Book Review: Life Among The Savages

Life Among The Savages, by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson, if she is remembered at all today, is viewed as an expert in writing creepy short stories like “The Lottery” or horror novels like The Haunting Of Hill House.  But this book reveals that her most terrifying role was that of a somewhat incompetent but uproariously funny housewife whose memoirs [1] are one of the funniest books I have read in some time.  This is a book that rewards the sense of humor of the reader, and does so by a self-effacing look at the horrors of being a mother in a family where money is a major issue and where the author’s interests in being an author as well as a housewife of somewhat indifferent abilities lead to a great deal of humorous material that she mines for comic gold.  It is hard to overestimate how funny this book is, as the author shows herself to struggle with keeping her children under control and deal with the demands upon her time and her attention in the face of a growing family and, we should emphasize, not a great deal of money to work with as a housewife.  She shows herself to be deeply relatable in ways that are likely to encourage as much as they entertain.

In terms of its material, this book is a bit over 200 pages long and consists of three parts that are written in a largely chronological fashion.  One of the aspects that makes this memoir particularly humorous is the way that the author shows herself to be the butt of many of the jokes in her stories, which is a fairly easy way to gain the goodwill of readers.  If the author had portrayed herself as a heroically competent supermom, she likely would have inspired a good deal of envy from struggling parents, but there is no danger that the reader will assume any sort of omnicompetence on the part of the author as she struggles with paying the price of taxis and buses in the absence of notable driving skill and how her and her husband have to deal with the cost of renting, which opens the book with a reminder of just how modest of an income the author has to operate.  It is striking and somewhat melancholy that despite her obvious skill as a writer, that the author portrays herself and her family as belonging to the working poor.

Here are just some of the ways that the author shows herself to be a struggling mother that many people can identify with:  her kids go to public school, her and her husband rent a home rather than buy it, her kids wear hand-me-downs and she even does some sewing work for her husband, she and her family are familiar with public transportation, and so on.  Through it all the author manages to maintain her good spirits and shows a strong awareness of the complex factors that lead high-spirited children to make trouble and involve themselves in interesting habits like trying to count to infinity or showing an immense creativity in telling stories, or collecting real and fake coins from all over the world, leading to a noted shortage of dollar bills to use for paying the bills.  The author discusses the embarrassment of borrowing money to pay for Christmas presents, and it seems as if the skill of the author in writing compelling stories left her still without the means of making a great deal of money, which ought to draw a great deal of understanding from writers who can spin a good yarn but still not make their writing pay.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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