We usually think of nostalgia as a sentimental warm fuzzy feeling, a wistful desire to return back to what was, when – true or not – things seemed to have been simpler, and “better.” What is so marvelous with Anne Panning’s novel, Butter, is that she is able to conjure feelings of nostalgia even when looking back is hard.
It’s the 1970s, and eleven year old Iris has just been told by her parents that she is adopted. Living in small town Wishbone, Minnesota, near Mankato (which itself is not a “proper” town like Minneapolis, as one character points out), the news is given to her in a typical Midwestern manner:
My father poured me a big glass of milk, but it was the thick kind from the creamery, and I didn’t think I could drink it all because it made me so full and my mouth so gummy. “We love you dearly, Iris,” my father said, stabbing into his clump of beef. It had a clingy piece of yellow fat hanging to the side. “We want to tell you something that’s very important, because we feel you should know and never have to wonder.”
I looked up at my mother. “What?”
She set her fork and knife down and folded her hands. I was beginning to think somebody had died, maybe Grandma Laura, and I shut my eyes. “Have you ever heard of children being adopted?” my mother said, blinking. Her face was powdered and pale, her lipstick strong and red. “It’s when a married couple who can’t have children takes in a child who has no parents.”
My father cleared his throat, as if it was time for his part. “You’re our adopted daughter, Iris. We want you to know that, so in case anyone ever mentions it, you can say you know.” His hair was combed back in little greasy stripes, and his eyes were bright under high pointed eyebrows.
My mother picked up her fork and fluffed her potatoes. “We love you as our daughter, Iris. Nothing changes. We always have and always will. Someday, when you’re older, we’ll talk more about it, okay?”
And that was that. They never really do ever talk about it. Yet while learning that she’s adopted does bother Iris, she doesn’t really let it show, not obviously anyway. Not until her best friend Sylvie comes over on a snow day, and then finally the tears come. But Iris has learned that family lesson well – if it hurts, it’s probably best to hide it, or only let it out in bits and pieces. In the meantime, small town life continues on.
Iris’s world may be full of repressed emotions, but the sensory details are rich and strong, the cultural references familiar. The color and treatment of hair, the outfits the characters wear and the condition of the clothes, the music being played and the food being eaten, the state of neatness or squalor of a room, and the contents of those rooms or the contents of a child’s attention, are compelling, as if the author is handing us a mental photograph, letting us see scenes in exact detail, as well as what is important in those details.
Yet as important as these details are, it’s a credit to Ms. Panning that she does not over treat them; they are given to us simply and cleanly, quite often without passing judgment on them in the narrative, instead letting us infer for ourselves the measure of what we are “seeing.” Some of the loveliest details come with Iris’s description of the creamery that her father runs, and the different nuances of the various dairy products he takes great pride in: milk, ice cream, and of course, butter.
To my father, margarine was like a sin – an evil, unnatural thing that looked and tasted like plastic and was full of food coloring to make it look not as much like lard, which it really was. There were several different types of margarine for sale – white-and-yellow plastic tubs of it with little flowers ringing the bottoms, big blocks of it, and foil-wrapped silvery sticks of it. Next to all the margarine, my father’s butter, in its familiar white waxed paper with paling black lettering, looked so old-fashioned, so out of date, and seeing it there made me feel tender toward my father and his beautiful butter.
It’s good that we have this exquisite detail, for there is precious little communication going on between any of the characters in the story, it seems. Because we are seeing the world through Iris’s eyes, we are not a party to what is happening with the adults in her life; most of what she learns is inferred or overheard, or comes to her in teasing by classmates who have heard or overheard their own parents gossiping about others in town. In the 1970s, children weren’t told much – but they seemed to hear plenty. Understanding was in far shorter supply.
It turns out being told she’s adopted is just the first of a cascade of events that occurs in a year when nothing seems to go as anyone had planned. As Iris’s life moves from one well intentioned jolt to the next unexpected turn, the kernel of doubt that was planted when she learned about the adoption keeps her a sudden outsider looking in. Although Iris is obviously a cherished child, she is never a party to any decisions made by the adults in her life and often there is no explanation given as to why those decisions were made, or what led up to them. So, she sidesteps confrontation, rarely presses for answers to the questions that sometimes even go unasked; it’s almost like she watches the disintegration of her family from a distance. She does not stand up for herself or her loved ones, but instead deflects any negative comments and then moves to a different room, practicing the avoidance tactic that she has learned firsthand from her parents – so maybe she isn’t all that different from them after all.
Luckily, Iris has some stalwart supports, such as her Grandma Laura who offers the girl stability and a sense of worth, and Ms. Rickhardt, Iris’s 7th grade school teacher, who saw gifts of intelligence and art in her and gave her encouragement when she needed it the most. It might just be enough to get her through.
Butter is a lovely work that chronicles a difficult time in a child’s life, but does so without undue drama or judgmental social commentary. Ms. Panning allows the story to flow and swirl around one very passive yet perceptive little girl, and she paints an indelible picture of a time that we would be naive to assume is simpler than the one we live in today. While we don’t know how Iris’s story will ultimately end, and although there are a lot of unanswered questions and hanging threads at the end of the book – as would happen whenever a single year is plucked out of someone’s life story – I get the distinct feeling that Iris is going to be okay. I bet she even grows up to become a writer, and finally comes to terms with having nothing explained to her back then, by sharing it all with us now.