Mary Strachan Scriver
4 min readFeb 23, 2021


Maybe Groundhog’s Day is not in the deep midwinter, but close enough for me to read Robert Clark’s novel called “In the Deep Midwinter” (1997) which was published while I was doing something like penance in the clerical pool for the City of Portland, walking under that giant goddess with a frog forker every day.

This book starts in November, according to the heading, and it is fancy writing: “Perhaps the world was a wound, and now the cold lay over it, coagulating its waters like blood under air, forming a crust. Soon the snow would shroud it in a bandage, and the months thereafter the scar would emerge and all the earth anew. But now the wheels keened on the rails, as though every motion was unbearable, as though the sounds themselves might shatter in the cold.”

The man named Richard has come to collect his brother’s body and take him home for burial. “James was buried in the brown earth, the ground incised with a portal in the sleeping autumn grass. Richard’s wife, Sarah, stood beside him in gloves, veil and pearls. . .” It’s too fancy for me now, but one has to admire that 3-stroke summary of a certain kind of person. Gloves/veil/pearls. Enough to know we’re dealing with a certain class. It’s not one might call “purple” because the events are deadly controlled.

And I stopped reading. I’ve accumulated six books by Clark now and I didn’t have this response to the others. I think this one is an imitation of James. I did have this response to James novels, required in college, part of the Anglophile canon. (“The Varieties of Religious Experience” is still valuable to me.) It wasn’t until I got to Clark’s “My Victorians” that my therapy nose began to pick up a trail. When last I knew, he had found a second wife, another place to live, another child, and all was resolved. NOT.

But now I found that his father had died estranged from his mother, when Clark was too young to know about it, but his father had left him money, enough to live on at first and then increasing as clever money can, to quite a bit. I suspect that this is the metaphor (he so loves metaphors) for his life: his father left him a wonderful ship but with no instruction book for sailing. When the weather is good and the breeze is right, the book can be wonderful. But if there are problems, things get very tense and hard to read. “Love Among the Ruins” is the most famous and praised book of Clark’s but I haven’t read it.

“Of course, this is perfectly insane. Books, for whatever reason, are casually, repeatedly vulnerable to canon-breaking litmus tests virtually no other form of art is forced to endure. Very few of us would begrudge a merely good film — or even a very bad one — for the offense of stealing away two hours’ time . . . Even if our demands for unqualified, sweeping greatness are simply a product of our millennial derangement, no form of art has been taxed more beneath its poll than the contemporary domestic novel. In some ways, this is understandable: literature, one might as well admit, does seem less important today than it was to previous generations, but dismissing the necessary majority of it not interested in canonical transfiguration will hardly reverse that sad process . . . They remind us that profundity is most often an intensely private phenomenon.”

This hits me at a vulnerable moment. I was attracted to Clark because of his essay on snow in Slant Book’s blog about skillful writing. ( I’m at a point where I want to “upgrade” my own skills and wondering whether to move away from blogging. I’m insulted by the praise I get from the kind of people who want writing to be memoir, “therapy,” personal reflection of the most predictable kind, white history full of prevailing over other people and black history full of about the same thing, but from underneath. They want us to cluster for tea, safety and irreproachability.

I want to devastate the readers, open doors to a different world, tell all those people obsessed by theodicy that if they’d just give up the childhood idea of “theism” and admit there is no parental God, they’d have solved the problem. (I’ve only begun to forgive my parents for not telling me things they were never told themselves.) I’m trying to understand whether everything is circular or whether we can break out to a new path as the brain neurologists insist we can.

People write to me with praise and all it sounds to me is bait for a trap. They want to come see me, build themselves into what they imagine is my life. A living cozy domestic novel. And then I can take care of them.

But I jumped into Clark’s novels, fell in love with “River of the West” about stories all along the route from glaciers to sea — still in love with that one — and wrote him an excited fan mail about “ties” between us: Unitarianism, the James boys, Transcendentalism, and my ancient ex-granduncle-in-law whose corn fields became St. Paul. In short, provided an example of a kind of faux attachment that I despise.

It’s all about the problem of constructing unreal worlds that seem real, then don’t, then turn out to be facts after all. I only write short fiction, usually to make a point, and depend on some organizing through-line like someone’s life. But I also construct my own day following the climate and cat life. No one really cares but they pick up bits, assume equivalents, and wouldn’t buy an expensive book about them. Writing comes out of the day and results in a lot of paper to sort, which I never get around to doing. I just don’t trust my old computer.

The thing is, writing is shaped by the environment as much as the writer is, but who can control what happens to us?



Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.