During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, 1983
The Evening Wolves, 1989
Bonneville Blue, 1991
Joan Chase grew up in Alabama and attended university in Maryland. She also lived in Illinois and Iowa, where she worked at the Ragdale Foundation as assistant director, 1980-1984, and later taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1988. Chase also taught at Princeton University in 1990 and afterward moved to Vermont.
In 1983, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia brought her a series of awards: Best Midwest Fiction Award from Friends of American Writers, Best Fiction in Midwest Award from Friends of Literature, Best Fiction in Middle States Award from Society of Midland Authors, and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award from PEN American Center. In 1984 she received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in Fiction from the University of Rochester. In 1987 she was given the Whiting Writers’ Award from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. Chase’s work has also been supported by the Illinois Arts Council, the Vermont Council on the Arts, the Yaddo Corporation, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Chase’s major theme is the fractured family life. Her novels and short stories chronicle experiences in homes darkened by men, though dominated by women. She twice has given interviews, one to Connie Lauerman in the Chicago Tribune Book World, July 17, 1983, and the second with Contemporary Authors in February, 1990. They discuss her craft, issues such as her interest in poetry and art, her gender characterizations, and experiments with the plural narrative voice. Her style, as Margaret Atwood says when reviewing During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, suggests a kind of female Huck Finn story; that is, girls and women also react against family life, with interesting consequences.
Atwood describes Joan Chase’s fiction as a kind of “Norman Rockwell painting gone bad,” an appropriate image. Both During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and The Evening Wolves began as short stories, are about female bonding, and present Bildungsromane with pairs of sisters who narrate communally, an apt approach to themes of social relations, entrapment, and growth. In Chase’s writing, agency is important, but so is communion. Separation is valued, but so is connection.
Each novel demonstrates inadequate mothers and grandmothers. In During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, there is a mother, Aunt Grace, who has a ne’er-do-well husband and who is dying of cancer. Her sister, the second mother, Aunt Libby, has a good husband but speaks luridly of the battle between the sexes. Their mother, the matriarch, Lil Bradley-Krauss, is a fatalist who withdraws, abandoning her dependent daughters and their girls. They are granddaughters Jenny, Celia, Anne, and Katie, born inevitably to lose their innocence during Lil’s “reign.”
In The Evening Wolves, daughter Margy Clemmons, who is once called “queen of drudges and babysitters,” opens and closes the novel. The multiple viewpoints include chapters by her younger sister Ruthann, brother Tommy, and the stepmother/wife, Gloria. The youngster’s grandmother lives in Florida and dies; their mother is also dead, an imperfect memory. These children are battered by the whims of their intransigent father. Violence is part of the realistic world in both novels; much of it is linguistic. Escape seems impossible in During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, as when Celia leaves Ohio, attempts suicide, and finds she cannot come “home.” If any transcendence is suggested in the first novel, it is a minor motif; for instance, Aunt Grace looks like the “visible incarnation of a present spiritual being,” but she is moving toward an ugly death. In The Evening Wolves, Ruthann escapes into the arms of a fundamentalist preacher. Margy becomes self-supporting, while fending off a would-be rapist and her father, who strong-arms her into coming home. Margy may be saved on the beach by her friend Deborah, a name evocative of the biblical prophetess who helped the Israelites free themselves from the Canaanites.
One of the differences between Chase’s two novels is seen in The Evening Wolves, in a man’s dire influence within the family structure. Francis Clemmons symbolically plays the “Wolf of Siberia.” His dead wife said: “Every little girl wants to play with the wolf, wants to see if she can get the best of him.” This patriarch is all “hyperbole and umbrage.” Leavening such bleak portraits of domestic tyranny are Chase’s wit, humor, and wisdom. For example, Francis often makes his children “titter,” as when he comments upon the danger of ringer clothes washers, imagining “arms and legs going in, whole loins flattened to pancakes.” There are also perspectives of profound philosophic observation, as when twelve-year-old Margy comments, “There’s no denying we travel under a curse and in this wilderness of the soul we’re bound to wander and labor until we are purged, humbled, and terrified.”
Some characters are literal monsters, for instance the drunks and abusers in During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. In The Evening Wolves, Margy is propositioned by Mr. McMasters, the shop teacher, who has “small dark eyes swarmed like a mass of fruit flies.” There are unconscious monsters, too, as in Gloria’s chapters, an indirect portrait catching the venality of iron magnolias.
Chase’s short stories published in 1990 as Bonneville Blue continue her stylistics and themes about venial sins amid family life. Her lyrical presentation of adolescent narrators creates a palimpsest. The stories’ troubled sisters exist on at least two levels, as tabla rasa observers and as variously labeled amazons, dryads, or witches who live in “an old tale or myth.” Chase’s narrators may complain of being “diminished, stripped of pride and reputation,” but they also are being equipped to grow up.