Joyce Carol Oates plays with geography in Mudwoman, beginning the story in a fictional “Beechum County,” an Adirondack region that is the largest and least populated county in New York State.
Barely alive in the cold mud above the Black Snake River, a little girl is rescued by a young trapper and lives with a blue-collar foster family until a gentle Quaker couple adopt her. They live in the village of Carthage, relocated to the northwestern edge of Beechum County. Oates writes, “Those years Mudwoman moved among the others as if she were one of them.”
But Mudwoman, re-named Merilyn Ruth, or M.R., cannot find a home. An excellent student, she secretly applies to Cornell when her parents want her to stay in the North Country and become a teacher. She gets a graduate degree in philosophy at Harvard and in her early forties becomes the first woman president of a prestigious Ivy League university. She works like a zealot and is kind to everyone. Oates writes many of M.R.’s sentences in a breathless, rushed style, rising to end in exclamation marks.
But M.R. is not free from her past. Her carefully structured life unravels as she has disturbing flashbacks and horrifying nightmares. Oates is a master of the grim and gothic and readers aren’t sure what is “real” and what is madness in M.R.’s world. After M.R. is late for important appointments and speaks rashly at a meeting of the trustees, she is asked to take a three-month leave. She returns to Carthage to visit her father and for a few pages, the novel calms as M.R. takes long walks and volunteers at a Veterans Hospital with her father. Oates writes, “In Carthage, she’d regained sleep. She’d regained some portion of her frayed soul. Quite frankly she was concerned – she was terrified – that, returning to the University, she would return to the madness she had so narrowly escaped. It is very hard to prevail where you are not, in the deepest and most intimate and forgiving of ways, loved. It is very hard to prevail in any case, but without this love, it is close to impossible.”
Yet when M.R. suggests to her father that she could stay in Carthage, get a job at St. Lawrence or SUNY Plattsburgh, he says “Don’t be ridiculous, Meredith. You’re not going to stay here.”
No one with any talent would stay in the North Country, a place where, as Oates writes, “poverty had become a natural resource: social workers, welfare workers, community-medical workers, public defenders, prison and psychiatric hospital staffers, family court officials – all thrived in such barren soil.”
Oates doesn’t whitewash anything; all of her characters are flawed and all of her scenes are gritty and soiled. M.R., who has survived so much, has a chance at love, with a math professor at St. Lawrence University, but she dismisses that possibility to return south to the brutal world of academia and a long-distance relationship with a married man. In a final disturbing scene, M.R. flees an assailant from Massena, a mud-caked apparition who says, minus the expletives, “Why d’you think you should be alive, when the rest of us ain’t?”
In Mudwoman, Oates delves deeply into the questions of who we are and where we belong. Her compelling, probing prose makes this the opposite of a beach book. Read this novel while sitting in a broken chair above the sharp muck-smell of the Black Snake River mudflats, where, Oates writes, “the brackish river water seeps and is trapped and stagnant with algae the bright vivid green of Crayola.”