One word, weekly. Found in a book. Shared with you.


Word: Prink

Definition: (v) primp

Origin: prob. alternative of prank - to show oneself off, to dress or adorn gaily or showily [prob. from D pronken to strut; akin to MHG gebrunkel glitter of metal]

Source: "Consolation to His Wife" by Plutarch, collected in Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay

I was told by those who were present and found your conduct remarkable that you did not put on mourning nor induce any uncomeliness or unseemliness in yourself or in your servants, that there was no preparation for extravagant solemnities at the grave, but that everything was done decently and quietly with only the family in attendance. For my part I was not surprised, for you would never prink for the theater or processions, but even for pleasurable outings thought that extravagance was useless and maintained your sensible moderation even among people who looked askance at it. It is not only in bacchic celebrations that a virtuous woman must remain uncorrupted, but in sorrow too she must remember that excess is to be avoided and that transports of emotion require to be controlled; it is not her love, as the many think, that she must fight against, but the incontinence of her soul.

Let's pause for just a moment to address three things about this word:

  1. Who knew that prank had a secondary meaning associated with strutting and glitter?

  2. Urban Dictionary indicates this word may also now refer to the portmanteau of pre and drink, such as what one might do in one's apartment to calm one's anxiety before going to meet up with friends for the first time since a dreadful pandemic forced us all to stay home.

  3. Urban Dictionary also suggests this word can be a mild derogative similar to (but "cleaner" than) prick.

With that established, I think we can all (except, I guess, Phillip Lopate) agree that Plutarch was a first-class prink always prinking himself before the mirror of his small fame, leading me to want to day-prink just to get through this essay. Lopate quotes classicist and translator Moses Hadas on Plutarch's "unexampled reverence for womanhood, a touching tenderness for little children . . . his humanitarianism." Lopate piles on the praise, claiming that this essay, as translated by Hadas, "displays all of Plutarch's sympathetic tendencies" and is "often considered the most attractive example of the [consolation] form, because of its genuineness of feeling and touching directness."


This piece appears to be a letter written by Plutarch to his wife upon learning of the death of their young daughter. It is possible that the version that survived was revised by Plutarch for a public audience due to its didactic tone of moral instruction though there is no evidence of an earlier version. Readers, including Lopate, often refer to the intimacy achieved by Plutarch, achieved by his willingness to balance that public instruction with personal details and anecdotes from his life. There are also those who commend this letter as one that shows him to be generous and loving, especially toward his wife, the supposed recipient of this letter.


I cannot agree. He may have been all those things, but I do not see how this letter provides proof of it. Imagine, please, that your toddler has died while your partner is away. Imagine that you have managed the household in his absence, made all the arrangements for the funeral and other public observations while dealing with your own considerable grief upon this most terrible loss. Imagine, too, that you've perviously lost not one but TWO children, and that your partner was also absent on the occasion of at least one of them. Imagine sending him news of your child's death and then hearing nothing in response for an unreasonable amount of time. Your absent partner neither returns home nor writes in response to this loss as you continue to manage the aftermath.


Now, imagine you finally receive a letter from him, which opens with the excuse that the messenger "apparently missed me" and the assumption that the funeral has already taken place and then offers this warning:

if I find your grief exceeds due measure I shall be more greatly distressed than by the misfortune itself.

There's nothing you can do to change the response you have had to your child's death. This is not instruction to you for how to proceed. This is the promise of judgement upon your actions; this is a threat. Did you catch it? If you haven't handled yourself just exactly as I expect, I will be more upset by that than by the death of our child.


You can argue Stoicism to me until you are blue in the face. You can explain to me the philosophical underpinnings or demonstrate the countless ways grief displays were overblown during Plutarch's time. You can argue that Plutarch's wife agreed with these views, even led the way on them, and I will still think this is a reprehensible response to loss.


Scholars will argue that what Plutarch does here so well is demonstrate all the ways Plutarch and his wife are special, exceptional, worthy to be held up as exemplars in grief as in happiness. And that he does. He celebrates his wife's great response to grief and contrasts others who have not met their tragic moments as admirably. He has heard of how quietly she has performed her grief, aligning her status as a "virtuous woman" with her ability to control her emotion. He urges her to "take no account of the tears and lamentations of visitors who follow the tiresome custom of paying condolence calls" and to remember that all those people envy her. He commends her in all these things, but only because she has - he assumes - behaved in a way he would agree with. His praise of her is really praise of her adherence to his views. He spends all this time setting her apart, but it always feels to me that it is himself he's elevating.


And then, in the final paragraphs, he shifts to the abstract, discussing the soul and its varying states determined by how long it had been "caged" in the body before closing with a more general exhortation regarding traditional laws and usages. Plutarch shifts to the 1st person plural, calling upon a collective we and referring to our laws before ending this letter -- a letter to his grieving wife -- with this:

And now inasmuch as it is harder to reject our traditions than to trust them, let us comport ourselves outwardly as the laws prescribe, and let our inward conduct be even more untainted and pure and sensible.

Imagine knowing that your partner has exploited the death of your child to grow his influence in the public forum. Imagine reading this letter and feeling the eyes of all the world reading over your shoulder and knowing it is really to them he is writing. Imagine.


If prink means primp, and primp means to conscientiously prepare oneself for the public eye, I am comfortable making the argument that this whole letter is an encouragement to prink, and all these centuries later, I just hope that poor woman didn't live her whole life in fear of her husband. I hope she got to grieve, to tear her hair, to scream into the void, to wear sackcloth and ashes, or to rent her garments in the Public Square as she cried out to the universe, Why? Why? Why must my child be gone?

In 2022, the 100th Newbery Medal will be awarded. In the months leading up to that event, I plan to cover all 99 prior winners. I launched this project with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 76th recipient: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.


By 1998, the traditions around the awarding of the Newbery Medal had been long established. A selection committee, all members of ALSC (a division of ALA), works tirelessly all year to read and evaluate the wealth of books published for children in that year. The final decision is made through often grueling meetings during ALA Midwinter and announced on the final day of that conference. In 1998, the committee chose the following:


Winner:

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (Scholastic) Honor Books:

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins)

Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff (Delacorte)

Wringer by Jerry Spinelli (HarperCollins)


Out of the Dust is a novel-in-verse set between January1934 and December1935 in the dust-covered plains of Oklahoma. This work of historical fiction was inspired by a photo (shown on the cover) taken by FSA photographer Walker Evans. Despite Dorothea Lange's work capturing the Dust Bowl and its effects, the photo that spoke to author Karen Hesse is from Evans' work with James Agee in the deep South, collected in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Regardless of her origin, the determination and spirit of Lucille Burroughs (the girl Evans photographed) is what led Karen Hesse to tell the story of Billie Jo Kelby.


Billie Jo is 13 when the book opens, "a redheaded, freckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl" living with her father and mother, who is finally pregnant after years of trying. The book also opens in the middle of terribly hard times on their land. Weeks of drought get broken by days of rain too hard to do anything but damage, and the Kelbys and their neighbors are just barely getting by. But Billie Jo has her music, the piano she and her Ma both have such a talent for, and the money from President Roosevelt's loan program gets them through the worst. Until the real worst happens: a pail of kerosene that Ma mistakes for water leaves both Billie Jo and her Ma burned badly, and after days of suffering, both Ma and the baby die, leaving Billie Jo alone with her fire-ravaged hands, her Daddy, and her anger at him for leaving the pail there by the stove.


The rest of the book does the work that Hesse says is the point: forgiveness. In her acceptance speech, she explained:

It was about forgiveness. The whole book. Every relationship. Not only the relationships between people, but the relationship between people and the land itself.

Over time, Billie Jo learns to forgive her father and herself. She wants nothing more than to escape the dust until she hops a train one day and does it, only to turn around and come right home again. She even forgives the land for being so unforgiving, loving it despite the hardship it brings.


Though it is common enough now, the novel-in-verse was a "new phenomenon in the world of children's literature," according to Joy Alexander. Her 2005 examination of the genre provided a half-dozen or so examples of the form from 1993-1996 with more starting to emerge in 1997. Though not the first, Out of the Dust quickly established itself as a standard-bearer for the form, a position it held for many years. Alexander explains, "in two respects Hesse expands the genre in new directions. Her fiction is based on historical events, so that personal narrative is carefully anchored in place and time and moves toward documentary." The other way Hesse's work stands apart, according to Alexander (and, I would presume, the Newbery committee), is the lyricism of her words.


As a vehicle for a first-person narrative, a novel-in-verse is excellent for the immediate and realistic rendition of voice, but it can devolve into teenage melodrama without a great deal of care. Hesse set the bar for that kind of care. Whether describing the natural surroundings, as in "First Rain,"


I hear the first drops.

Like the tapping of a stranger

at the door of a dream,

the rain changes everything.

It strokes the roof,

streaking the dusty tin,

ponging,

a concert of rain notes,

spilling from gutters,

gushing through gullies,

soaking into the thirsty earth outside.


or the unexpected joy at "The President's Ball,"


Tonight, for a little while

in the bright hall folks were almost free,

almost free of dust,

almost free of debt,

almost free of fields of withered wheat.

Most of the night I think I smiled.

And twice my father laughed.

Imagine.


Hesse employs the art of free verse while maintaining Billie Jo's voice, like a note struck pure and true. And as Alexander explains, somehow Billie Jo's single voice "allows for a greater sense of outer life along with a deep understanding of the narrator." It is always personal, always through Billie Jo's lens, but her gaze captures the whole of her community and shares it lovingly.


In her acceptance speech, Hesse says she never questioned that this book was to be in verse, even though she had left poetry behind as she entered the years of motherhood. And it is this, I must confess, that stuck with me long after I had forgotten the beauty of the language and the story of this family's tragedy. She said,

Part of my mind always listened for my children during those years. And that listening rendered me incapable of writing poetry.

Years after this Newbery medal was awarded, when I had two small children of my own, I would think of these words and the promise they held. The assurance that listening for my children was its own kind of creativity carried me through the years of little writing, and like Hesse, I have found that children will grow, and the words do return. I know this means nothing to the children who are the intended audience of this book, but it means much to me.


But what of those child readers? Where does this book stand for them? I imagine it is accessible though not always engaging. Like so many titles, it likely finds its perfect readers and leaves others cold. Historical fiction is not every young reader's preference, but for that -- and for the hard, heart-heavy stuff -- Hesse refuses to apologize, insisting:

Young readers are asking for substance. They are asking for respect. They are asking for books that challenge, and confirm, and console. They are asking for us to listen to their questions and to help them find their own answers.

and

Historical fiction ... helps us understand that sometimes the questions are too hard, that sometimes there are no answers, that sometimes there is only forgiveness.

Two of the three honor books from 1998 are fairly forgettable titles from well-celebrated authors. Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, a fantasy retelling of Cinderella, has remained beloved, so maybe Hesse was only half right. Though her book might not be right for every reader, she is responsible for the launch of a form that has excelled itself countless times, from Elizabeth Acevedo to Nikki Grimes, Kwame Alexander, and countless others. For that, as well as for her words, I am grateful.

Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

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