’s mental illness may have contributed to her genius and spawned some of the last century’s best horror tales, she was a good writer anyway and Life Among the Savages proves it.

One thing of which to be aware, however — this book didn’t age well. While I was able to laugh at many of the vignettes without really thinking, some made me chuckle with reservation. Remember this was written in the late 1940s and 1950’s. Back then people drank more. People smoked more. Even pregnant women smoked. And probably drank too, without thinking about how it was harming their unborn children. Shirley Jackson was a very heavy smoker and she wrote about smoking cigarettes a lot. While cooking; while reading; while waiting for labor pains to begin in her fourth pregnancy. In fact this book is, in some ways, a direct opposite of some of the mommy blogs I’ve been reading lately — yet similar in some ways. Current expectant moms wouldn’t think of writing about lighting a cigarette while pregnant, but they do write self-deprecating vignettes about their day-to-day life. I suppose the women who are writing the blogs about motherhood (the ones who do it well) are the current Erma Bombecks, Jean Kerrs, even Shirley Jacksons. The times have changed–technology, medicine, child-rearing; but maybe more has stayed the same.

Hmm, that might make a good Masters Thesis.

5 thoughts on “Review: Life Among the Savages

  1. Thanks for this. My buddy, Sewa Yoleme, is a huge SJ fan, and this is one of the books he’s recommended. I wonder if I’ll ever have time to read?

    Funny to think of a place like Bennington as a “local college.”

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  2. I’m finishing up all the books I’ve started but didn’t finish in the past year or so and this was one of them. Have you read We Have Always Lived in the Castle? I’d recommend that over Life Among the Savages, but both are good.

    Actually Clare wants to visit Bennington this summer. We met someone at a college visit yesterday (Goucher College) who has a friend who was just accepted at Bennington.

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  3. How strange. I recall a wonderful bit about a visit from a supercilious real estate agent (Jackson showed her the door, then wrote, “Of course I didn’t push her down the stairs”), but I completely spaced that they ended up in Vermont. I guess when I read Jackson, Vermont wasn’t even on my radar.

    You’re right, Castle is wonderful; I even adapted it for the stage at one point. And for an intro, I’d recommend Castle over the ubiquitous Lottery any day. But for my money, The Haunting of Hill House was her masterpiece. I read it late, after Castle, Savages, Raising Demons, The Road through the Wall, and various short stories. But Hill House is unequaled for subtlety and quiet beauty amid the delicious frights.

    But we disagree on one point. The 1999 remake of Hill House wasn’t mediocre. It was one of the most wretched things ever committed to celluloid, despite my admiration for several of the actors involved. Stick with the 1963 version which, while not quite as wonderful as the book, at least told the story with the proper mood and delicacy.

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  4. Wow — a visit from Sewa Yoleme — I am honored!

    My daughter wants to write a screenplay for We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She (a junior in high school) considers it one of her favorite books — and she’s hyper-critical of books these days.

    I need to read The Haunting of Hill House, however, the film really scared me, and I’m a little worried the book will too.

    You’re right, I gave the 1999 film too much credit. Must have been Liam Neeson’s influence.

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  5. Hill House (the book, not the movie) wasn’t scary at all. At most it was creepy, in that delicious tickle-up-the-spine way. Unsettling. But quiet. Subtle. The kind of story where you don’t know if the events are natural, supernatural, or in the observers’ heads. And with really meaty, interesting characters.

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