April is the Cruelest Month
S. Lee Manning: It’s not quite April, a week to go, but spring is on the horizon. Not here in Vermont, but in most places in the United States. In Vermont, we do seasons a little differently. We have summer, leaf season, winter, winter, winter, and winter. Then mud season. Last year, in mud season, we could only use Jim’s 4-runner on our dirt road because of a muddy ditch in the middle of our road that would have buried my Subaru.
Since it’s close to the end of March, Jim and I left Florida two weeks ago to return to our home in Vermont, anticipating mud season. We got winter. The picture here is not the Antarctic nor the iceberg on which the Titanic floundered. It’s the walkway to my house.
Just a few minutes ago, I walked into my kitchen as more snow slid off my roof – and completely blocked what was left of the view from my kitchen window. The top of my window, by the way, is about ten feet off the ground.
But people to the south of Vermont, which is most of the country, are thinking about spring this time of year. April is almost here. In New Jersey, where we used to live, by April 15, the flowering trees, white ornamental pears, pink cherries, purple redbuds, take their turns displaying their glory as daffodils and forsythia make their golden appearance.
Even here, in the frozen north, the temperatures will soon start reaching the upper 50s – and people will shed clothes like snakes shedding their skins, reveling in temperatures that six months from now will seem cold.
And yet, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, April is the cruelest month.
There’s the promise of spring in April – of life and renewal. Butterflies. Flowers.
But when that promise contrasts with a harsher reality – it seems especially cruel. In Eliot’s poem – he offers an image of lilacs breeding out of a dead land – which is a metaphor for the contrast between hope and despair. The reality this spring is of epic flooding, of spring crops that won’t be planted, of the mud to come – on my street – on flooded fields, and of April storms, hail, tornadoes.
This year, April will be the cruelest month for many.
However, being a writer, to be more precise – a thriller writer, I started thinking about the promise of spring in terms of novels.
The premise of so many novels is the struggle between humans and nature, especially the harshness of winter. What would Jack London’s novels be without the frigid landscape of Alaska? Or Dr. Zhivago – without the Russian winter?
But the contrast between the promise and the reality can be as compelling as the straight out struggle against adverse elements. Because to me, the most interesting struggles are those which occur internally – as the protagonist realizes that reality is not as anticipated. This happens in international thrillers, when the spy realizes she’s been fed a lie, or the secret agent realizes that the agency – or the direct superior- for which he thinks he’s working – has betrayed him. “Between the idea and the reality…falls the shadow.” T.S. Eliot.
I’m not suggesting using flowers as metaphor in writing international thrillers. Still, the best writers remember that the contrast between expectation and reality is at the heart of much of what makes a novel compelling.
We expect April to be sunshine and flowers – and we get flooding and disasters. April is indeed the cruelest month.
To help those affected by flooding in the Midwest or elsewhere: https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=7120