Review by Jack A. Urquhart
“When I was four, I found God under our organ.” Beginning with what must surely be one of the most arresting and enticing opening lines in recent memory, Song of the Orange Moons, Lori Ann Stephens’ wonderful debut, gets right down to the business of beguiling
the reader. The instruments of this magic, three female protagonists–two of them young girls struggling to establish their connection to the greater world, the third, their mentor, an elderly widow confronting her mortality–are spun so masterfully that when their stories finally converge, it seems their respective histories were always filaments in the same tapestry, destined to touch in ways that conjure meaning out of mere threads.
Stephens, who teaches writing at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, lavishes lyrical attention on her three unforgettable characters.
Rebecka, the product of an unhappy marriage mired in cross-cultural conflict, endeavors to find solid ground somewhere between her father’s fundamentalist Bible-by-rote rigidity and her mother’s Columbian witch doctor mysticism. Stephens, giving voice to Rebecka’s perception of her parents’ estrangement from each other, movingly describes the distance that opens, often subtly, between members of the same family unit: “They spoke to each other’s limbs and clothing, to the rug, the furniture. When I spoke, I found their eyes, but they couldn’t find each other’s.”
Meanwhile, Helen, Rebecka’s misfit best friend, not only wrestles with an elusive sense of Jewish identity, but with a more all-encompassing loneliness–a longing for connection so profound that it drives her to touch, literally and furtively, others. These tactile encounters she logs with heartbreaking simplicity in a Journal of Touch:
- “Mr. Berg. Two hands on my shoulders. I touch his pant leg on the crease.
- Cashier at the Zippy Kwik. Not the Mexican, an Indian with cocoa skin and a curly beard, change.
- Woman with flame-red hair and freckled shoulders, Harvard indoor pool, locker room…”
The widow, Adelle–whose early history is steeped in cruel, loveless neglect, and whose battle with cancer is drawing to a close–is the bridge that further unites Rebecka and Helen in their struggles to become women. Connected to the girls by the orange tree that grows in her backyard (from hence, the title), Adelle is a mentor who draws strength from her charges even as she dispenses brusque affection, understanding, and wisdom. To be sure, the widow finds ways of dispelling the girls’ more half-baked perceptions of personhood. For example, when it comes to religious routes to identity, Adelle is clearly a woman who has had a-plenty of people who think they are “the ring on God’s finger.” Seeking to dispel Rebecka’s notion that religion can provide the cultural `label’ her own mixed heritage denies, Adelle opines: “Those church-ordained picnics and prayer lines and ladies groups are the finest excuse for conjuring up rumors I ever heard, and just more evidence that God is a woman.” How to resist a character that dispenses such pearls! Indeed, this reader could not.
But perhaps Stephens’ greatest accomplishment in creating and weaving together her characters’ individual but similar strivings for meaning, for identify, for connection, is that she reminds us that we–each one of us–”are swimming alone together, sometimes bumping into each other” in our separate journeys, each one of us with the potential to ease another’s passage. And perhaps more importantly, sometimes, “It takes the smallest distances to move through the universe, and that one touch can mean nothing or everything.”