To be a mother or an artist? Or both?
Anyone interested in women’s quest stories that explore these central questions will find Jean Hegland’s second novel, Windfalls, to be essential reading. Readers who know the Palouse will enjoy her vivid descriptions of Spokane and eastern Washington. Indeed the entire book seems to cast a golden-red glow on the lives of its struggling main characters, Cerise and Anna, like the “last ruddy light. . . , burnishing the fields and illuminating the roses, deepening the crimson” in a Palouse sunset.
Hegland (B.A. ’79) earns a solid place for Windfalls in the tradition of women’s quest novels headed by international literary stars such as Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Drabble. The double quest of Cerise and Anna will please readers who enjoy strong plots that focus on the characters’ confrontations with devastating life events that forever change them. The single mother, Cerise, loses both her beloved son as well as her home, a modest trailer, in a fire after her artistically gifted daughter, Melody, decides to leave home in anger. With her entire world engulfed by smoke, Cerise moves forward, refusing to surrender to the moment. The privileged and comfortable Anna learns painfully that the middle-class demands of marriage and motherhood threaten to extinguish her life as a photographer. When her husband loses tenure in Washington and takes a position in California, she finds herself unable to loosen the ties to her two daughters long enough in this new place to view it through her camera lens.
When they meet accidentally, Cerise is a homeless bag lady named Honey who has found a position in a day care center and reveals extraordinary artistic talent as well as profound psychological insights into children. Eventually Cerise enters Anna’s household as a babysitter and enables Anna to re-emerge as a photographer. But Cerise’s journey does not stop here. Anna, as the reader will discover, unknowingly helps Cerise find her daughter through her photography.
By the end of the novel, all the questions seem resolved, at least momentarily, and everyone is happily repositioned. Even Cerise’s wandering no longer seems driven by catastrophe. We are left with the confidence that she, too, has found her own “gentle light” in “the mutilated world” that Hegland has created. Disasters may seem to take away the dreams of the Cerises and Annas, but their innate human creativity, coupled with “the world’s rough grace,” empowers them to re-find their centers or to build new lives. Their stories of courage in Windfalls offer hard-won wisdom to us in this new world in which we find ourselves following Hurricane Katrina and the attacks of 9/11.
—Camille Roman, Associate Professor of English, Washington State University