A writer’s death, a new President, and a good book


It might seem contrived to consider John Updike’s death in relation to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. After all, Updike’s great subject was, I suppose, infidelity among among white New Englanders of the upper middle class, and that’s undeniably a bit remote from the Obama story.

(I haven’t read The Coup, Updike’s rarely mentioned 1978 novel about Africa, which has indeed been cited as worth reading with Obama’s biography in mind.)

Still, the news of Updike’s death, and all the tributes that have poured out since, have frequently called to my mind his beguiling poetry book “A Child’s Calendar,” and I’ve thought what a timely book for children it is to open in this first month of the first year of the Obama era.

Updike offers a poem for every month, tracing the cycle of seasons in a place obviously like the New England towns he knew best. The first stanza, from “January,” goes:

The days are short,
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark…”

It remains that good throughout. The whole effect is classic and universal, yet light and American too. I like the reference in “May” to a dad watching baseball on TV, and, in “August,” to the pavement wearing “Popsicle stains.” It’s no less timeless for being of an era.

What makes me think of Obama in particular is this. Although Updike’s verses were first published in 1965, the edition I read to my daughter is the 1999 Alfred A. Knopf reprint, with fresh illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, an award-winning artist who passed away in 2004.

She shows us an interracial family living through Updike’s idyllic year: black kids and white kids sitting together “snipping, snipping” construction paper hearts in February; a black boy standing eating an ice cream cone on the veranda of a quintessential Vermont country store on a May afternoon; in November, a white mom carrying in the turkey on a platter behind a black child trusted with the covered vegetable dish.

The images show race not mattering at all. No doubt this message was very consciously conjured by the illustrator, though there’s no sign it was on Updike’s mind when he wrote the poems. Yet the pictures complement his vision: he was writing from an awareness of the cycles of nature and traditions of families, both of which can, when properly tended to, bring people together and banish bitterness.

To me, this is a very fine book for children, and of course their lucky parents, at a moment when we are hopeful about this sort of thing.


A writer’s death, a new President, and a good book

  1. The images show race not mattering at all. No doubt this message was very consciously conjured by the illustrator, which sort of means that race-not-mattering really did matter after all, no?

    Race will truly not matter, perhaps, when a minority candidate can lose an election without there being race-stained repercussions and charges. Do we really think the USA in 2008 had made it that far that an Obama loss would have been so free of acrimony?

    • Is MYL is suggesting, shortly after an historical event that transcends race that race will be transcended only if we consider the present event irrelevant?

      Man, that’s nuts.

      • Sis, your mindreading has failed you tonight. I am pleased we have moved this forward. I am skeptical we have moved as far as many assert, so far it’s not going to matter anymore. When it won’t matter that some person of colour either won or lost something, because the “of colour” part never factored in, then it won’t matter. I submit we’re not there yet. It was suggested that an illustrator, in working consciously to establish that something doesn’t matter, has somehow proven that this something doesn’t matter. That makes no sense.

        Your suggestion that I lament that we have gone as far as we have is wrong, a bizarre misreading of my comment, and bordering on slander. That is, it might be slander if I wasn’t an anonymous commenter. But it’s still an unfriendly mischaracterization, and I would invite you to refrain from that disappointing conduct.

        • d bordering on slander.

          Libel, MYL..Libel Slander is verbal.

        • Point taken. My comment wasn’t so much aimed at your specific comment as at your general conservative approach to things political/economic. It obviously doesn’t come across that way.

  2. Oh , and Mr. Geddes. Nice post.

  3. Very nice indeed.

  4. After nitpicking a single line, let me also say I appreciated this post, and it makes me want to go and find the book. Sounds like a great bedtime story to read to the kids.

    • Agreed. I’ll be hitting the bookstore today. Thanks Mr. Geddes!

  5. That first stanza from “January”… is appetizing. I’m hungry for more.

    Things DO matter. Little things. For instance, if you’re from southern climes, would you even get that stanza?

    In our house there are frequent arguments about the colours of things. Should the walls be a warm or cool shade — blue or green? When it comes to the substance of the wall, there is no argument. Only the colour creates strife.

    We have even discussed a kind of segregation — you choose for your room and I’ll choose for mine — far from satisfactory, really.

    Things improved only when we came to understand our mutual preferences and the things that motivated our choices. We now find solutions we both enjoy.