Family rituals survive generations of change

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The effect of World War II on American lives, during and afterward, cannot easily be measured. Lives were lost, redirected, or altered in subtle or not so subtle ways, quickly changing the second half of the 20th century into a whole new world for the nation. And with change emanating change, the process goes on.

In her new book, "The End of the Point," prize-winning author Elizabeth Graver tells the story of one wealthy family that begins its own shift of gears as the 1940s unfold at their summer home near Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts.

They have gone there for years, treasuring privacy, exclusivity, a yacht club, swimming, boating and taking long walks in search of flowers and shells.

Their neighbors are families like theirs -- treasuring the same things, thinking the same thoughts.

And then, one year, an army base appears at the edge of their property, soldiers are eyeing their teen-age daughters, military trucks are rumbling on their road.

Some of their neighbors have decided not to come at this time. They think this shore location might not be safe in time of war, but the Porters are confident. The paved road and soldiers are irritants, but minor ones, and the rituals of their gathered family seem unchanged except that the tennis tournaments and boat races don't take place, and son Charlie is on his way to Army Air Corps training school.

The sharpest interruption to the Porter way of life comes when Charlie's plane is shot down over Germany and he is killed.

The loss of a son in the war was something, naturally, that they never got over. But less obvious differences displace old habits. The teen sisters no longer arrive at Ashaunt, run to the dock, strip naked and plunge into the water -- because the soldiers are there. Even this impetuous pair has to take notice.

In elegant prose that reveals the inner selves of this family that functions, but is dysfunctional, Elizabeth Graver has created a saga that spans four generations.

Graver, who grew up in Williamstown and now teaches at Boston College, brilliantly peels away the layers of each family member and makes them real -- not necessarily loveable, but real.

But even as the psychological elements emerge, it is the story that fascinates, an in-depth tale of the way a certain level of American society spent its summers in the first part of the 20th century.

The reader sees this family through several windows. Graver uses several narrators, and it is most interesting that the first is Bea, the Scottish nanny, a "below stairs" person, the English would say.

She is the one who generates the initial outline of who is who, her view coming from a mind that is attached to service, very attached to her youngest charge and by tradition worshipful of the family as a whole.

Daughter Helen, through the medium of her diaries and letters, takes a turn as narrator, offering a self-centered view of a person who is less likely to settle than the monarchs Graver describes among the black pines of Ashaunt. Her only solid ground, it appears, matches most of her family -- it is the beach property, the Point.

The most important narrator may be Helen's son Charlie, named for the lost airman. If they pay attention to him at all, the Porters either pity the young Charlie or scoff at him. He has messed up his body and his mind by experimenting with drugs and has been in serious treatment for years.

But he is the one, more than a little disturbed, who continually finds refuge at Ashaunt and who sees the family members most clearly. They think he is crazed and erratic, barely noticing that he is recovering. And as he recovers, his perceptions, large and small, become more and more precise.

Through all the year-by-year saga of this family, Graver writes beautifully of the wild clematis, the pink steeplebush and little girl Janie's collections of every shell, whole or not, along with "smelly, rattling strands of seaweed."

She has created complex characters who are never out of character, most of whom seem to be more attached to Ashaunt Point than to each other, even as they gather, year after year, for rituals that have somehow survived the encroaching developers and time itself.

Poetry evening in Chatham
The Chatham Bookstore hosts the second annual evening of poetry from around the world on Saturday, April 19, from 7 to 9 p.m.
Bring a poem in a language other than English to share, along with a brief translation or description in English.
The Chatham Bookstore is at 27 Main St. For more information, call (518) 392.3005.

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