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Lark and Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips (Alfred A. Knopf 2009)
Clif Cleaveland, MD, MACP
March 21 2011
Upon first reading Lark and Termite soon after its publication, I regarded it as one of the finest novels that I had encountered in years. A war story, a family saga, an enquiry into the thoughts of a special child, a romance-all are elements in the story. Upon re-reading the novel in anticipation of Ms. Phillips appearance at this year's Conference on Southern Literature, I renewed that judgment and marveled at the structure of the narrative.
Late in the novel, Elise, a family friend explains to Lark, "People forget that a soldier's death goes on for years-for a generation really. They leave people behind." The novel explores the death of a soldier and its continued ripples throughout multiple lives.
In late July 1950 as U.S. troops fled before invading forces of North Korea, a controversial encounter occurred near No Gun Ri, a village in central South Korea. American troops may have massacred civilians through a combination of air attack and ground assault upon adults and children who were penned inside a tunnel. Official inquiries into the action failed to determine exactly what occurred on July 26-28. The action leads to the wounding and subsequent death of Army Corporal Robert Leavitt, a central character in the novel.
A parallel narrative takes place in Winfield, West Virginia during July 26-28, 1959. Nonie, a waitress, provides a home for twenty-year old Lark and nine year old Termite. They are the children of her deceased sister Lola. Lola married Robert Leavitt before his deployment to Korea and bore his neurologically impaired son as his father died in Korea. Lark was the product of an earlier liaison with Nonie's employer.
Corporal Leavitt is paraplegic from a friendly fire wound to his spine. Termite is born with spina bifida which paralyzes his legs. Tunnels figure in the events in South Korea and West Virginia. A mysterious social worker provides critical aid for Lark and Termite. Is he an angel or the protective spirit of Robert? There are other unanswered and intriguing puzzles.
We are alongside Corporal Leavitt as he seeks to protect a young Korean woman, her mother, and a blind boy. As his wounds weaken him, the woman becomes his protector in the hours prior to a final, devastating assault on the occupants of the tunnel by U.S. forces. The descriptions rank with the finest of combat narrative. They remind me of Tim O'Brian's The Things They Carried.
The July days of 1959 encompass the days of a devastating flood which threatens the lives of Lark and Termite who must be pulled to safety from the attic of their home. The same flood will forever alter the life of Nonie who is accused of murdering her employer's mother.
Robert, Nonie, Lark, and Termite provide the points of view for the novel. From their recollections and contemporaneous accounts we can piece together a story of a dying Appalachian town and the complex relationships that bind family, friends, and neighbors. Termite's perspective is unique in that we sense a world as it impacts a boy whose brain does not allow him to form words, to see clearly, or to integrate impressions. Termite is loved unconditionally by his family and their friends.
Lola commands the final pages of the novel, an episode set in Louisville on July 31, 1951. She becomes a long-distance casualty of the war that took her beloved Robert. Events are set in motion that, like the flood waters of 1959, change lives unpredictably and forever.
This is a beautiful and breath-taking novel.