The Wapshot Chronicle: Families, Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them, Can’t Work Out What They Are

What is this book about? It’s about an eccentric New England family. Second question – what exactly is a family? That’s not so easy to answer. The Wapshot Chronicle sets out to show that the lines we draw between families or types of people in general, are like the lines the Babylonians or the Greeks drew between stars, creating heavenly hunters, crabs or scorpions. The fact is, those patterns are not really there. No real crabs sit in the night sky.

Here’s Cousin Mildred discussing family characteristics:

“Coverly has the nose,” Cousin Mildred said. “I’ve told him that I could have picked him out in a crowd. I mean I would have known that he was a Wapshot.”

So a family might have a recognisable nose. But what about people marrying in? They don’t have the nose, but they are still part of the family. What does Cousin Mildred have to say about that? Here she is talking about her husband:

“Harry’s mad for New England. He’s an adorable man and a wizard in the carpet business, but he doesn’t come from anyplace really. I mean he doesn’t have anything nice to remember and so he borrows other people’s memories. He’s really more of a Wapshot than you or I.”

That summed up the Wapshot Chronicle for me. People divide things too readily – families, races, borders, sexualiity. The Wapshot Chronicle leaves things as they are:

“The surf spoke in loud voices of wrecks and voyages and the likeness of things; for the dead fish was striped like a cat and the sky was striped like the fish and the conch was whorled like an ear and the beach was ribbed like a dog’s mouth and the movables in the surf splintered and crashed like the walls of Jericho.”

The Wapshot Chronicle is an interesting, funny, sad family chronicle which makes you wonder what a family is. When the social lines people draw threaten their happiness, when they give rise to bigotry and intolerance, for example, then a reminder of their arbitrary nature is timely. John Cheever’s reminder was timely in the straight-laced 1950s when the book was first published, and equally valuable now.

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