More “We” Homework: Tova Mirvis Explores Viral Thinking
In Tova Mirvis’ novel, THE LADIES AUXILIARY, the narrator-group is a close-knit, closed community of Orthodox women in Memphis. Near the book’s melancholy conclusion, one of the women has a moment of clarity:
She remembered a story she had once heard: a woman had gossiped about her neighbors and later regretted what she said. She went to the rabbi and asked how she might take back her words. He instructed her to take a feather pillow to the top of the highest hill and tear it open, letting the feathers fly every which way. Then, the rabbi said, she should return to him and he would tell her what to do. She did as he said and when she returned, he told her to go outside and gather the feathers. But that’s impossible, she cried. They’re already scattered all over the village. He looked at her and smiled. The same is true of your words, he said.
The novel is an examination of the power of words spoken in private to change the tenor of a whole community. The collective narrator is definitely not one with a collective opinion. The “we” is full of disagreements, which some have the courage to voice. What they have in common is their investment in the safety of the community for their children, and their concern for the carrying-on of their religious tradition, amid internal doubts and outside influences. When a young, free-spirited widow moves in, an enthusiastic convert to Judaism, her spirit is threatening to some, and invigorating to others. But when things start going wrong with the youth of the community, the feathers of gossip begin to fly. Talk spreads like a virus through the phone lines of Memphis, and the newcomer, Batsheva, is an easy target for blame.
Mirvis’ use of the “we” convention is consistent throughout, and surprisingly nondistracting. The narrator is a finite group of roughly a dozen women, not an amorphous mass. When individuals think, or when subgroups convene, or when they interact in the privacy of their own homes, the narrative is third person. The effect is that of a chorus with solo members stepping forward to provide counterpoint voices. The perspective is close and sympathetic to all the members, most of whom have family problems of their own: unhappy marriage, fighting with teenaged children, mourning loved ones. Even Mrs. Levy, the head gossip and finger-pointer, who is never addressed by first name, has a fairly sensitive treatment; her bad behavior is fueled by confusion over her own grown children leaving the community.
While we never get in Batsheva’s head, the community’s tight perimeter provides a clean device for witnessing her private moments: plain old spying. By positioning members of the narrator group in the next room of the shul, or on the other side of a backyard fence, Mirvis is able to give us glimpses of Batsheva’s conversations, even when the ladies are not participating.
As the thought virus spreads, the biggest victim is not Batsheva, who is a survivor and the only one who has truly chosen the life of obeying the Orthodox commandments. She earns reader sympathy from the moment she arrives with her cute daughter and New York spin on Jewish study and holiday traditions. Instead, the virus attacks the heart of the women’s community, its confidence in its own righteousness.
The group becomes sick the way groups do, more impasse than groupthink. The Ladies’ Auxiliary meets and makes a consensus decision, with a narrow majority, which presents a group identity and opinion that isn’t fully shared. Trust falls away, and like the pillow feathers, is impossible to get back. But as the hard fever recedes, new leaders emerge, brave members who are finally able to speak from the gut and clear the air, less worried about what others will think of them.
In a book full of Jewish imagery, another moment echoes the scattering feathers. The women gather by a stream for tashlich, the casting of sins into the water, and toss pieces of bread downstream toward the Mississippi River. They recite the prayer: “Who is like you God who pardons iniquity and overlooks our transgressions…He will be merciful and cast our sins into the ocean.” It is a light moment in the story, but foreshadows the heavier ones to come, when regrets will run deeper, and the women will have to pray for more than God’s mercy. If their community is to continue, they must learn how to be merciful themselves.