Apr. 28, 2004

The First Fruit Salad

by Joanne Cimburg

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Poems: "The First Fruit Salad," by Joanne Limburg, from femenismo. © Bloodaxe Books. Reprinted with permission.

The First Fruit Salad

One June night
she left her husband sleeping
in the record-breaking heat
and went down to ask the fridge
what it was she wanted.

What she wanted was:
the life of a fruiteater,
an endless afternoon
in a cool and juicy place
where white teeth sank into Spanish oranges
and apples fell open into perfect halves
on wooden chopping-boards,
all by themselves, all day,
and cubes of watermelon
clinked in long glasses.

Splay-legged on the kitchen floor,
she hugged the bowl of fruit salad
to her chest, and remembered how,
at the very beginning,
Eve sat, blindfold and giggling,
as he brought the spoonfuls up to her mouth,
one by one,
to be named.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Diane Johnson, born Diane Lain in Moline, Illinois (1934). She's a novelist, a short story writer, an essayist, a travel writer, a literary critic, and a journalist. She's written a biography of Dashiell Hammett, and she wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's movie The Shining (1980). She may be best known as the author of a trilogy of novels about American expatriates in France—Le Divorce (1997), Le Mariage (2000) and her latest, L'Affaire, published last year.

It's the birthday of novelist Alistair MacLean, born in Glasgow, Scotland (1922). He joined the Royal Navy in 1941, and he was captured and tortured by Japanese soldiers in World War II. When he got back home to Glasgow, he began writing his first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses (1955), based on his experience on a Navy ship in the Arctic Ocean. It became a bestseller, and he went on to write many more popular adventure novels, including Ice Station Zebra (1963), The Guns of Navarone (1957) and Where Eagles Dare (1967).

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee, born Nelle Harper in Monroeville, Alabama (1926). She grew up in Monroeville, which had a population of about 7,000, and it was the model for the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee wrote, "It was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

Her father was a lawyer, and she spent much of her free time hanging around the courthouse and playing golf with the children of other lawyers. She thought it seemed like a pretty good way to live, and for a long time she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. She went to law school at the University of Alabama, and after she graduated she worked as a reservation clerk for an airline in New York City. She spent all day at work, and then came home to write for four hours every evening. In the mid '50s, Lee started working on a novel about the trial of a black man in a small town in Alabama.

In December of 1956, she wasn't able to get back to Alabama to celebrate Christmas with her family, so instead she celebrated with a family she knew in Manhattan. On Christmas morning, Lee and the family gathered around the tree to open gifts. Most of them were for the children of the family, but when everything under the tree had been unwrapped, the parents asked Lee to open an envelope that was resting on the branches. Inside was a note that said, "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas." The couple gave her a loan to devote an entire year to nothing but writing, and it was during that year that Lee wrote most of the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

She sent the manuscript to a publisher in New York, and they told her that it had potential but that it was too much like a collection of short stories and not enough like a novel. She spent the next two and a half years rewriting it, and To Kill A Mockingbird was published in July of 1960. It was priced at $3.95, and it sold more than two and a half million copies in less than a year. It was selected by the Reader's Digest book club, the Literary Guild book club, and the Book-of-the-Month Club; and it was immediately published in more than a dozen languages. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a black man named Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white girl. The title of the novel comes from something Finch says to his daughter: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

To Kill a Mockingbird sells about a million copies every year, and it's sold over thirty million copies since its publication. In 1963, just three years after its publication, it was taught in eight percent of U.S. public middle schools and high schools, and today that figure is closer to eighty percent. Only Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Huckleberry Finn are assigned more often.

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