LISTED AMONG Lois Simmie's published works are several for children, with titles such as Who Greased the Shoelaces? I was not surprised. Not that the stories in Betty Lee Bonner Lives There are in any way childish. But they do possess that wonderful, wacky quality that makes children's books such a pleasure to sneak preview, and then to repeat aloud.
Take Sweetie Pie, the cockatoo, in a story named for her, perched beside the pet-shop bathroom, resulting in a dynamite imitation of a flushing toilet "perfect down to the last gurgle." Or Harvey, the slope-shouldered, potbellied proprietor of Harvey's Hamburger Haven in Victoria. The place magically metamorphoses into Harvey's Hamburger Heaven, and Harvey, a Cockney, mocks a city where "of course God would be an Englishman, but certainly not Harvey's kind." Characters one wants to trumpet, share, pass on.
And then, too, there are victories in these stories, tried and true good-guy-wins/bad-guyloses victories. Mean-mannered Mrs. Bleasdale gets her comeuppance in "Mrs. Bleasdale's Terrible Day," when her just-married daughter Muriel exits her wedding reception looking "totally, wonderfully happy," and leaves behind Mrs. Bleasdale, who has made for herself, by herself, such a miserable life. But these are adults' tales, the victories tiny levitations. In "Sunflowers," an abused wife plots the day when she can" ... throw open the doors and windows and let in the light and air." In "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," Rosie, the spitting image of her recently deceased mother, finally gets to unbolt her bedroom door.
If two doors open in this collection, two swings also swing. In "Swinging," Frank pumps and pumps above the boards separating the park from an X-rated drive-in. As a grown-up, Frank's younger brother, who soared along beside Frank but never quite reached his height, aches to be "wild and free like we were before we cleared the tops of the trees" and saw beyond. "The Swing," on the other hand, is grounded. Simmie has placed it in a garden. You don't fly away on this swing, but rock, as in a hammock. Edna's soon-to-besenile mother swings there, often in the dead of night. One night in her dementia she leaves the swing to do something a child might do and be forgiven for, something that might even be secretly delighted in by adults, although the act is criminal. With it the old woman reconciles herself to this daughter who will soon have the sole responsibility - the brother is too busy -of caring for her. It is a poignant tale, fluidly told. Like all the stories in this collection, it is engrossing. One strains for the ending, for all the endings. One wants to know. One constantly hopes for the best and is sometimes rewarded. When one is let down, it feels right, ordained, and we are on to the next with renewed expectation. No pinches of odd historical detail liven up these stories; they are not necessary. Nor are there any beautiful-plus-wildly-successful characters. Instead Betty Lee Bonner Lives There offers us solid glimpses into the lives of people who are all too often and all too easily dismissed.