While Pease doesn’t shy from any topic, shifting with clarity and compassion from bible studies to sign language, two of my favorite stories revolved around motherhood, captured at both ends of the child-raising journey. “Primitive” shows a poor young mother so isolated from the world that she envies the teenaged girls suffering through a survivalist camp across the street, while her preacher boyfriend leaves for long spells to hunt poisonous snakes to handle for his congregation. With only snakes and babies to keep her company, she recognizes in herself and others “loneliness as sickness.” “Ever since I got pregnant with Linsey, I could feel this creeping darkness, like the closing of a pinhole,” she says, and describes the monotony and melancholy of life with small children:
I kept the cartoons going and tried not to lose my mind. Around lunchtime, the Cisco truck went by taking supplies to Pinnacle, and I jumped up and ran out the door to wave at the handsome driver, but I missed him. I called my mom, but she didn’t pick up. She was busy at the nursing home thirty miles away.... But she rarely picked up anyway, thanks to the choices I’d made.
As self-aware and guilty of “the darkness of her heart” as she is, it hardly comes as a surprise when one of the miserable campers across the street finds her way to the snake shed, and both of the young mother’s escapist fantasies converge to bite her. Her ultimate liberation from her home and responsibilities is not the reprieve she’d dreamed of, but a terrifying exercise in the battle of good and evil.
The gin-loving mother in “The Blaming Heart” also suffers from the claustrophobia of motherhood, though her three children are all nearly grown, and she is forced to reconcile the reality of her days with the promise her life once showed. Her financial security—which most of Pease’s characters do not share—comes at the cost of an absent and inconsiderate husband, whose Greek heritage has engulfed her own. Her artistic consolation is Dutch paper-cutting, a hobby that garners little respect from her family and especially her eldest daughter’s pretentious boyfriend, who confidently announces that her work “doesn’t qualify as art at all.” In the midst of another pained family dinner, Roz reacquaints herself with the danger and excitement of her youth when she discovers her youngest daughter’s method of sneaking out on an upstairs balcony and brings it to a satisfying end:
Roz’s heart began to race a little. She dug her cigarette into the folds of the bed sheets and watched a burning hole take shape. If only she could start a fire, she’d be forced to jump. Down below, Nick would look out the window and watch her hit the ground. Boom, what a mess.
Never exempting these characters from their own faults, Pease is fully aware of the strange power of loneliness and the danger it can cause.