There’s something alluring about the snowy, small-town quality of New England. Often in media and art, we’ve painted it as a white, picturesque region attached to a childlike innocence — a sort of coming of age.
A popular poem by Amos Russel Wells, “New England Woods,“ celebrates this agreeable association.
“New England Woods are fair of face, / And warm with tender, homely grace, / Not vast with tropic mystery, / Nor scant with arctic poverty, / But fragrant with familiar balm, / And happy in a household calm,” Wells wrote.
This beautiful New England setting juxtaposed with a horrific childhood story is what makes Sarah Manguso’s debut novel Very Cold People so vulnerable. Set in Waitsfield, Mass., the story is told from the perspective of a growing girl, Ruthie, as she navigates the unfolding of family secrets and traumatic community experiences.
Known for her poetry and essays, Manguso adopts some of the literary structures of short collections in her novel. The beginning, which is narrated by young, elementary-school Ruthie, is consistent with simple sentence structure and short paragraphs, contributing to the fairytale appearance of the story.
Ruthie’s introduction of Waitsfield builds upon her personal life, which includes her family, her home and her friends. Although they’re a lower middle-class family, her parents (particularly her mother) are self-conscious about their socioeconomic status, often hiding their embarrassment of their low society ties.
“[Shame] was my birthright. I thought my mother did these things specifically to shame me, to spread pain,” the character Rosie states in the novel.
This fixation on money and brand eventually inhabits Ruthie’s thoughts, which elicit moments of anger. In one example, Ruthie’s friend Bee picks up a cardboard tab of a sugary, rose tea brand her family consumed. The brand of tea, which I suppose is notoriously bought by “low society” people, triggers Ruthie into a tangent.
“I tore it in half and then in half again while Bee wailed. It’s dirty! It’s dirty trash! My anger surprised me. I hated her, and I didn’t know why,” Rosie says.
While the story has its threads of socioeconomic insecurity, the last half leaves a darker impression on the reader. As Ruthie gets older and goes into high school, she unknowingly describes examples of uneven power dynamics among her and her friends’ relationships: Her best friend Amber becomes romantically linked with her half brother, her other friend Bee was sexually abused by her father and Ruthie was molested by her gym teacher.
Although the story includes dark topics of assault, abuse and trauma, the way Manguso writes maintains a polished core of pacification. She does this by intentionally relaying information in a timely manner. Manguso mentions these dark topics through one-liners in Ruthie’s discourse. “In that look, [Bee] let me know that she had done her best to keep me in her life. But she looked hopeful, too, that her father wouldn’t want to go near her anymore.” When she separates from Bee, Ruthie begins to understand her suffering.
In another one-liner example, Ruthie finds out that Amber is pregnant with her half brother’s child. “[Amber] stared at me as if she wanted to memorize everything I said or did in that moment, the moment that I learned Monroe and Amber were going to be the parents of a baby together.” There’s no clear, descriptive buildup to this realization; it’s simply just stated.
One of the parts that I admired most about Very Cold People was its beautiful plot unraveling and patient storytelling. Manguso intelligently titrates information just enough for the reader to reach the end and realize how severely messed up the story is. The narration also evolves as Ruthie grows older. I enjoyed the change in the pace of the narration and how Ruthie’s attention to specific details changes with her maturity.
As children, we’re used to always seeing things through rose-tinted glasses. Very Cold People is special because it responds to this idea with a more realistic color palette: white and gray. While this story carries elements of New England charm, it’s plastered with the sadness of growing up. The beautiful and ugly aspects of the story embody the true purpose of realistic fiction: to reflect on the mundane and create something meaningful.