Summary and Analysis
Ida begins her narration with the comment, "I never grew up, but I got old." As a fifty-seven-year-old woman, Ida is a paradox: She seems like an old, emotionally cold woman, but she's actually only middle-aged, and she has feelings — although she might not show them. She wants Christine to have a better life than she does, but she sadly recognizes that Christine doesn't.
Ida's narration concerns her family life when she was growing up. This history begins when Ida is fifteen years old. Her mother, Annie, is sick and can no longer care for herself or her family, so Ida's mother's much younger sister, Clara, comes to stay with the family.
Ida immediately takes a liking toward Clara, her aunt, and tries to monopolize Clara's attentions away from Ida's sister, Pauline. Ida sees in Clara everything that Ida is not but that Ida wants to be: pretty, mysterious, and urbane. What Ida doesn't recognize is the sexual tension that lies just below the surface between Clara and Ida's father.
Clara soon becomes part of the family, caring for Ida's mother. Only Ida's sister, Pauline, resists showering attention on Clara. Ida, however, shares all of her feelings with Clara; Clara is the affectionate "sister" whom Ida never had.
Incredibly, and unsuspectingly, Clara gets pregnant. Ida's father, Lecon, is the father. When Ida's mother learns of the sexual affair between her husband and her sister and that Clara is now pregnant, she and Lecon argue incessantly about who is to blame: Clara, Lecon, or — amazingly — Annie. Clara secretly makes a plan whereby she'll give birth and then Ida will publicly claim that the baby is hers. Ida and her parents agree to the plan. A young Father Hurlburt, a priest at the local mission, arranges for Clara and Ida to travel to a nunnery in Denver, Colorado, where they will stay until Clara gives birth. Selfishly, Clara seems more interested in visiting Denver, a place where she's never been, than worrying about the baby that grows inside her.
Ida's commentary begins with the mysterious phrase, "I never grew up, but I got old." However, throughout her narration, she explains what she means by this comment. At an early age, she assumed the awesome responsibility of raising a child as her own when she herself was figuratively still a child.
Although Ida's narrative section is the last presented in the novel, hers — to a great degree — is the most important, for she explains the history that shapes her, Christine's, and Rayona's present and future. She explains, "My recollections are not tied to white paper. They have the depth of time." Continually she relives her past by creating her present, actions that ironically separate her from the people about whom she thinks. Hers is a lonely existence: "I have to tell this story every day, add to it, revise, invent the parts I forget or never knew. No one but me carries it all and no one will — unless I tell Rayona." Ida's life, then, is an act of creation.
At age fifteen, Ida grasps onto the only bright spot she knows: Aunt Clara. She idealizes Clara much like Rayona idealized Ellen DeMarco and Christine idealized her brother, Lee. "I claimed her," Ida says of Clara. Ida's search for perfection mirrors her father's; Lecon's overriding concern is that "Everyone must think us the perfect family." But we know, having read both Rayona's and Christine's narrative sections, that an idealized, picture-perfect world is a false reality in which people get hurt.
Lecon's behavior regarding his extramarital affair with Clara emphasizes the negative treatment that males receive in Dorris' novel. With the exception of Dayton, who seems feminized throughout the novel; Father Hurlburt, who is Ida's closest and longest-lasting friend; and Sky, an adult with a child's innocence, men do not fare well. Elgin is a philanderer who disbelieves that his wife is sick and whose sexual desires are never sated. Lecon is much the same as Elgin, apparently forsaking his sick and dying wife for a brief tryst with his sister-in-law, Clara, who is as much to blame as Lecon for their misbegotten sexual indiscretions. And Father Tom is certainly no saint, for he seemingly preys on Rayona's insecurities about herself.
Although Lecon is surely as at fault as Clara for their affair, Clara is much more the opportunist than Lecon. For example, after it has been decided that Clara and Ida will both travel to Denver for Clara to have her baby, Clara's strongest reaction to this news is that she's never been to Denver before; she's looking forward to visiting the city. "I've never been there," she says, but note how Dorris characterizes Clara's reaction: "Clara smiled to herself." She sees Denver as a vista to be explored, as a city in which she can "have a good time." Ultimately, then, she's unconcerned that she's pregnant.
her carpet valise a sturdy bag made of carpet material and used for traveling.
in the tin in the tin pie plate.
a pallet layers of quilts and blankets laid on the floor, usually for children to sleep on during long stays by relatives, when beds are few.
the Infant of Prague The exact origin of the Infant is unknown, but we do know that it came from a monastery in Bohemia and, from there, was obtained by a noblewoman who gave it as a wedding gift to her daughter, who gave it as a wedding gift to her daughter. In 1628, the daughter, Lady Polyxena, presented the statue to Carmelite nuns, saying, "I am giving you what I most esteem of my possessions. Keep the sculpture in reference and you will be well off." The statue then became known as the Infant Jesus of Prague. It stands about eighteen inches high and has a long golden gown around its wax body and a golden crown atop its head. Since then, copies of the Infant have been made and distributed to European churches and all parts of the world.
a perfect Palmer hand During the first half of the twentieth century, penmanship was a required course, beginning in second grade and continuing through sixth grade. Children nationwide were required to practice loops, swirls, and push-and-pull zigzags in Palmer notebooks, hoping to master the gently inclined, smooth continuity that is the hallmark of the Palmer method. Scholastic tests often carried two grades — one for content, the other for handwriting.
the sums mathematical addition problems.