Karen Gettert Shoemaker's THE MEANING OF NAMES
Last week, I mentioned the writer Karen Gettert Shoemaker, who talks about “writing from the body” as a way of deeply imagining characters, places, and stories. I thought I’d offer you an excerpt today from Shoemaker’s latest novel, The Meaning of Names. The Meaning of Names tells the story of Gerda Vogel, German-American wife and mother struggling to raise her family on the plains of Nebraska in 1918, amid virulent anti-German sentiment and the killing Spanish flu.
Right on the very first page, Shoemaker demonstrates this idea of “writing from the body.” Listen for how she makes Elizabeth’s body real to us, and how a vulnerable place in her body becomes a point of intimate connection between her and her sister, Gerda.
Here it is, the opening of Karen Gettert Shoemaker’s novel, The Meaning of Names:
When Gerda was five, her older sister came home to die. No, not to die, to give birth, but dying is what she did. She had married one of the Ernesti boys, one of the boys their father approved of—Gerda could see that even then. At the age of five she knew how to read what her father wanted, what her father believed—that certain people were chosen, that worldly success marked God’s favor. When Phillip asked for her sister’s hand in marriage, it was as if Papa Drueke fell in love with her as well. Her value, uncertain before, became suddenly apparent. Papa knew of whom God would approve, and that wealthy Ernesti boy was one of them. He paraded the news of the engagement as if the young man was a prize he himself had won. When the Uncles stopped over, he bragged about him like he’d never bragged about his own. His chest puffed up like a prairie grouse whenever he said his name—“my son-in-law, Phillip Chiles Ernesti,” as if his older brothers, those men in whose presence he had been so often silenced, wouldn’t know who he was talking about if he didn’t say the whole name.
Elizabeth was fourteen years older than Gerda. She had long fingers, blunt at the ends as if she had been born for scrabbling and working. She had a scar on the fleshy pad at the base of her thumb where a rooster had caught her with its sharp beak the day Gerda was born. She had been sent outside, away from their mother’s labor bed when that feathered beast came at her all wings and shrieks. She should have been scared, she told Gerda years later, but when she saw the bloody, jagged S on her hand she knew the baby they had waited for would be born alive, and a girl.
“S is for sister,” she used to whisper to Gerda as they curled their bodies together before sleep. “S is for shelter.” She traced the shape of the letter on her hand. “Gerda means shelter. Remember that.” Gerda learned to write by recalling the shape of that scar. Beginning with S she moved outward to all letters, all language.